Origin and History
The Innu are an Algonquin speaking people whose territory occupies the Labrador Peninsula living north of the Saint-Laurent River as far east as the Saint-Maurice River. The Innu are divided into two groups, with the Neenoilno, referred to by Europeans as Montagnais (French for "mountain people”) and regarded as the Innu proper, and the less numerous Naskapi (also known as Innu), living farther north. The Innu recognize several distinctions among their people (e.g., Mushuau Innuat, Maskuanu, Uashau Innuat) based on different regional affiliations and speakers of various dialects of the Innu language.
The Innu people were living peacefully with the Saint-Laurent Iroquoians of Hochelaga and Stadacona before the Iroquoian dispersal sometime after 1540. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, the Innu visited the Basque fishermen at their stations in southern Labrador. Around 1570, they allied themselves with the Algonquin nation, their neighbours west of the St Maurice River, against the Iroquois Confederacy. Summer trips to the coast became more frequent after French traders arrived and established a trading post at Tadoussac within their territory in 1600 and started trading furs with them for European goods.
In 1602 French traders brought two Innu travelled to France and the court of Henri IV to discuss an alliance to drive their Mohawk competitors out of the Saint-Laurent valley allowing the French and Algonquins to assert control over the fur trade in the interior. In 1603 the Innu diplomats travelled back to France with Samuel de Champlain, a French explorer and diplomat, to assist with the French crown’s intention of brokering peace between the Algonquin and Mohawk. This failed. On May 27, Champlain witnessed a two-week victory celebration by Innu, Algonquin and eastern Abenaki who had ambushed a 1,000-man Iroquois war party killing 100.
Québec was founded by Champlain on July 3, 1608, at the abandoned site of the Saint-Laurent Iroquoian settlement at Stadacona, within Innu territory. According to oral tradition, the Innu at first declined their request. The French demonstrated their ability to farm wheat on the land and promised they would share their bounty with them in the future, which the Innu accepted.
In June 1609 Innu warriors accompanied Champlain who joined a war party of Algonquin and their Wendat (Huron) allies where, subsequently, for the first time at the Battle of Ticonderoga they witnessed the use of firearms in the defeat of a Mohawk war party. In 1610 Innu, Algonquin and Wendat warriors with Champlain and his Frenchmen attacked a Mohawk fortified camp on the Richelieu River near present-day Sorel, which after initially being repulsed was later captured by the Innu and French. In September 1615 a number of Innu warriors accompanied Champlain and his Wendat and Algonquin allies to attack a fortified Onondaga town, Kaneenda. However, Champlain called off the attack when his allies refused to assault the town.
In 1622 the Innu and Algonquin were encouraged by Champlain to enter negotiations with the Mohawk which led, after an abortive peace conference, to a truce in 1624. A number of Iroquois took up temporary residence in Innu villages.
By 1623 the Innu no longer made birch bark baskets and stone adzes. They had also started obtaining a few guns from illegal traders from La Rochelle.
Champlain had been asked to care for two Innu girls during the food shortage of the winter of 1627-28. He refused to let their relatives have them back, not understanding the temporary nature of their stay, intending to send these girls to France and enrol them in a convent school. Furthermore, in 1629 Champlain insisted that the Innu and Algonquin form a council of band chiefs to regulate relations between them and the French and demanded Chomina, an alcoholic and subservient to him, be its head. Furthermore, due to this behaviour and high trade prices, the angry Innu aided the English in taking Québec in 1629. During the English occupation of Québec between 1629 and 1632 the Innu obtained some firearms from them.
However, during the early 1630s the Iroquois directed by the Mohawk sent numerous war parties against the Innu and Algonquins. In 1632 one multi-generational Mohawk party of men from the same clan was captured by the Innu and taken by them from village to village near Québec and Tadoussac and tortured in each. The Innu were aggrieved by Mohawk attacks, exclusion from the Dutch trade at Fort Orange (Albany) and Iroquois domination of trade on the Saint-Laurent between 1629 and 1632 during the period of French expulsion. Iroquois raids continued through the 1630s, they being increasingly armed with firearms whereas the Innu were mostly only armed with ‘javelins’, hatchets and ‘iron arrow heads.’ The French only gave firearms to Christian converts.
In 1634 large numbers of Innu were lost due to an epidemic. This convinced the Innu around Québec that the French intended to exterminate them and take possession of their land. In 1637 the Jesuits established a mission at Sillery for the Innu in the Québec area. The local supplies of beaver had been exhausted and because of the Québec Innu’s geographic location meant they could not obtain them in trade and were encouraged to settle and farm. This had limited success and was abandoned by 1649. In September 1645 the Innu with the Algonquins, Wendat and French made peace with the Mohawk at Trois-Rivières, although this had not been agreed by other nations of the Iroquois League. In 1646 the peace was broken due to the actions of the Jesuit Isaac Jogues whilst among the Mohawk.
In May 1664 Innu and Algonquin warriors ambushed an embassy of 30 Onondaga and Seneca delegates enroute to Montréal seeking peace with the French. By this time, as well as from the French, the Innu had access to firearms through New England traders. From the late 17<supth century, the Innu are also likely to have started trading with the English on James Bay to the north of their territory.
The Innu are likely to have supported the French through King William’s (1689-1697); Queen Anne’s (1702-1713); and King George’s War (1744-1748) but were probably not significantly involved in any of these conflicts. They were not part of the Seven Nations Confederacy as their Algonquin and Wendat neighbours were.
Role during the War
The Innu took little part in the French and Indian War.
From June to September 1759, Innu warriors may have been present aiding the French during the siege of Québec by the British.
Towards the end of May or the beginning of June 1760, an anonymous party of Native Americans approached the British Garrison at Québec and met in council with Governor Murray. It is considered that these were Innu diplomats.
In 1735 the Jesuit Nau described the Innu around Tadoussac as being, ‘... dressed in the French fashion, but [in his opinion] rather grotesquely, and without taste.’ No descriptions of Innu men from the period of the mid-18th century have been sourced at the time of writing.
Mackenzie's account during the years 1789-1793 of the garments worn by the Woods Cree, to the north of and allied to the Cree dialect speaking Innu, states, ‘Their dress is at once simple and commodious. It consists of tight leggins, reaching near the hip: a strip of cloth or leather called assian [breechclout], about a foot wide, and five feet long, whose ends were drawn inwards and hang behind and before, over a belt tied around the waist for that purpose: a close vest or shirt reaching down to the former garment, and cinctured with a broad strip of parchment fastened with thongs behind; and a cap for the head, consisting of a piece of fur, or small skin, with the brush of the animal as a suspended ornament: a kind of robe is thrown occasionally over the whole of the dress, and serves both night and day. These articles, with the addition of shoes and mittens constitute the variety of their apparel. The materials vary according to the season, and consist of dressed moose-skin, beaver prepared with the fur, or European woollens, the leather is neatly painted, and fancifully worked in some parts with porcupine quills, and moose-deer hair: the shirts and leggins are also adorned with fringe and tassels; nor are the shoes and mittens without somewhat of appropriate decoration, and worked with a considerable degree of skill and taste. These habiliments are put on, however, as fancy or convenience suggests; and they will sometimes proceed to the chase in the severest frost, covered only with the slightest of them. Their head-dresses are composed of the feathers of the swan, the eagle, and other birds. The teeth, horns, and claws of different animals are also the occasional ornaments of the head and neck. Their hair, however arranged, is always besmeared with grease.’
Alanson Skinner writing in 1911, stated, ‘According to my informants, before European contact, men's clothing in winter consisted of a thinly dressed shirt of beaver or other skin with the fur turned in. The skin of an adult beaver formed the body covering, while the sleeves, which were attached to the trunk, were made of the pelts of young animals. Leggings were made of beaver, fisher, or of the skin of the legs of the caribou, worn usually with the fur-inside. They extended from the thigh to the ankle. Garters of leather or rabbitskin, with the fur on them, were worn below the knee, outside the leggings. Hooded coats of caribou skin tanned with the hair, somewhat resembling Eskimo parkas, were also worn in winter. They were symbolically painted inside by outlining on the skin, the eyes and mouth, of the animal, signifying that the garment possessed the powers of speed, endurance, or cunning of the living animal, and was able to convey them to the wearer. So far as could be learned, this symbolism is confined to the garments of men, and the designs occur on the hood or head coverings only...’
The following is surmised.
Innu men probably wore their hair long like the Mi’kmaq to the south rather than shaved head and scalplock worn by the Wendat and Abenaki neighbours. The illustration c.1730 of ‘Equipage des Chasseurs Sauvages Canadiens’ shows men’s hair being worn loose. Mackenzie wrote of the Innu’s northern neighbours: ‘It is cut in various forms, according to the fancy of the several tribes, and by some is left in the long, lank, flow of nature. They very generally extract their beards, and both sexes manifest a disposition to pluck the hair from every part of the body and limbs... Their hair is divided on the crown, and tied behind, or sometimes fastened in large knots over the ears.’ Alanson Skinner (1911) goes on to state, ‘... the men sometimes wore their hair in a single plait down the back.’
Paul Lejeune, a Jesuit missionary, wrote of the Innu in 1634: ‘During the Winter all kinds of garments are appropriate to them, and all are common to both women and men, there being no difference at all in their clothes; anything is good, provided it is warm. They are dressed properly when they are dressed comfortably. Give them a hood, and a man will wear it as well as a woman.’ By the time of the French and Indian War hoods were made of wool broadcloth and decorated with ribbon and linear beadwork. Feathers and other items of spiritual significance to the wearer are likely to be been worn attached to a scalp braid from the crown of the head when at war.
It is likely that Innu men had tattoos. Skinner (1911) found that their neighbours to the north, ‘... that it was a frequent mode of decoration in the old days...’
The Jesuit missionary Lejeune arrived in Tadoussac in the summer of 1632 and reported that of the Innu men: ‘There were some whose noses were painted blue, the eyes, eyebrows, and cheeks painted black, and the rest of the face red; and these colours are bright and shining like those of our masks; others had black, red, and blue stripes drawn from the ears to the mouth. Still others were entirely black, except the upper part of the brow and around the ears, and the end of the chin; so that it might have been truly said of them that they were masquerading. There were some who had only one black stripe...’ It is presumed that such traditions were maintained through the 18th century. All face paint designs are personal to the wearer.
Ears and Nose
It is likely that Innu men had their ears pierced and wore earrings. It is not known whether they separated the helix of the ear, as did Native American warriors to the west of their territory, or pierced their nose septum.
Necklaces and Neck Pouches
Necklaces of wampum, imitation glass wampum and beads with shell, claw and silver pendants are likely to have been commonly worn for occasions.
Breechclout and Apron
Innu men were wearing cloth breechclouts by 1634. Pierre Pouchot, writing between 1755 and 1760, generically, recorded men wearing, ‘... a breech-cloth, which is a quarter of an ell of cloth, which they pass under their thighs, crossing before and behind upon a belt around the waist. Sometime the cloth is embroidered.’
The Jesuit Lejeune writing in 1634 of the Innu stated that: ‘Their stockings are made of Moose skin, from which the hair has been removed, nature and not art setting the fashion for them; they are considered well-made if the feet and legs go into them, no ingenuity being used in making corners; they are made like boots, and are fastened under the foot with a little string. The seam, which is scarcely more than basted, is not at the back of the leg, but on the inside. When they sew them, they leave an edge of the skin itself, which they cut into fringe, occasionally fastening to this a few matachias [ornaments of wrapped quills, shell, beads, etc.] These stockings are quite long, especially in front, for they leave a piece which reaches quite high, and covers a great part of the thigh; to the upper edge of this piece are fastened small cords, tied to a leather belt which they all wear next to their skin.’ Lejeune also noted that amongst the Innu: ‘A man will wear one stocking of leather, and another of cloth; just now they are cutting up their old coverings or blankets, with which to make sleeves or stockings; and I leave you to imagine how neatly and smoothly they fit... as soon as the air becomes warm or when they enter their Cabins, they throw off their garments and the men remain entirely naked, except a strip of cloth which conceals what cannot be seen without shame.’
Leggings were fitted tightly to the leg with double flaps or wings hanging feely down the outside. Some had a single flap at the back with the front stitched on the inside forming the outer seam of the legging. Each flap may have been decorated with ribbon, edge beading, moose hair embroidery, broaches and braid. On the trail plain half or full leggings of blue or red cloth, or buckskin would be worn.
Garters, made of deerskin, or of birch bark, the former could be embroidered with quillwork, are likely to have been worn below the knee. Ties may have been wrapped in quills.
The Innu probably wore a style of two-piece puckered-toe moccasin style with a separate vamp. They are fastened under the cuff and tied at the instep with a thong. Contemporaneous with this form of moccasin was the 'hock' boot. This was made of the leg skin of a moose, elk or deer: ‘They cut the skin above and below the gambrel joint, and take it off entire. As the hind leg of the elk inclines at this joint, nearly at right angle, it was naturally adapted to the foot. The lower end was sewn firmly with sinew, and the upper part secured above the ankle with deer strings.’.
In 1634 the Jesuit Paul Lejeune wrote of the Innu, ‘... those who can have or buy our French shirts...’ A European shirt, cut in contemporary European fashion, was also popular and could be daubed with grease and paint to waterproof it. Peter Kalm writing of the neighbouring Lorette Wendat of Québec, but also likely to apply to their southern Innu neighbours, in 1750 states that: ‘They wear a shirt which is either white or blue striped and a shaggy piece of cloth, which is either blue or white, with a blue or red stripe below. This they always carry over their shoulders... They all have their breasts uncovered.’
Blankets and Coats
Fur robes worn for warmth were also used for ceremonial occasions being painted and decorated with quilled bands. As well as skins, trade blankets were worn for warmth. At the time French blankets were considered of better quality than those supplied by the British.
Hooded capotes were a probably a popular item of winter dress for Innu men living along the Saint-Laurent. In 1743 it is recorded that seventy cloth capotes trimmed with false silver lace were sent to Fort La Raye (Green Bay) to be traded for furs. Eight were of white cloth and the others of unspecified colours. They lacked buttons and were fastened by a patterned woven wool sash or belt at the waist.
European coats and sleeved waistcoats in the contemporary style were also obtained and worn by some men.
The Innu also wore hunting coats of hide styled in the manner of an 18th century riding coat or redingote, with high collar, narrow waist and flaring skirt, sewn of tanned caribou hide. They were very finely painted in red, cream, and black pigments. The distinctive painting style used by the Labrador Innu in the early contact period features sense bands of parallel lines and the graceful, bilaterally symmetrical scroll motifs termed "double curves”.
Pierre Pouchot described generically the equipment carried by Native American men. ‘The men wear a belt about six inches wide, made of wool of different colour, which the Indian women make very neatly, of flaming designs. They hung to this belt their mirrors and their tobacco pouch, which is the skin of an otter, beaver, cat or bird taken off whole and tanned, into which they put their pipe tobacco and steel. They have also a pocket hanging like a wallet, for carrying their balls and lead for hunting or war. They have an ox horn with a shoulder strap for carrying powder. Their knife is hung in a sheaf from the neck, and falls upon the breast. They also have a crooked knife or a curved sword, and they make great use of this.’
By the beginning of the 18th century the standard trade musket that armed the Innu either manufactured in France at the Tulle arsenal or obtained from the British at James Bay or New England. The French ‘fusil de chasse’ or hunting musket has a 44-inch octagon-to-round barrel and the lock plate is marked with the name of the arsenal spelt as TVLLE. After 1745 the ‘V’ changed to a ‘U’. Characteristically the stock had a drooped ‘cow’s foot’ butt. Likewise, firearms obtained from the British at James Bay were manufactured specifically for the Indian trade. These were characterised by full stocks, large trigger guards, serpent side plates, and nailed on butt plates.
A powder horn and a shot pouch would have been worn over the shoulder and high up under the arm to minimise them flapping about whilst moving. Shot pouches were often made of deerskin and possibly decorated with painted designs. A knife was carried in a sheaf, often decorated with red, black, white and possibly yellow quillwork, hung around the neck and a tomahawk or warclub was carried stuffed through a belt at the back.
Kalm, Peter, Travels in North America, quoted in O’Neill, James, Their Bearing is Noble and Proud: A collection of narratives regarding the appearance of Native Americans from 1740–1815, Dayton, J. T. G. S. Publishing 1995, pp. 10-11.
MacLeod, D. Peter, The Canadian Iroquois and the Seven Years War, Canadian War Museum, 2012, pp. 160.
Parmenter, Jon, The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia, 1534-1701, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010.
Pouchot, Pierre, Memoir Upon the Late War in North America, Between the French and English, 1755-60. Volume II, Alpha Editions, 2021, pp. 189-191.
Skinner, Alanson, Notes on the Eastern Cree and Northern Saulteaux, Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. IX, Part, 1, 1911
Thwaites, Reuben G. [ed], The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers Company Publishers, 1899, 68:265.
Trigger, Bruce, Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s Heroic Age Reconsidered, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986, pp 199-200, 203-204, 331.
Wikipedia – Innu
Larry Burrows for the initial version of this article