The Montagnais and the Naskapi were nomadic peoples who lived by hunting and fishing. They were the first to come into prolonged contact with Europeans. The Montagnais inhabited the huge territory bounded on the south by the St. Lawrence, on the west by the St-Maurice River, on the east by Sept-Iles and on the north by the watershed separating the rivers flowing into the St. Lawrence from those flowing into James Bay. The Naskapi occupied the Labrador peninsula east of the imaginary lines between Sept-Iles and Lake Nichicun and between Lake Nichicun and Ungava Bay, right to the Strait of Belle Isle, a region inhabited by the Inuit.
Montagnais (French 'mountaineers', from the mountainous character of their country)are a group of closely related Algonquian tribes in Canada, extending from about Saint Maurice River almost to the Atlantic, and from the Saint Lawrence to the watershed of Hudson Bay.
The tribes of the group speak several well-marked dialects. They are the Astouregamigoukh, Attikiriniouetch, Bersiamite, Chisedec, Escoumains, Espamichkon, Kakouchaki, Mauthaepi, Miskouaha, Mouchaouaouastiirinioek, Nascapee, Nekoubaniste, Otaguottouemin, Oukesestigouek, Oumamiwek, Papinachois, Tadousac, and Weperigweia. Their linguistic relation appears to be closer with the Cree of Athabasca lake, or Ayabaskawininiwug, than with any other branch of the Algonquian family.
Champlain met them at the mouth of the Saguenay in 1603, where they and other Indians were celebrating with bloody rites the capture of Iroquois prisoners. Six years later he united with them the Hurons and Algonkin in an expedition against the Iroquois.
In the first Jesuit Relation, written by Biard (1611-16) they were spoken of as friends of the French. From that time their name had a place in Canadian history, though they exerted no decided influence on the settlement and growth of the colony.
The first missionary work among them was begun in 1615, and missions were subsequently established on the upper Saguenay and at Lower Saint John. These were continued, though with occasional and long interruptions, until 1776. The Montagnais fought the Mi'kmaq, and often the Eskimo, but their chief foes were the Iroquois, who drove them for a time from the banks of the Saint Lawrence and from their strongholds about the upper Saguenay, compelling them to seek safety at more distant points. After peace was established between the French and the Iroquois they returned to their usual haunts. Lack of proper food, epidemics, and contact with civilization reduced their numbers.
They roamed over the areas south of Hamilton inlet as far as the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Their western limits were imperfectly known. They traded at all the stations along the accessible coast, many of them at Rigolet and Northwest river. Sagard, in 1632, described them as Indians of the lowest type in Canada. Though they have occasionally fought with bravery, they are comparatively timid. They have always been more or less nomadic and, although accepting the teachings of the missionaries, seemed incapable of leaving the freedom of the forest for life in villages, nor could they be induced to cultivate the soil as a means of support.
They have been described as honest, hospitable, and benevolent, but very superstitious. Those who decided to settle on the lower Saint Lawrence were subject to sickness causing their numbers to dwindle.
Conjuring was practiced by their medicine-men. Some of the early missionaries spoke highly of their religious susceptibility. They buried their dead in the earth, digging a hole 3 feet deep and occasionally lining it with wood. The corpse was usually laid on its side, though it was sometimes placed in a sitting position. Above the grave was built a little birch-bark hut and through a window the relatives thrust bits of tobacco, venison, and other morsels. No reliable estimate can be given of their former numbers, but it is known that their numbers greatly decreased from sickness and starvation consequent on the destruction of game.
In 1812 they numbered approximately 1,500; in 1857 they were estimated at 1,100, and in 1884 they were officially reported at 1,395, living at Betsiamits, (Bersimis), Escoumains, Godbout, Grand Romaine, Lake St John, and Mingan, in Quebec. In 1906 they, together with the Nascapee, numbered, according to the Canadian official report, 2,183, distributed as follows: Bersimis, 499; Escoumains, 43; Natashquan, 76; Godbout, 40; Grand Romaine, 176; Lake St John, 551; Mingan, 241; St Augustine, 181; Seven Islands and Moisie, 376. Consult Chamberlain in Ann. Archmeol. Rep. Ontario 1905, 122, 1906.
The bands and villages of the Montagnais are: Appeelatat, Assuapmushan, Attikamegue, Bonne Espérance, Chicoutimi, Esquimaux Point, Godbout, Ile Percee (mission), Itamameou (mission), Islets de Jeremie (mission), Kapiminakouetiik, Mauthaepi, Mingan, Moisie, Mushkoniatawee, Musquarro, Nabisippi, Natashquan, Pashasheebo, Romaine, and Saint Augustin.