October 13, 2005

Montagnais is an indigenous language of Canada



11 communities in Quebec and Labrador, from Lake St. John eastward along the Saguenay Valley to the north shore of the St. Lawrence River and Gulf of St. Lawrence eastward to St. Augustin, northward to the height of land at Schefferville and inland Labrador (Goose Bay, Lake Melville). Western Montagnais is in 4 communities: Mashteuiatsh (near Roberval, Quebec), Betsiamites, Uashat-Maliotenam (near Sept-Iles, Quebec), and Matimekosh (near Schefferville, Quebec). The others speak Eastern Montagnais: Mingan, Natashquan, La Romaine, Pakuashipi (St. Augustine, Quebec, sometimes called Pakuashipu), and Sheshatshiu (North-West River, Labrador).

Meaning of Name:

Montagnais, meaning “mountaineers,” was the name given them by the French. It originated from the rugged St. Lawrence shoreline near the mouth of the Saguenay River where the French first met them. Montagnais and Naskapi today refer to themselves as the Innu, or “people.” especially in northeast Quebec and Labrador.

To avoid confusion, the Innu are NOT the same as the Inuit (Eskimo) who most Montagnais regarded as enemies.

Alternate names:

Other names used for themselves were Neenoilno (perfect people) and Tshetsiuetineuerno (people of the north-northeast). and Innu Aimun or Innu (the people), Kebik, Chauhagueronon (Huron), Kebik (which is probably the source of Quebec), Lower Algonquin (French), Porcupine Indians, Shoudamunk (Beothuk-good Indians), Sheshatapoosh, Skraelling (Norse), Ussagenewi (Penobscot-people of the outlet), and Ussaghenick (Maliseet).

Alternate spellings:

Montagnar, Moatagne, Montagnie, Montainier


Western Montagnais, Eastern Montagnais. Palatalized l-dialect and palatalized n-dialect within Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi language complex or dialect cluster. There are possibly 3 dialects based on the shifting of Proto-Algonquian *l within Western Montagnais to ‘n’. Two Western Montagnais communities (Mashteuiatsh, Betsiamites) use ‘l’ as the reflex of Proto-Algonquian *l, and the other Western Montagnais (Uashat-Maliotenam, Matimekosh) use ‘n’. Uashat-Maliotenam and Matimekosh could be classified as Central Montagnais. All Eastern Montagnais speakers use ‘n’.


Algic -> Algonquian -> Central -> Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi -> Montagnais

Related Tribes

Naskapi (Nascapee) comes from a Montagnais word meaning “rude or uncivilized” and obviously was not intended as a compliment to their eastern relatives.

The Attikamek (Atikamekw, Atihkamekw, Atikamek, Attikiriniouetch, Attimewk) are more commonly known as Téte de Boule and in some classifications are grouped with the eastern Cree rather than the Montagnais.


8,483 (1987 Quebec Ministere de la Sante el des Services Sociaux). Population includes 5,866 in Western Montagnais, and 2,617 in Eastern Montagnais. 9,070 first-language speakers of Montagnais and Naskapi (1998 Statistics Canada). Ethnic population: 10,000 (1996 D. Myers SIL).

Reaching its low-point of 2,000 in 1884. Currently, there are almost 13,000 Montagnais in Quebec with another 800 living in Labrador. The 1,100 Naskapi are also split – 600 in Quebec and 500 in Labrador, while the Attikamek have 4,600, all in Quebec. When all groups of the Montagnais are added together, the total is close to 20,000 making the Montagnais the largest group of Native Americans in Quebec after the Mohawk.

At present, they are organized into four separate tribal governments. The Naskapi and Montagnais in Labrador are represented by the Innu Nation, while the Quebec Montagnais belong to either the Mamuitun or the Mammit Innuat First Nation. The Attikamek formerly were part of the Montagnais but recently have chosen to maintain a separate status.

Language use:

Vigorous in all but 2 communities. Almost all Montagnais Naskapi, and Attikamek still prefer to speak their native languages. French and English are used as second languages. Rapid shift occurring in communities close to national language cities.

Strong use in lower north shore communities and Schefferville. Montagnais has been used as language of instruction in Betsiamites in recent past, and is taught as a subject in other classes. Taught as second language in 2 communities.

All ages speak the native language. Women of all ages and men over 55 are mainly not fluent in national languages: 3,000 people. Mashteuiatsh nearly all French-speaking. Many speakers are fluent in Quebec English (Sheshatshiu in Labrador) or French (other communities in Quebec).

Language development:

Literacy rate in first language: 5%. Literacy rate in second language: 50% to 75% in French or English. Taught in primary schools. Roman script. Dictionary. Grammar. NT: 1990.

Historical Food Source:

Traditionally hunters; trappers; fishermen.

Subsistence Today:

Culture was and is for the most part based on designated family hunting grounds visited seasonally. Hunting exploited a large variety of animals and fish, including extensive salt-water fishing.

Bands in 1650:

Attikamek, Bersiamite (Bersimis), Chicoutimi, Chisedec, Esoumain, Espamichkon, Godbout, Kakouchaki, Mauthaepi, Miskovaha, Mouchaouaouastiirinioek, Nekoubaniste, Nichikun, Oukesestigouek (Ouchestigouetch), Oumamiwek (Ste. Marguerite), Papinachois, Tadousac, and Weperigweia.

Current Settlements:

Labrador: Sheshatshiu (Goose Bay) and Utshimassit (Davis Inlet).

Quebec: Betsiamites, Kawawachikamach (Kobac Naskapi-Aeyouch, Naskapi of Quebec), Lac Saint Jean (Mashteuiatsh), La Romaine, Les Escoumins, Maliotenam, Matimekosh (Schefferville), Mingan, Natashquan, Pakuashipi (St. Augustine), and Uashat.

Attikamek (Quebec): Manuane (Manawan, Manouane), Obedjiwan (Opitciwan), and Weymontachie (Wemotaci).


Poor soil and a short growing season in Quebec made agriculture too risky for the Montagnais. All groups were hunter/gatherers, although their lifestyles differed somewhat due to available resources. The Montagnais occupied the forest areas along the north shore of the St. Lawrence and were a woodland people, shifting routinely between summer villages near the river and winter hunting camps in the interior.

There was little tribal organization beyond bands of extended families. After the French fur trade concentrated them near the St. Lawrence in the early 1600s, the southern Montagnais bands were forced to organize themselves within fixed hunting territories.

They wore buckskin clothing like their southern neighbors and occasional enemies, the Micmac and Abenaki. Housing was also similar: birch bark covered wigwams. Diet relied heavily on the hunting of moose and seal but with a heavy reliance on fishing for salmon and eel. Montagnais considered porcupine a delicacy. So much so, they were sometimes referred to as the “Porcupine Indians.”

Before contact, the Montagnais maintained a fairly extensive trade network with each other. Although language and culture were almost identical to the Montagnais, the Naskapi were located farther north on the Labrador Plateau, a cold region of grassland and tundra. They lived in small, nomadic bands which followed the caribou migrations. Diet was mainly caribou meat supplemented by fish and other small game, and they relied more heavily on hunting than gathering since there was simply less to gather.

Since birchbark was scarce, the Naskapi wigwams were usually covered with caribou hides. Their clothing came from the same source which accounts for a slightly different style of dress from the Montagnais.

The colder climate required them to wear heavier, fitted clothing like the Eskimo (Inuit) who were their only traditional enemies.

The Montagnais, Naskapi, and Attikamek all used the birchbark canoe for summer transport on the many lakes and rivers in the region, but winter travel and hunting required the use of snowshoes. Although there was European contact with the southern groups during the 1500s, many of the northern bands were isolated until the 1800s.


Labrador and eastern Quebec were first inhabited more than 8,000 years ago by the Maritime Archaic peoples who followed the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last ice-age. Whether these peoples were the ancestors of the Montagnais is uncertain, but Cree-speaking Algonquin began to occupy Labrador and eastern Quebec about 2,000 years ago.

The Naskapi were living on the Labrador peninsula when the Vikings arrived during the last part of the 10th century. The only site positively identified so far as Norse has been L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern end of Newfoundland, so the only certain contact was with the Beothuk. However, it would have been very difficult for the Vikings not to have met with the Naskapi in Labrador.

In any event, the Montagnais and Naskapi on the north side of the Gulf of St. Lawrence had extensive contact with the European fishermen who frequented the Grand Banks during the 1500s. Unlike the Beothuk on Newfoundland, these first encounters, as well as those with the Micmac in Nova Scotia, were friendly. They also involved trade, and the exchange of European goods for Montagnais and Micmac furs created the fur trade which brought European settlement to the region in the early 1600s.

For obvious reasons, few (if any) firearms changed hands at the time, but anything metal was highly prized and could be exchanged for a lot of fur. Besides cooking pots (a tremendous improvement over traditional materials), there were knives, axe-heads, and iron for spear and arrow heads, and it was these metal weapons which gave the Montagnais and Micmac a enormous advantage in war against their rivals farther inland.

When Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence in 1534, he found Iroquian-speaking peoples living on both sides of the river in the area between Quebec and the rapids at Montreal. These Iroquois were still there during his second voyage in 1542-43, but the French did not visit the area again during the next 60 years.

When they returned, the Laurentian Iroquois (so called because it has never been established whether they were Mohawk, Huron, or a separate Iroquois group) were gone. When Samuel de Champlain first met the Montagnais at the mouth of the Saguenay River in 1603, they had extended their territory west along both shores of the St. Lawrence to a point just east of Montreal. The details of this conquest have been lost, but Iroquois tradition recalls a time before the Europeans when they lived along the St. Lawrence and were dominated by the Algonquins. To escape, they had left the area and relocated to upstate New York.

Champlain establisheds his first post at Tadoussac and began to trade for fur with the Montagnais. He soon learned the Montagnais and their Algonkin allies had more and better furs than the Micmac in Nova Scotia. As a result, the French abandoned most of their posts in Acadia and moved to the St. Lawrence. The farther west they went, the better the furs.

In 1608 they moved up-river and founded Quebec, but the St. Lawrence west of here was a war zone. Although the Iroquois had abandoned their villages in this area, they had never surrendered their claims to the St. Lawrence. After relocating to upstate New York, they had stopped fighting among themselves, organized into the Iroquois League, and were in the process of taking it back.

When the French attempted to extend their fur trade west of Quebec in 1608, they became involved in a war between the Montagnais, Etchemin (Maliseet), Algonkin and Iroquois which had been raging since, at least, 1550. As the first important French trading partner, and it was the Montagnais who introduced Champlain to the Algonkin and, ultimately, the Huron. All of these peoples wanted to trade, but they were also looking to the French (all 30 of them) to help them fight the Iroquois who were a major threat since they had organized into a confederation.

The Algonkin and Montagnais were so harassed by Mohawk war parties they were forced to either travel in large groups or remain well-clear of the river. For his part, Champlain wanted to secure a trade agreement with the Montagnais and Algonkin to preclude competition from other Europeans. This, the Montagnais and their allies were reluctant to do without assurances of French military support, so in July, 1609 Champlain accompanied a combined Montagnais, Algonkin, and Huron war party as it moved south along the shores of the lake in northern New York now bearing his name.

Near the south end, they encountered the Mohawk massed in battle formation. They were a perfect target for the French firearms which killed several of their leaders and broke their formation.

A year later, Champlain joined a second attack against the Mohawk – this time at a fort on the Richelieu River. The Mohawk soon discarded their mass formations, wooden body armor, and countered French firearms by falling to the ground just before they fired, but after 1610 they were driven south away from the St. Lawrence.

The French got the trade agreements they wanted, and the Montagnais and Algonkin took control of the St. Lawrence for the next twenty years. The French continued to trade with the Montagnais, but their trade network soon extended west through the Algonkin in the Ottawa River Valley to include the Huron villages on the south shore of Lake Huron.

The defeats inflicted on the Mohawk during 1609-10 soon proved only temporary, but the French had made a dangerous enemy. Iroquois war parties still made travel on the upper St. Lawrence very dangerous, and the French and native fur traders were forced into a long detour up the Ottawa River to reach the western Great Lakes.

Meanwhile, the Dutch had entered the picture in 1610 and were trading for fur with the Mohawk and Mahican on the Hudson River near Albany. This countered the Montagnais and Algonkin advantage over the Mohawk of metal weapons received from the French, but the Dutch posts were in Mahican territory forcing the Mohawk to pay tribute for passage for trade.

This aggravated a pre-existing rivalry over the wampum trade, but the Dutch worked hard to arrange peace and quell the fighting which broke out periodically. Unfortunately, after the Dutch built Fort Orange near Albany in 1624, the Mahican attempted to profit as middlemen by arranging trade between the Dutch and the Montagnais and Algonkin on the St. Lawrence. Never known for their tolerance, trade with their northern enemies was just too much for the Mohawk, and they attacked the Mahican in 1624.

The Dutch tried but were powerless to stop this, and the war continued for four years. The Mahican were formidable warriors who also could call on their Sokoki (western Abenaki), Pennacook, and Pocumtuc allies from western New England, but by 1628 they had been defeated and forced east of the Hudson. After this victory over the Mahican, the Mohawk became the dominant Dutch trading partner in New York.

Although they made peace with the Mahican in 1628, the Mohawk continued to fight with the Sokoki and Pennacook in Vermont. These tribes turned to the Massachusetts colonists for help, but the British were reluctant to offend the Iroquois. Overtures were also made to the French at Quebec.

These were also ignored, because the French were aware the Sokoki were also fighting with the Montagnais who had been encroaching on Sokoki hunting territory south of the St. Lawrence. The Mohawk and Sokoki made peace in 1629 which freed the Mohawk to concentrate on their war with the Montagnais and Algonkin.

That same year, a Mohawk war party destroyed the Algonkin-Montagnais village at Trois Rivieres, and by 1630 both the Algonkin and Montagnais needed French help to defend themselves against the Mohawk. Unfortunately, the French could not even defend themselves.

Taking advantage of a European war between Britain and France, British privateers under Sir David Kirke captured Quebec in 1629. The British held Quebec for three years until the Treaty of St. Germaine en Laye finally returned it to France in 1632. This lapse of support was a disaster for the French allies since the Iroquois were able to regain the military advantage (their trade with the Dutch suffered no such interruption).

At the same time, the Iroquois had a strong need to expand. They had exhausted most of the beaver in their homeland and needed new hunting territory if they were to continue trade with the Dutch. Up to this point, relatively few firearms had found their way into the hands of Native Americans.

This changed in 1632 when the French regained control of Canada and started to rebuild their fur trade. The French government of Cardinal Richelieu encouraged immigration and sent additional Jesuit missionaries to New France. Since most of the new settlements were located in their homeland, the Montagnais were among the first converts to Christianity made by the French priests, and to assist conversion, Jesuits were not above using the promise of French firearms.

The French began giving guns to their allies to counter the Iroquois. At first, these were restricted to Christian converts and the amount of ammunition limited to prevent use against themselves. Even with these restrictions, it was enough to allow the Montagnais, Algonkin, and Huron to halt the Iroquois.

Briefly checked, the Mohawk made peace with Algonkin in 1634, but this collapsed almost immediately when the Algonkin renewed efforts to start trading with the Dutch. In the meantime, the Dutch had started providing the Mohawk with firearms, so any Algonkin and Montagnais advantage gained from the French weapons was soon lost in a rapidly escalating arms race. Two separate Iroquois offensives during 1636 and 1637 drove the Algonkin into the upper Ottawa Valley and forced the Montagnais to retreat east towards Quebec.

Only a smallpox epidemic, which originated in New England in 1634 before spreading to New York and the St. Lawrence, slowed the Mohawk offensive. Dramatic changes occurred in 1640 when British traders tried to lure the Iroquois away from the Dutch by offering them firearms. To keep their loyalty, the Dutch began selling the Mohawk all the guns and ammunition they wanted making the Iroquois the most powerful military force in North America. By 1642,the Mohawk and Oneida had driven the last groups of Algonkin and Montagnais from the upper St. Lawrence.

Despite being forced to give ground before the Iroquois, the Montagnais still enjoyed an advantage over the Abenaki south of the St. Lawrence. It appears they maintained good relations with the eastern Abenaki tribes in Maine and New Brunswick and occasionally could rely on them as allies against the Iroquois. However, this was not the case with the Sokoki, or western Abenaki, in Vermont with whom there had been smoldering hostility and occasional warfare over the years about disputed hunting territory.

This finally erupted into war during 1642 when the Montagnais attempted to stop the Sokoki from crossing their territory to trade directly with the French at Quebec. Since both tribes were now at war with the Montagnais, the Sokoki and Mohawk put aside their old differences and formed an alliance. This also brought the Mahican (Mohawk allies since 1628) into the fighting, and in 1645 a combined Mohawk, Sokoki, and Mahican war party raided Sillery, the main Montagnais and Algonquin mission village just outside Quebec.

The French signed a peace treaty with the Mohawk in 1645, but unfortunately this did not extend to their native allies. The fighting between the Sokoki and Mohawk against the Montagnais and Algonkin continued and by 1647 had expanded to include eastern Abenaki from Maine’s upper Saco River who were helping the Montagnais.

Oddly enough, the war between the Sokoki and Montagnais actually increased French interest in the Abenaki. French Jesuits obtained the release of a Sokoki captive of the Montagnais and decided to visit the Abenaki villages. Their Montagnais converts strongly opposed this, but the priests still made several brief visits to the Kennebec and Penobscot between 1646 and 1648.

The Jesuits eventually arranged a peace between some of the eastern Abenaki and the Montagnais but were less successful with the Sokoki who remained hostile to the Montagnais until 1650. The Sokoki alliance with the Mohawk ended with a dispute over hunting territory east of Lake Champlain, but more than anything else, the war between the Montagnais and Sokoki ended in 1649 when the Iroquois overran the Huron Confederacy.

Within the next two years the Iroquois also destroyed the Tionontati and Neutrals in the west and swept the last groups of the Algonkin from the upper Ottawa Valley. The Nipissing and Attikamek (Téte de Boule) were also forced to retreat into the safety of the northern forests leaving only the Montagnais and a small band of refugee Huron as the only French allies in the east.

Their fur trade empire in shambles, the French desperately needed to organize some new alliance to protect themselves and in 1650 sent a Montagnais sachem and Jesuit priest south to encourage a new alliance of the Sokoki, Pennacook, Pocumtuc, Mahican, and some of the eastern Abenaki against the Iroquois. The British colonies in New England were also invited to join, but the Puritans were very suspicious of anything arranged by Catholic Jesuits and declined the offer.

The French finally got the alliance they were seeking and supported it with guns and ammunition. Even the British traders out of Boston supplied arms (for a price). The Iroquois, however, were engaged in two major wars at this time – the Erie in the west and Susquehannock in east – so the alliance was not seriously tested for several years except for attacks on the Sokoki in 1653.

The Mohawk war with the Susquehannock ended in 1656 freeing them to deal with their Algonquin enemies in the east. At the urging of the Dutch, the Mahican left the alliance in 1658 to make a separate peace with the Mohawk. While the Sokoki and Pocumtuc bore the brunt of the fighting in New England, the Montagnais defended the St. Lawrence.

The Algonquin held their own pretty well, as war parties traded raids with the Iroquois on each other’s villages. The fighting spread east in 1660-62 to include the Abenaki in northern Maine and the Maliseet in New Brunswick who were Montagnais allies.

In the midst of this, the Mahican began one more effort to arrange trade between the Dutch and the Montagnais and Sokoki. When the Mohawk discovered this, the result was the same as before.

The Mohawk attacked the Mahican and drove them completely out of the Hudson Valley into western Massachusetts.

By 1663 the Pocumtuc in the Connecticut Valley were running out of warriors and asked the Mohawk for a separate peace. This failed after the Mohawk ambassadors were murdered enroute to a conference by parties unknown, and after more fighting the Pocumtuc in 1664 were forced to abandon the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts. At the same time, the British seized New York from the Dutch.

Boston traders soon had their own trade agreement with the Iroquois and ended most of their trade with the New England Algonquin. With only French support, Algonquin resistance began to crumble. The Pennacook were driven across southern New Hampshire into Maine, and the Sokoki forced to retreat north where they settled in the vicinity of Montreal under French protection. The Montagnais withdrew to the east and concentrated at Sillery near Quebec.

Things remained this way until the outbreak of the King Philip’s War (1675-76) in New England. The British suffered serious losses during this uprising of the southern New England tribes, but their brutal suppression of the revolt, forced most of the natives to leave New England or be killed.

Some moved west to New York and settled at Schaghticoke on the upper Hudson River, but thousands fled north as refugees to the French along the St. Lawrence. British retribution also struck the Abenaki in Maine, and by 1680 at least 2,000 Sokoki, Abenaki, and New England refugees had settled near the Montagnais at Sillery. This quickly strained the available resources and caused friction with the Montagnais.

Some years late, many of the Abenaki and Sokoki returned to the south, but in the meantime, most of the Montagnais had left Sillery and returned to their original lands east the Saguenay River on the north shore of the St. Lawrence. where they have remained ever since.

Bound to the French through religion and intermarriage, the Montagnais provided warriors for the French during their four wars with the British between 1689 and 1763, but they no longer played a major part in the fighting. The Naskapi in Labrador are believed to have absorbed the last remnants of the Beothuk during the 1820s, but little else changed for the Montagnais after the British gained control of Canada in 1763 until the 1840s.

About this time, lumber interests moved into the Saguenay River Valley and the upper north shore St. Lawrence bringing with them increased settlement. This cost the Montagnais some of their original homeland while exposing them to constant epidemics. Beaver hats gave way to silk during the 1830s ending one their major sources of income. In later years, the use of firearms in hunting for profit depleted much of available wildlife making traditional lifestyles difficult.

In general, the Montagnais are not well-known outside of Quebec and Labrador. Many of their important contributions to the early history of Canada have been obscured by their frequent confusion with the Algonkin or Cree in some accounts.

This misidentification has continued to the present-day, and many people still don’t recognize the major difference between the Innu (Montagnais) and the Innuit (Eskimo).

Their current problems are giant hydro-electric projects in northern Quebec and low-level military training flights over their homeland. Despite all of this, the Montagnais continue, as they have for thousands of years, to occupy Nitassinan, their ancient homeland.

Montagnais Language
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