The Innu (also known as the Montagnais and Naskapi)

Although the Innu primarily lived in the subarctic region of the Québec and Labrador area, they also occasionally migrated south in the hopes of better hunting grounds and profitable trading opportunities with French Europeans.

Question #1: Briefly describe the Indigenous society you have been assigned.

The Innu people are a group of Indigenous people in the northern area of the Quebec-Labrador peninsula.  There are two communities in Labrador, one  located in Natuashish and the other located in Sheshatshiu. Within Quebec there are 11 different Innu communities. Present day, there are almost 16000 Innus living among these communities. What makes this group so remarkable is that they were some of the first to encounter the European Colonizers to set foot on Canadian soil. They have a rich culture and language that offers some suggestions to their beliefs and behaviours over the course of history.

Question #2: With whom did these people come into contact (individuals and nationalities)?

Due to the area they inhabited, the Innu group came in contact with many foreign peoples during their history and tried with each to form a relationship while still maintaining their strong cultural identity. Having lived in northern Quebec and Labrador for 2000 years the Innu people may have come into contact first with the Vikings as they explored new lands. In 1496 John Cabot sailed off the coast of Newfoundland and reported coming into contact with “redskins”, while this was thought to be the Beothuk it’s not unfeasible for him to come into contact with the neighbouring Innu. There is some evidence of the Basque whalers worked with the Innu in the early 1500s, this idea of trade continued later with Portuguese, Norman and Breton fishermen. Jacques Cartier too reported in 1534 interaction with the Innu which shows they were established with European trading before Samuel de Champlain arrived in New France. We gain the most insight into Innu life from the writings of the Jesuit missionary Father Paul Le Jeune in 1633-34 who lived with three Innu families. Most Innu interaction with foreign peoples were trade based, however there proves to be a conscious effort on the part of Europeans to learn more about these indigenous people.

Question #3: Where did these people come into contact?

For the Innu nation their original land is the eastern part of the Labrador, Newfoundland and some parts of eastern Quebec. Before the 1800’s Europeans indirectly came into contact with the Innu by trading through another indigenous society known as the Cree. In the winter months the Innu stayed in the internal part of the country but in the summer they moved out on to the coast for fishing and other sources of food provided by the coast. In the 16th and early 17th centuries the Innu went south to the Basque fisherman stations for visits along the coast which made them easy to come in contact with. Jacques Cartier was a French explorer who landed in Newfoundland and explored around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, he would have come in contact with the Innu in Newfoundland. The father of New France Samuel de Champlain came across the Innu’s many years after Cartier in the same area. French Jesuit missionary Father Paul le Jeune was a Roman catholic who pursued to convert the Innu’s.

The unforgiving seasons in the northern regions of Québec and Labrador were considered to be too ‘daunting’ for Europeans – their reluctance, in turn, provided the Innu protection from overbearing, conquest-minded colonials.

Question #4: For what purpose were Europeans in this area?

Labrador was one of the earliest places to be discovered by Europeans. The purpose of Europeans settling on Innu territory was mainly to set up trading posts. Their main exports were fish and furs from caribou. Innu were not well-known by many early explorers. When the Europeans came into contact with the Innu people on the coast, the Europeans tried to persuade the Innu to stop caribou hunting and solely rely on the trapping method. This made Innu people dependant on the goods and products from European traders, strengthening their business.

Question #5: How did the North American people respond to Europeans?

The Innu were an indigenous tribe that lived mostly in Quebec and Labrador during the time of European colonization. Do to their habits of only visiting the coast for brief periods of time, they did not have many relations with the Europeans at first. Because of their limited time together the Innu were not greatly influenced by the Europeans until the 19th century. The Europeans began trying to get the Innu to move away from hunting and focus more on trapping, attempting to get the Innu wrapped into their fur trade. Although only a few Innu did move towards trapping, those few suffered terrible outcomes because they became completely dependent on the Europeans for food. However, the greatest change to Innu life came when the Settlers began enforcing trespassing laws and slowly taking all of the Innu’s hunting land. These laws marked the decline of the Innu people.

Question #6: How did Europeans respond to the North Americans they encountered?

French Europeans first discovered the Innu tribes (‘Innu’ being the collective term for both Montagnais and Naskapi who lived in the Québec and Labrador region), and responded quite favourably to them. This is due in part to the French colonization ‘policy’ at the time, which focused heavily on trade and economic growth rather than the suppression of native colonies and beliefs. In fact, it is said that the Montagnais were probably the ones who “smoke signaled Cartier at the mouth of the Strait of Belle Isle”. Indeed, “the Innu (particularly the Montagnais) […were] the first to come into lasting relationships with the French.”
That being said, “a pact of friendship was sealed between the Montagnais and the French”; indeed, the French quickly established that the Innu were skilled warriors and hunters, and highly knowledgeable of the land, rural though it may be. The French sought to hone in on these skills by affiliating themselves with the Innu peoples; by forming an alliance, they might be able to generate greater revenue in fur trade.
These alliances were somewhat detrimental to the Innu people in terms of disease as well as dependency on European people. Undeniably, the overall toll of casualties was quite high. However, the Innu population’s ‘saving grace’ was “their subarctic habitat.” “Outside the mainstream of colonial activity, the Innu pursued their traditional way of life with little modification or interference. They shared with the Inuit the advantage of a hinterland that was both very large and very forbidding to Europeans.”
Therefore, despite the fact that initial contact with the Innu was deemed ‘positive’, both the French and a great deal of Innu tribes had little interaction with each other afterwards. In fact, true conflict would not arise until much later, well into the 19th century.

Consulted sources:

Whadden, Marie. The Innu Struggle to Reclaim Their Homeland. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001.

Dickason, Olive Patricia & Newbigging, William. A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations (Second Edition). Don Mills: Oxford University Press Canada, 2010.

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