Naskapi Language

Naskapi (also known as Iyuw Iyimuun in the Naskapi language) is an Algonquian language spoken by nearly 1,000 Naskapi people  in Quebec and Labrador, Canada. Naskapi is spoken by members of two Innu communities in Quebec and Labrador (Kawawachikamach and Mushuau, respectively). 

It is officially written in Eastern Cree syllabics.

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). 

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 crisis 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. 

The Montagnais and Naskapi 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.

The Innu population was decimated by war and European diseases

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. 


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Naskapi is an indigenous language of Canada


2 communities in Quebec and Labrador. Those in Kawawachikamach are about 10 km northeast of Schefferville in northeastern Quebec at the height of land (watershed). On December 15, 2002 most of the Mushuau Innu moved from Utshimassits (Davis Inlet) to Natuashish on the mainland. Natuashish is an isolated community in Labrador.