Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi)

 The Innu (formerly known as Montagnais and Naskapi) are a North American Indian group located in Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador. The total registered population is more than 10 600 (2006 census) with over 80% of Innu living in Québec. Communities in Québec include Betsiamites, Kawawachikamach, La Romaine, Les Escoumins, Maliotenam, Mashteuiatsh, Mingan, Natashquan, Pakuashipi (St. Augustine), Schefferville, and Uashat (Sept-Îles). The two largest Innu communities in Labrador are the Mushuau Innu in Natuashish and the Sheshatshiu Innu in Sheshatshiu. In 1976, the Innu formed a political alliance as the Naskapi Montagnais Innu Association (NMIA) to negotiate land claims, education, healthcare and other social services. In 1990 they changed their name to the Innu Nation.

"Innu" means "people" in the Innu language, Innu-aimun; they were commonly known to non-Innu as "Montagnais" (French for "mountain people") and "Naskapi" (origin uncertain). Both terms appeared first in French 17th-century missionary sources. These terms have been used to refer to different groups, although the groups they referred to changed over time. By the late 19th century "Naskapi" had acquired the connotation of the far northern un-Christianized group (the Indigenous term is Mushuau Innuts - "Barren Land People"), while the term "Montagnais" was primarily used for Innu of the forest.


The Innu are descended from populations that came to Québec-Labrador thousands of years ago. Although they briefly fought the INUIT, the IROQUOIS, the MICMAC and the ABENAKI, they were not a warlike group, and at least some hostility was a side effect of European contact. In the TADOUSSAC region the Innu played an important role in early Canadian history, as military allies of the French in their wars with the British and their Aboriginal allies (seeIROQUOIS WARS). CHAMPLAIN formed an alliance with one group in 1608. They also established one of the first known game preserves, and for some years attempted to keep both Europeans and other Aboriginal people away from their grounds.

For two centuries the FUR TRADE was the focus of their relations with Europeans. Trade at the Gulf of St Lawrence posts was a monopoly of the Crown, first of France and later of Britain, and was leased to private traders. By the mid-1800s most areas were over-hunted, and the southern Innu needed assistance from missionaries and the government to survive. Soon commercial forestry increased their difficulties, and they were excluded from salmon rivers, which were leased by clubs and individuals.

Prior to the 1800s most contact between the northern Mushuau Innu subgroup and Europeans was indirect, by trade through neighbouring CREE and southern Innu intermediaries. Life depended on the movements of the Barren Ground CARIBOU. There was a special caribou hunt leader (Atik Utshimau), but his authority lasted only for the hunt. Starting in 1830, the HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY opened posts in this northern region, supplied first from Fort Chimo and later from North West River, Labrador. The fur trade had disastrous results for the Innu because trapping did not fit with their nomadic caribou hunting.

As with many First Nations during their early contact with Europeans, the Innu population was devastated by smallpox, the Spanish flu, tuberculosis, syphilis, scarlet fever, whooping cough, measles and other diseases. Also, large numbers of people died of starvation. By the 1950s a still unsettled Barren Ground group was trading at Fort Chimo; sick and starving, they were finally persuaded by the government to settle at the new mining town of SCHEFFERVILLE, Québec.

Traditional and Contemporary Culture

 In the past, strong pressures were placed on the Innu to abandon the nomadic life. Despite this, some Innu spent part of the winter hunting and today, hunting and fishing remain important within their communities. Game animals are caribou (for the eastern and northern area), moose (for the west), beaver, bear, lake fish and salmon. Originally, travel utilized the CANOE in summer, and SNOWSHOES and TOBOGGANS in winter, which have been replaced by all-terrain vehicles and SNOWMOBILES.

 Traditional hunting techniques used every part of the caribou; the skin, for example, was decorated with painted or quill designs to make clothing of many kinds. Drums were also created from the skins and were used in celebrations and sacred singing. A caribou shoulder-blade, burned in a pre-hunt ritual, was believed to foretell the location of game; belief in animal spirits played a major role in the hunt. Status was gained mainly through the ability to make gifts of meat to others. After the hunt a ceremonial feast (makushan) of caribou fat and bone marrow was held. The feast included singing and drumming, and songs were sung to the animal spirits; much of the ancestral religion is recorded in legends and songs. The language, Innu-aimun, is part of the Algonquian family and was one of the first in North America into which Christian texts were translated.

In the early 1970s the Innu organized themselves politically with the Conseil Attikamek-Montagnais in Québec, and the Naskapi Montagnais Innu Association in Labrador. In 1975 the Innu Nation was excluded from the Agreement in Principle leading to the JAMES BAY AGREEMENT, but negotiated a separate agreement, providing them with the village of Kawawachikamach. Today, the Labrador Innu are represented by the Innu Nation, while the Québec Innu are represented by Mamuitun and Mamit Innuat. The groups continue to press for settlement of their LAND CLAIMS, and protection from the impact of forestry, hydroelectric dams, roads, and low-level military flights and mines, such as those in Voisey's Bay, Labrador.

Isolated communities have suffered from high rates of alcoholism, substance abuse and suicide. In 1993 the Innu of Davis Inlet (Utshimassits) attracted the attention of the world's press over a gas-sniffing epidemic. The children involved recovered but the incident came to represent the conditions of Aboriginal communities in Canada. In 2001, the Government of Canada, the Government of Newfoundland & Labrador, and the Labrador Innu developed the Labrador Innu Comprehensive Healing Strategy to address some of the problems within the Innu communities. In 2002 approximately 680 people from Davis Inlet relocated to Natuashish, west of the original community. In 2008, Natuashish residents voted to ban alcohol on their reserve.

In 2002, the Innu Nation successfully lobbied the federal government to be recognized as status INDIANS, giving them access to various federal programs and services under the INDIAN ACT. The communities of Natuashish and Sheshatshiu, both located in Newfoundland and Labrador, were established as RESERVES in 2003 and 2006 respectively.

Recently, new creative expressions, such as the books of the first Montagnais author, An Antane Kapesh, and the Innu-language recordings by Kashtin, have appeared, showing that the culture continues to adapt.

See alsoNATIVE PEOPLE, SUBARCTIC and general articles under NATIVE PEOPLE.