Innu Culture

Group Names

Like many other Indigenous peoples, until recently the Innu were known by what was, for them, foreign labels, rather than by the name they used for themselves. The early missionaries, encountering Innu who came to the St. Lawrence River French settlements from the nearby hills, called them 'Montagnais', meaning 'mountain people'. In Labrador this term was sometimes changed to 'Mountaineer.' By contrast, those Innu living in the tundra region of northern Labrador and Québec, who became known to Europeans later, were called 'Naskapi.' This word is of uncertain origin, but for the missionaries it meant a pagan and 'less civilized' group than the Montagnais. In the 20th century, anthropologists recognized that these two groups had, for the most part, a single common culture, and so coined the term 'Montagnais-Naskapi'.

An Innu Couple, Labrador, 1910
An Innu Couple, Labrador, 1910
From H. Hesketh Prichard, Through Trackless Labrador (New York: Sturgis and Walton, 1911) 198.

In the 1980s the Innu themselves made it known that they preferred to be called 'Innu', a word meaning 'people' in their own language. They also began to publicly use their own name, Ntisinan, for their traditional territory. Despite the apparent similarity between 'Innu' and 'Inuit', the two words are not related.

In terms of culture and language, the Innu are the easternmost group of a very widespread people commonly known as the Cree, another term probably of European origin. Except for the Plains Cree, whose culture has much in common with that of the other horse-mounted buffalo hunters of the northern prairies, Cree groups (including the Innu) all inhabit the boreal forest and share a broadly similar cultural tradition.

The Traditional Way of Life

Many features of the culture of the Labrador Innu reflect their nomadic way of life. Besides annual moves to occupy the best hunting land, the Quebec-Labrador Innu also undertook longer-term migrations, as animals became scarce in one region and more abundant in another, due to such things as forest fires or climate change. They developed to a fine art a technology of travel well adapted to their environment, using the snowshoe and toboggan in winter, and the birch bark canoe in summer. They were experts at making skin clothing, stone tools and wooden utensils of all kinds. Large quantities of these items were manufactured over the period of a year, because of the hard wear they received, and because it was often simpler to manufacture new items than to transport the ones they had each time they moved. They decorated many of these items, with either painted or woven designs, and Innu artifacts, such as the famous 'Naskapi' painted caribou skin coats, are so beautiful they have the pride of place in many museum collections around the world.

An Innu Coat
An Innu Coat
An Innu coat displayed at The Rooms Provincial Museum Division, St. John's, NL.
Photo by Tina Riche, ©1997. Modified by Lisa Ledrew, 1999.

For the most of the year the Innu lived in groups of several families, each one occupying itsown tent with a bark or caribou skin cover (later replaced by canvas). In mid-winter the whole group sometimes moved into one large communal dwelling. At certain times of the year when resources were available, such as at the coast in summer, or in the interior where the large herds of caribou gathered,where the fish spawned, or where the waterfowl would flock, large groups of Innu would gather together for several weeks, to trade and hold marriages, feasts and other celebrations. Their diet was very rich in meat, cooked in a variety of ways, using all parts of the animal. However, they had relatively little by way of carbohydrates in their diet, and metabolized fat and meat protein for energy.

Much of their culture was focused on their relationship to the game animals, a relationship which had both pragmatic and spiritual aspects. Their relationship with the animal world was, in fact, the focus of their philosophical and religious speculations. While shamans would foretell the future hunting success for a whole band of hunters, great emphasis was also placed on each individual's personal ability to obtain religious power, through dreams, through songs and by following the correct rituals and feasts, which were held in conjunction with hunting activities.

Although they were experts at killing game, they saw this relationship with animals not in terms of violent conquest over their prey, but as one of love and respect. Animals were seen to have so much spiritual power that hunters would have never been able to kill them were it not that they gave themselves willingly. It was believed that the animals only did so to those hunters who would respect them, who would treat their corpses with the proper rituals, and, importantly, who would dispose of their bones in the proper ritual manner. The caribou was of special importance, and was celebrated at a special feast, called a'Mokushan', at which quantities of caribou fat and bone marrow were consumed. After the feast the drum was played and songs were sung to the animal spirits.

Cooking a Fish in an Innu Lodge
Cooking a Fish in an Innu Lodge
Cooking a fish in an Innu lodge in northern Labrador at the turn of the century
From William B. Cabot, In Northern Labrador (London: J. Murray, 1912) 279.

Innu-Inuit 'Warfare'

There is a long-standing coastal Labrador oral tradition suggesting that the Innu and the Inuit were implacable enemies who were perpetually at war. The best evidence we have today is that the Innu were in sole occupation of the Labrador coast before about AD 1300, when the Thule Inuit migration first arrived from the north. During the 17th and 18th centuries the Inuit, expanding south, pushed back the Innu, restricting their access to coastal resources. Although some raiding between the two groups probably occurred, no evidence of organized warfare between them has been found. Neither group has any organized military tradition.

There is evidence that by the mid-19th century whatever hostilities may have occurred earlier had ended. The Innu were regularly coming to the coast, from Sandwich Bay in the south to Okak in the north, so that by 1869 there were enough of them for the Hudson's Bay Company to open a post at Davis Inlet specifically for their trade. Moreover Moravian missionaries occasionally reported the arrival of Innu at Inuit coastal villages, some wanting to trade, others starving and seeking assistance. After the decline of the George River caribou herd at the turn of the century the northern Innu spent more time in the coastal regions, and in 1913 Richard White, a Newfoundland entrepreneur, built a post for the Innu trade at Voisey's Bay. The Innu and Inuit made use of this and other areas together, without open hostility between them. Today, in the context of Indigenous land claims, both groups acknowledge that there are shared rights to parts of the Labrador coast.

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