Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Naskapi Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[Further information on the Naskapi may be found in the Canadian Encyclopedia and at the Native American Languages' site]



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Naskapi (a term of reproach applied by the Montagnais). The most north-easterly of the Algonquian tribes, occupying the elevated interior of Quebec and Ungava penin., N. of the gulf of St. Lawrence and extending from the vicinity of lake Mistassini to Ungava bay on the N. They call themselves Nanénot, 'true, real men.' Many of them have intermarried with their congeners the Montagnais, and when they visit the coast the two tribes frequent the same stations. When in the neighbourhood of Ungava bay they are known as Ungava Indians. They are shorter and of lighter build than the Montagnais, and have delicately formed and clear-cut features, small hands and feet, and large, rather soft eyes.


According to their traditions the Naskapi were driven into their present country in early times by the Iroquois. They assert that, originally, they lived in a region to the W., N. of a great river (supposed to be the St. Lawrence) and toward the E. lay an enormous body of water (believed to be Hudson bay ). When they reached the Ungava region their only neighbours were [Inuit], who occupied the coast strip and with whom they became involved in war, which continued until after the arrival of the whites. The two peoples are now on terms of intimacy. The Naskapi do not have the endurance of their [Inuit] neighbours against fatigue and hunger, although equally able to withstand the rigours of their harsh climate. The children are obedient; disrespect toward their elders is unknown, and in their dealings one with another there is no quarrelling. The Naskapi are generally healthy; their prevailing diseases are of the lungs and bowels - the former resulting from exposure to the extremes of wet and cold and their insanitary houses; the latter due to their gluttony after long fasting from scarcity of food. Those who go to the coast to reside, as many have in recent years, appear to be more subject to diseases than those in the interior. Medical treatment consists of shamanistic incantations and the use of powders and liniments, both native and those procured from traders. Marriage is effected without ceremony and is conditioned on the consent of the parents of the young woman and the ability of the prospective husband to support a wife; after the marriage the bond may be severed by either party on slight provocation. Polygamy is common, the number of wives a man may have being limited only by his means of supporting them. The sexual relations of the Naskapi are very loose; but their immorality is confined to their own people. The division of labour is similar to that among most tribes; the women perform all domestic work, including the transportation of game, fetching the fuel, erecting the tipis, hauling the sleds when travelling, etc.; the men are the providers. Girls reach puberty at 14 or 15 years, and are taken as wives at even an earlier age. Mothers usually do not bear more than 4 children; twins are rare.


The Naskapi suspend the bodies of their dead from branches of trees if the ground be much frozen, and endeavour to return when the weather is warm to bury them. Interment, however, has been practised only since the advent of missionaries. A man of distinction is often buried at once, after a fire has been built in a tipi to thaw the earth. They have no horror for the dead, having been known, it is said, to rob [Inuit] corpses of their clothing and accompanying implements.


Like other Indians, the Naskapi believe that every object, animate or inanimate, is possessed of a form of spirit which, in order that it may perform its services for the welfare of the people, must be propitiated with acceptable offerings. The medicine-men are supposed to be in direct contact with all forms of spirits, and are consulted when it is desired to overcome their baneful influence by means of the shaman's art.


The subsistence of the Naskapi is gained by the chase, which is engaged in chiefly during the winter. In the spring, men, women and children repair to the trading posts, chiefly Ft. Chimo, where they trade furs, ptarmigan feathers, etc., for the articles and products of civilization. The reindeer forms the chief source of their food and clothing, although fish, ptarmigan, ducks, geese, hares, rabbits, porcupines, beaver, and, in stress of hunger, an occasional lynx, are also eaten; the eggs of wild fowl are consumed in enormous quantities and in all stages of incubation. Reindeer are speared from canoes while crossing a stream, or snared or shot from ambush while passing through a narrow defile, or, in winter, are driven into a snowbank and speared. In these slaughterings an incredible number of carcasses and skins are left to decay. Wolverenes, wolves, and foxes are never eaten. The flesh of game animals is dried, pounded, made into pemmican, and stored in baskets and bags for future use.


The apparel of the Naskapi is quite distinct for the two sexes; the clothing varies also with the season, as the extremes of climate are very great. That of the men consists of tanned reindeer coat, breeches, leggings, moccasins, gloves or mittens, and cap or head-dress. Beams are sewed with sinew, and all the garments except the leggings, which are mostly hidden by the long coat, are ornamented with extravagant painted designs. Moccasins are rarely ornamented, except with beads or with strips of coloured cloth. Beaded head-bands are used for bearing burdens, especially for carrying canoes when making portages. In winter the men wear the coat with the fur side inward and with a hood attached. In summer the women wear calico dresses, thin shawls obtained through trade, and moccasins; in winter their apparel consists of a reindeer skin robe, a sleeveless gown reaching a little below the knees, often highly ornamented with painted designs, beadwork and fringe; and blanket shawl, shoulder cape, leggings, moccasins, and cap.


The dwellings, for both winter and summer, are tents or tipis of reindeer skins sewed together, and measuring 10 to 18 ft. at the base and 10 to 14 ft. high. The floor is carpeted with young spruce branches, except around the central fire-place; the smoke escapes through an opening in the top of the tipi where the supporting poles are brought together. The place of honour is the side opposite the fire. Poles extend across the tipi for the suspension of pots and kettles, and hunting apparatus, clothing, etc. are hung in convenient places. The outer edge of the interior is slightly raised above the centre of the floor, affording a slope for the occupants when sleeping with their feet toward the fire. Sweat-lodges of small poles covered with tent skins are in common use, and are heated, as usual, by means of hot stones on which water is poured. The domestic utensils of the Naskapi consist of thin vessels of spruce or birch, of various sizes, for holding liquids and for use as drinking cups; berry dishes or baskets of birchbark, sewed like the wooden vessels with split roots; baskets of birchbark with buckskin top and drawstring; bags made of the skins of reindeer legs sewed together; and spoons or ladles of wood nicely carved. They are inordinately fond of smoking, chewing, and snuffing tobacco - the latter, however, is practised only among the aged, especially the women. When camped at the trading posts the Indians boil together tobacco and molasses, to which water is added; this compound is drunk until stupefaction ensues. Pipes are made usually of sandstone or slate, with stem of spruce, often ornamented with beadwork, and are valued according to the colour of the stone. Transportation and travelling are conducted by means of canoes made of slats or ribs covered with hirchbark, sleds or toboggans (ta-bas-kan), and snowshoes of four styles framed with wood and netted. Bows and arrows are now almost discarded for guns; but blunt-pointed arrows are still used for killing small game, and by boys. The reindeer spears, already referred to, consist of a shaft 6 ft. long with a steel head made from a flat file. Reindeer snares are made of reindeer parchment cut into thin, narrow thongs and plaited, or of tanned skin. Beaver are sometimes trapped in a sort of net. Knives, awls, ice scoops and picks, hair combs and comb cases, porcupine tails for cleaning the combs, and fishing tackle are among the necessary implements of every Naskapi household.


The chief amusements of the men are games of draughts or checkers, of which they are exceedingly fond, and cup-and-ball. Feasts, accompanied by dance and ceremony, may be given by a man who has been unusually successful in hunting. Drums and drum-like rattles are used for musical accompaniments in their ceremonies; other rattles, as well as bows and arrows, which are shot at effigy targets, are used by the boys, while elaborately costumed dolls are made for the girls. Like other tribes, the Naskapi have an abundance of folk-tales, the chief subject of which are the animals common to their environment. In these tales the wolverene [sic] seems to play a prominent part. (See Turner in 11th Rep. B.A.E., 267 et. seq., 1894.)


On account of their wandering habits, the nature of their country, and their mixture with the Montagnais, it is impossible to give an exact statement of their numbers. In 1858 they were estimated at about 2,500. In 1884 the Naskapi of the lower St. Lawrence were officially reported to number 2,860, and the Indians of Ungava peninsula were returned as 5,016. In 1906, there were 2,183 Montagnais and Naskapi officially noted as such, and 2,741 unnamed Indians in the interior, 1,253 of whom were in the unorganized territories of Chicoutimi and Saguenay . In 1911, the Montagnais and Naskapi of Lake St. John agency numbered 863; of Bersimis agency, 606; of Mingan agency, 1,115, and of Ungava district, 1,246; total, 3,828.


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Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 335-337.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College