The Innu are one of Canada’s aboriginal peoples whose traditional territory encompasses Eastern Quebec and Labrador. Despite the similarity in their names, the Innu are not related to the Inuit. In the past the Innu have also been known as the Naskapi and Montagnais. The Innu are descendants of first peoples who settled in the Quebec-Labrador after the last ice age, approximately 8,000 years ago.
Today about 18, 000 Innu live in 11 different communities, two in Labrador and 9 in Quebec. Their territory which they call Nitassinan, consists of a vast area of boreal forest, lakes rivers and rocky barrens.
The arrival of the Europeans from the 1500s onwards had a major effect on the Innu. They brought diseases that the Innu had little resistance to, and also integrated them into the fur trade which made them dependant on the Hudson Bay Company and other merchants. By the 1950s the fur trade had collapsed and the government began to move the Innu into settlements. Mining corporations began moving into their traditional hunting areas and a military base was established at Goose Bay.
Before settlement in the 1950s, the Innu were organized in small family-based hunting groups that moved from one part of the territory to another on a seasonal basis. In the summer months, they would gather at larger lakes or coastal locations where wildlife resources were plentiful and wind kept the irritating biting insects, like mosquitoes and black flies, at bay. The caribou herds of the peninsula supplied the Innu with clothing, tent covers, rawhide lacings for their snowshoes, tools, as well as meat. The caribou also nourished the Innu spiritually. To this day, the caribou master remains the most important of all the beings in the traditional Innu religion.
The Innu language, Innu-aimun or Montagnais is spoken throughout Nitassinan. It belongs to the Algonquin group of languages that includes Ojibwa, Micmac and Cree. Nowadays most Innu also speak French or English.
snow shoes and pulled their possessions on light birch toboggans. Then after the ice broke up in the spring, usually in May or June, they travelled by canoe to the coast or to one of the large inland lakes to fish. During the summer they traded, made and repaired their hunting equipment and met friends and relatives.
Bear, beaver and porcupine as well as fish and berries are all important food sources for the Innu. But at the heart of their way of life are the vast herds of caribou that migrate through their territory every spring and autumn. The caribou provided them not only with food but also with skins for tents and clothing, as well as bones and antlers to make tools and weapons.
Caribou was the traditional mainstay of the Innu diet and remains an important part of it today along with beaver, porcupine, bear, fish and berries. Nowadays stores in Nitassinan’s communities stock a wide variety of modern North American foods which are proving increasingly popular with the younger generations of Innu.
Traditionally, during the winter time the Innu travelled on foot using snowshoes. During the summer months they used birch bark canoes to travel along the network of rivers and lakes in Nitassinan. Today, most Innu use modern snowmobiles to get around in the winter and four wheelers, factory made canoes and motor boats during the summer, sometimes using float planes for longer journeys or supplies.
The Innu believe that the universe is alive with powerful spiritual forces which are able to profoundly affect their lives. Recognising their power is as essential for survival as understanding the weather or changing seasons.
For the Innu, the most important spirits are the ‘Masters’ of the animals, who control the caribou and other animals, and who help the Innu by sharing their food with them. In return, the Innu must meticulously share the meat amongst themselves and observe certain rituals. For example, the leg bones of a caribou must be carefully preserved and the marrow mixed with fat to prepare a sacred meal called ‘Mukushan’. Simply throwing them away is profoundly disrespectful to ‘kanipinikat sikueu,’ the ‘Master’ of the caribou and the most powerful of all the ‘Masters,’ who may then show his anger by preventing the Innu from killing more game, or even by making them ill. The ‘Masters’ communicate with people in different ways but most commonly through dreams and shamans.
Today Innu religious life is merged in a combination of Christianity and indigenous spirituality based in the human-animal relationship. The moral relationship between people and the animate world strengthens the Innu’s efforts to protect their land from the harmful effects of industrial development.
The ancestors of the Innu probably made caribou skin clothing. Innu women wore long dresses with removable sleeves while the men wore breechclout leggings, but during historic times they were especially known for their painted jackets and long coats. Each required about 3 caribou skins, which were often bleached white and painted with intricate patterns in yellow, red, brown, black and blue. They also wore moccasin boots and hoods in winter.
Today, some Innu people still wear moccasins or a traditional leather coat, but most wear modern clothes like jeans and sweatshirts. When they go out hunting in the winter time they will often wear factory made parkas, insulated trousers and felt pack boots.
The social problems that are to be found in most Innu communities, alcoholism, drugs and other substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide are seen by most people as being linked to the Innu being coerced into a sedentary lifestyle that is viewed as artificial by a hunting people and goes against their traditional values.
Text © B & C Alexander