Language: Naskapi is an Algonkian language spoken by nearly 1000
people in eastern Canada. The Naskapi and Montagnais 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). Naskapi is spoken by members of two Innu communities in
Quebec and Labrador (Kawawachikamach and Mushuau, respectively). Its own speakers call the language Innu-aimun,
but as Montagnais speakers refer to their language as Innu Aimun also, linguists tend to call the two languages
Montagnais Innu and Naskapi Innu for distinguishing purposes. Though the Innu face many social crises
today, language loss is not one of them, and virtually every child in the two Naskapi-speaking bands is fluent
in their traditional tongue. Illiteracy is a bigger problem in these impoverished communities, where education
is inadequate and usually in French. When Naskapi is written, either the French alphabet or the Cree syllabary is used.
Like other Algonquian languages, Montagnais is a polysynthetic language with 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 tribe, Innu. The Montagnais identified some of their
neighbors as Naskapi, variously said to mean 'interior people' or 'shabby dressers,' and from then on
the Europeans treated them as two different tribes. In their opinion, though, they have
always been different communities within the same nation. There are about 14,000 Innu in Labrador and Quebec
today, of whom only 800 (the Mushuau and Kawawachikamach bands) are Naskapi Indians. 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 their initial 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 today are 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 Atikamek, and the Innu
are now calling for all industrial projects on Innu land to be immediately suspended.
List of vocabulary words in the Naskapi language, with comparison to words in other Algonquian languages.
Naskapi Animal Words:
Illustrated glossary of animal words in the Naskapi Innu language.
Naskapi Dictionary, Audio Tape and Language Resources