Naskapi and Mushuau Innu (sometimes referred to as “western” and “eastern” Naskapi)

Until the early 20th century, the group that has sometimes been referred to as “Naskapi” was a loosely-affiliated people living in small independent groups, nomadic caribou hunters whose territory spanned the northern portion of the Quebec-Labrador peninsula. According to Henriksen (2010), the Naskapi probably came together infrequently, perhaps only annually at the peak caribou hunting season.

Until it was closed in 1868, the first principal trading location for the Naskapi was the Petitsikapau post, called “Fort Nascopie” by the Hudson’s Bay Company, situated on the southern extreme of the traditional Naskapi hunting territories. Following the closure of Fort Nascopie, the Naskapi took their business either north to Fort Chimo, or east to the Davis Inlet post, and thus began a process which would eventually lead them to become two separate and sedentary groups. Those who hunted in the northern and north eastern areas of the interior frequented Fort Chimo and Fort McKenzie (in present-day Quebec), and those hunting farther south and east traded at Davis Inlet (in present-day Labrador). Subsequently, each group would adopt distinct Christian traditions, the eastern group (Mushuau Innu) becoming Catholics and the western group becoming Anglicans. Further, their writing systems for their languages are also quite different. The western group embraced and continues to use their own variety of the Canadian Syllabic writing system being used by their James Bay Cree relations to the west and south, while the eastern group uses a variety of the roman Innu orthography originally developed for the Innu (Montagnais) in Quebec.

In 1956, the Fort Chimo (western) Naskapi journeyed south to the mining town of Schefferville where educational and medical facilities, as well as employment opportunities in the recently opened iron ore mines were becoming available (Cooke 2012). A year later they were moved two miles away from the town, to John Lake, where they remained until 1972, along with some Montagnais (Innu) who had moved to Schefferville from the Sept-Iles area. In 1983 the Naskapi moved to their own new community of Kawawachikamach.

In 2002, the Davis Inlet (eastern) group was relocated from Davis Inlet to a new community on the mainland called Natuashish. They are politically, socially and educationally associated with the other Innu community in Labrador near North West River, Labrador called Sheshatshit, yet their language remains distinct and more closely related to the language spoken by Kawawachikamach Naskapi.

In spite of the relatively recent settlement of the Naskapi and Mushuau Innu into different communities, they share family connections that stretch across the Quebec-Labrador peninsula, and both groups use English as their second language. A unique subset of linguistic features used only by speakers of both language varieties reflects the fact that at one time they constituted a single linguistic group. Among older speakers in particular, there exists a common pool of lexical items, and both languages share a number of phonological and grammatical features (MacKenzie 1980).

But a characteristic difference between eastern (Mushuau Innu) and western (Naskapi) varieties worth noting is that Naskapi (the language spoken in Kawawachikamach) is a ‘y’-dialect while Mushuau Innu, (spoken in Natuashish, Labrador) is an ‘n’ dialect. That is, language varieties that make up the Algonquian language family have been broadly classified by linguists according to the sounds that speakers currently use today for corresponding sounds in a reconstructed theoretical “proto” or parent language that these languages are believed to have descended from. For example, where a Naskapi speaker would say yutin (with a ‘y’) for ‘it is windy’, a Mushuau Innu speaker pronounces this same word as nutin (with an ‘n’). [Check our Feature Map to hear some live examples – select Variant from PA */r/]

—Page written by Bill Jancewicz, Sept 2019.