views updated


ETHNONYMS: East Main Cree, Montagnais, Naskapi


Identification. In its broadest sense the name "Montagnais-Naskapi" refers to all of the nomadic hunting and fishing Algonkian peoples inhabiting the Labrador Peninsula of Newfoundland and Quebec since at least early historic times. Used in this sense, the name includes those groups referred to historically as the Montagnais, Naskapi, and East Main Cree.

Location. The Montagnais-Naskapi occupied a vast area of the Labrador Peninsula extending from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the lower St. Lawrence River north to Ungava Bay and northwest to James and Hudson bays. The Montagnais occupied the southern part of this region, the Naskapi the northern part, and the East Main Cree the western part. The Labrador Peninsula, with its barren coasts and spruce-dominant forested interior, rises from south to north to a rolling, glaciated plateau dotted by numerous lakes, swamps, and bogs. To the extreme north of the plateau the tree line is reached and eventually the plateau is devoid of all plant life except lichens. Winters in Labrador are long and cold, Summers cool and short. Precipitation on the peninsula is relatively high for its altitude and tends to be highest near the coasts.

Demography. The Montagnais-Naskapi numbered approximately fifty-five hundred in the early 1600s. From that time until about 1925, their population declined almost continuously because of European diseases, warfare, alcoholism, and starvation owing to fluctuations in game animal densities and overhunting and trapping of game animals. In the mid-nineteenth century the Montagnais-Naskapi numbered about four thousand, decreasing to between three thousand and thirty-five hundred by the end of the century. In the twentieth century the availability of medical supplies and store-bought foods helped reverse the long period of population decline. Today the Montagnais-Naskapi number more than twelve thousand.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Montagnais-Naskapi speak a dialect of the Cree language of the Algonkian language family.

History and Cultural Relations

Hunting peoples long occupied Labrador, but it is not known when the ancestors of the Montagnais-Naskapi arrived in the region. By the mid-sixteenth century the Montagnais-Naskapi were in frequent contact with European traders who took beaver pelts and other furs in exchange for cloth, copper kettles, knives, and other European trade goods. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the development of the fur trading economy served to draw the native population toward the trading centers on the St. Lawrence River. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, White settlement along the St. Lawrence and the establishment by the Hudson's Bay Company of trading posts in the central and Eastern parts of Labrador Peninsula combined to encourage the movement of Montagnais-Naskapi groups back inland.


The Montagnais built conical, pole-framed, birchbark wigwams, and the Naskapi built conical, caribou-skin-covered tipis; both dwelling types featured a smoke-hole located over a central fireplace. Traditionally, the Montagnais-Naskapi were seminomadic peoples whose seasonal pattern of movement brought them together from dispersed bands and lodge groups into large festive gatherings during the short Labrador summer. The locations of the summer gatherings were the shores of the large interior lakes and the mouths of the rivers that emptied into the St. Lawrence River and Gulf, Hudson and James bays, and Davis and Hamilton inlets. At the end of the summer the Montagnais-Naskapi moved inland for the long winter season and dispersed into smaller regional bands and lodge groups. Following contact, European trading posts became the focus of the summer gatherings. As the importance of the trade in furs and European goods grew in the Montagnais-Naskapi economy, seasonal movements centered increasingly on maintaining access to the trading posts. Eventually, groups attached themselves to specific trading posts, and by the mid-1900s permanent native settlements had emerged.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . All Montagnais-Naskapi followed a general pattern of hunting and fishing. Regional variations existed, however, with a greater emphasis on caribou hunting among the Naskapi in the North, on fishing among the East Main Cree in the West, and on moose hunting among the Montagnais in the South. Caribou and moose were the principal food resources during the winter; bear, beaver, and fowl during the spring and Summer; eel in the fall; and beaver, porcupine, and smoked eel during the early winter. Bows and arrows and spears were the traditional hunting weapons. Caribou were hunted by driving them into lakes and pursuing them in canoes and by pursuing them on snowshoes through deep snow; moose were also hunted by the latter method. Bears were killed while hibernating or by means of deadfalls and snares. Eels were speared and in the early fall were taken using stone weirs. Other fish taken by the Montagnais-Naskapi included salmon, lake trout, pike, walleye, sucker, sturgeon, whitefish, catfish, and smelt. In the more southerly areas of the Labrador Peninsula various types of fruits and berries, nuts, and tubers were gathered in the summer to supplement the diet.

Fur trapping and trading became central to the Montagnais-Naskapi economy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and remained so until very recent times. The animals trapped included beaver, fox, marten, wolves, wolverine, and muskrat. Today, many families continue to hunt and trap as a supplement to income from seasonal wage labor and government support programs.

Industrial Arts. The nomadic way of life of the Montagnais-Naskapi placed a premium on mobility. Cedar-ribbed birchbark canoes were used for traveling streams and lakes in the summer, and in the winter the deep snows were traversed by means of snowshoes and toboggans. Snowshoes were made in several styles for use in differing terrains and snow depths and conditions. Canvas coverings obtained from Europeans eventually replaced the traditional birchbark covering of canoes. The Montagnais-Naskapi adopted many practical items of European manufacture, although long after contact they continued to make many of their own tools and equipment out of traditional materials such as wood, bone, and antler.

Trade. Within the region of the Labrador Peninsula cedar and birchbark for canoe construction were traded from indigenous groups in the South to those in the North, where those resources were unavailable. The groups of the St. Lawrence region traded moose hides to the Huron for maize and tobacco. At the large summer gatherings, Montagnais-Naskapi on the St. Lawrence River traded with Abnaki, Algonkin, and Huron.

Division of Labor. A sexual division of labor characterized Montagnais-Naskapi society. Males hunted and trapped and were primarily responsible for trading; females processed animal hides, made clothing and birchbark baskets, prepared food, and cared for children. Both men and women fished and together they manufactured canoes and snowshoes.

Land Tenure. Aboriginally and in early historic times Montagnais-Naskapi hunting groups were associated with and occupied a particular territory, but without any defined notion of ownership or restrictive use rights. With the Development of the trapping and trading economy and particularly with the emergence of the less nomadic trading post band, notions of territoriality and use rights developed, but in a way that reflected both the traditional and the new economic realities. Hunting and trapping territories had diffuse Boundaries, and different types of resource use were recognized: resources exploited for group subsistence needs were available to any who needed them, whereas those resources exploited for sale or trade to Europeans belonged to the individual or group on whose territory they were found.


Kin Groups and Descent. No formal kin groups, such as clans, existed among the seventeenth-century Montagnais. Consanguineal and affinal ties linked the members of the trading post bands that emerged as a characteristic form of social organization during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Bilateral descent is inferred for the Montagnais-Naskapi owing to the absence of reported ambilineal, Matrilineal, or patrilineal kin groups.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terms followed the Iroquoian system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Bilateral cross-cousin marriage was preferred among the early Montagnais-Naskapi, but this has been discouraged since the beginning of the twentieth century as a result of Roman Catholic influences. Neither band endogamy nor exogamy was preferred. Polygyny was practiced in a Limited way, sororate marriages were common, and levirate Marriages were permitted. Among the seventeenth-century Montagnais a well-defined rule of postmarital residence appears not to have existed, but among later Mistassini trading post bands patrilocality was the norm.

Domestic Unit. Traditionally, lodge groups of three or four families numbering fifteen to twenty people were the basic units of Montagnais-Naskapi socioeconomic organization. Later, in the 1700s and 1800s, similar-sized hunting groups formed the basis of trading post bands. Among Mistassini hunting groups the individual family units occupied separate dwellings during the hunting and trapping season, but shared a communal lodge following the onset of winter freeze-up.

Inheritance. Inheritance among seventeenth-century Montagnais appears to have exhibited no clear pattern, although, there may have been a preference for a sister's Children as a man's heirs. Following the development of trading post bands and hunting territories, hunting privileges within specified tracts of a band's hunting territory were inherited patrilineally.

Socialization . The social ethic of the Montagnais-Naskapi emphasized generosity, and this ideal was instilled in children at a young age. Children shared in the work of the family, Including the care of younger siblings. The Montagnais-Naskapi favored strong social pressure over physical punishment in disciplining their children.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. During the winter season several multifamily lodge groups of about fifty individuals remained in close proximity to one another and traveled and hunted Together. Several multilodge groups, in turn, formed named Regional bands of between 150 and 300 people who joined Together when attending festive summer gatherings. When trapping and trading furs for European goods became the focus of the Montagnais-Naskapi economy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, seasonal band movements revolved increasingly around trips to European trading posts. Gradually, native groups attached themselves to a particular post, and the trading post band emerged as a characteristic form of social organization. During the second half of the nineteenth century, interior trading posts were closed as the fur trade declined, and as a result trading post bands merged into larger groups at mission stations and coastal trading centers. By the middle decades of the twentieth century, relatively large centers of permanent settlement had replaced the trading post band form of social organization.

Political Organization. Within the lodge group and, later, within the hunting group, important matters were resolved through group discussion. Above this no formal decision-making structure existed. Leadership within the lodge-hunting group was ephemeral and fell to those most knowledgeable or skilled in the particular task at hand. In Mistassini hunting groups leaders were men, usually forty years of age or older, who possessed considerable religious and practical knowledge. If a leader was sensitive to the wishes of others in his group and did not attempt to force his own will (action that would result in an immediate loss of his prestige and influence), the group usually followed his initiative. Seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries attempted to introduce formal chieftainships among the Montagnais-Naskapi as a way to facilitate Christianization and acculturation, but with very little success.

Social Control. Generosity, cooperation, harmony, and patience were key elements in the fabric of Montagnais-Naskapi society. Those who failed to contribute their fair share of goods and services to the group or to those in need were not respected and were the object of ridicule and scorn.

Conflict. The harmony and cooperation central to Montagnais-Naskapi society unraveled under the impact of European contact. Confrontations with European settlers and missionaries, the spread of epidemic diseases, the easy availability of alcohol through French traders, and the concentration of people at trading posts and mission stations all contributed to an increase in social friction and conflict. After the development of trapping rights in defined hunting Territories, trespass with the intent of trapping was resented, with retaliation sought through shamanistic performances.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Montagnais-Naskapi believed that every object and animal in the world around them had its own spirit. Belief in a supreme deity appears not to have been a part of the aboriginal culture, but was evident after Missionization. Religion among the Montagnais-Naskapi was an Individualistic affair. It was believed that those who conducted their lives appropriately acquired increasing powers of Communication with the spirit world as they grew older. Beginning with Jesuit missionization in the early 1600s, Christian and native religious beliefs existed side by side and eventually were integrated into a hybrid system of beliefs and practices reflecting both native and Christian elements.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans used their power to communicate with the spirit world to heal the sick and to Divine through scapulimancy and dream interpretation the whereabouts of game. Traditionally, through conscious effort at communicating with the spirits, both men and women could become shamans. Generally it was the case that each hunting group or band had at least one shaman.

Ceremonies. The Montagnais-Naskapi showed respect for the spirits of the animals they killed in ritual practices that included food taboos and respectful disposal of the animals' bones. Shamans conversed with supernatural spirits in specially constructed lodges in a practice known as the shaking tent rite. In Mistassini hunting groups autumn drumming Rituals in which individuals sang songs given to them by spirits were performed as a means to obtain knowledge about future events. Among the Davis Inlet Naskapi in the 1960s, ritual feasts in which hunters and their families consumed the marrow of caribou bones expressed Naskapi unity and their relationship to the natural world, its animals, and their spirits.

Art. Animal hide and fur robes and detachable leather sleeves of the traditional Montagnais-Naskapi costume were painted with long stripes. Robes, in particular, were often painted with designs in a double-curve motif. Among Mistassini hunting groups songs given to hunters by spirits were sung in drumming rituals in order to forecast future events.

Medicine. Disease was believed to be the result of the invasion of the body by malevolent spirits and a direct consequence of failing to observe the appropriate behaviors regarding the spirit world. Traditionally, shamans employed their power to communicate with the spirit world to help heal the sick. Other curing methods reported among the Montagnais-Naskapi during the early historic period included sweating, blood-letting, and the drinking of specially concocted emetics.

Death and Afterlife. At death the deceased were wrapped in robes or birchbark and buried along with their personal possessions. In winter corpses were placed on a scaffold and buried later; deposition of the deceased on scaffolds may have been a regular funeral practice among the Naskapi. The dead were buried facing west, the direction of the home of the dead in the sky to which the deceased's soul journeyed after death.


Henriksen, Georg (1973). Hunters in the Barrens: The Naskapi on the Edge of the White Man's World. Newfoundland Social and Economic Studies, no. 12. St. John's: Institute for Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of New-foundland.

Johnson, Frederick, ed. (1946). Man in Northeastern North America, Papers of the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology, no. 3. Andover, Mass.

LeJeune, Paul (1973). Le missionaire, l'apostat, le sorcier: Relation de 1634 de Paul LeJeune. É dition critique par Guy Lafleche. Montreal: Presses de l'Université de Montréal.

Rogers, Edward S., and Eleanor Leacock (1981). "Montagnais-Naskapi." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 6, Subarctic, edited by June Helm, 169-189. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Speck, Frank G. (1935). Naskapi: Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.