Language:: Montagnais Innu is an Algonkian
language spoken by more than 9000 people in eastern Canada. The Montagnais and Naskapi
are actually part of the same Indian nation, calling themselves Innu; their languages, however, have diverged enough that most linguists
consider them separate languages (though some do class Naskapi as a dialect of Montagnais, or both as dialects of the
Cree language). Montagnais is certainly very closely related to Cree, about as
similar in features as Spanish is to Italian.
Montagnais speakers call their own language Innu-Aimun, or Innu Aionun;
since Naskapi speakers also call their language Innu-aimun, linguists tend to refer to the two languages as Montagnais Innu and
Naskapi Innu for clarity's sake. Though the Innu face many social crises today, language loss is not one of them, and most
Montagnais children are raised speaking their native language. Illiteracy is a bigger problem in these impoverished communities,
where education is inadequate and usually in French. When the Montagnais language is written, the French alphabet is
usually used. As many as 3000 Innu are monolingual in their native tongue, with the rest also speaking French (particularly in Quebec)
or English (in Labrador). Like Cree and other Algonquian languages, Montagnais is a polysynthetic language with long words, complex verb morphology,
and fairly free word order.
People: The two peoples known to white settlers as 'Montagnais' and 'Naskapi'
were actually members of the same people, Innu. Living in different areas and wearing different clothing styles,
they were dealt with separately by the colonizing Europeans, who called the larger group "Montagnais" (French for
"mountaineer") and the smaller group "Naskapi" (Montagnais for "lousy dressers." I am not making that up.) Despite
any deeply-held beliefs they might have had about whose fashion sense was superior, however, the Naskapi
and Montagnais Indians have always considered themselves different communities within the same nation, and many Innu
reject the labels "Montagnais" and "Naskapi" entirely. There are about 14,000 Innu people in Labrador and
Quebec today, of whom all but 800 are Montagnais. Though the Innu and Inuit are neighbors,
the similarity between their names is coincidental--their languages are not at all related and have no more in common
with each other than with English.
History: Early Innu relations with Europeans were friendly and mutually beneficial,
as the Innu traded furs with the French and allied with them against the Iroquois Confederacy.
Unfortunately for the Innu, once other Europeans had erased the initial French advantage by selling
firearms to the Iroquois as well, that powerful alliance of nations defeated French, Innu,
and Algonquin alike, and between war and European diseases, the Innu population was decimated.
The survivors were settled in villages by well-intended Europeans, but Innu land, unlike the land
of the village-based Indians elsewhere in North America, was not well-suited to agriculture,
and deprived of the their previously effective hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the Innu rapidly fell
into poverty and dependency. The Innu tribe today is struggling to regain control over their
traditional lands, which the governments of Canada and Quebec are using for mining, logging,
building power plants, and running military exercises without the permission of the natives
trying to eke out a living there. Most recently, mercury runoff from the power plants
contaminated the drinking water of the Innu and their neighbors the Attikamek, and the Innu people
are now calling for all industrial projects on Innu land to be immediately suspended.