The Block

James Uniam, a trained Naskapi artist designed the block. His mother, Minnie Uniam, an elder and craftsperson, executed the embroidery and beadwork onto hand-tanned and smoked caribou hide. The needlework is patterned after the traditional Naskapi methods of decorating articles of clothing and other textile work. To the Naskapi, the caribou is important above all other animals, providing food, clothing, shelter and tools. It is natural, then, for the caribou to take centre stage in this block. Also important, but to a lesser degree are fish and geese, which are also included in the design. The double curve motif is distinctive to the Naskapi, and some ethnologists assert that the double curve is a dynamic symbol, a means by which the Naskapi hunter unites with his brother caribou.

Naskapi moccasin, late 1800s - Bata Shoe Museum - DSC00714
Naskapi moccasin
Mittens, Naskapi - Native American collection - Peabody Museum, Harvard University - DSC05460
Naskapi mittens
Coat & Woman's Peaked Cap
Naskapi woman’s coat and cap
Naskapi children in class with teacher, Quebec / Enfants naskapis et enseignante (Québec)
Naskapi children in school

Cultural Profile

The Naskapi of the Labrador plateau are descended from nomadic caribou hunters who lived in the barren sub-arctic, Ungava region of Quebec. Since 1956 they have been settled in Kawawachikamach, near Schefferville Quebec. The Naskapi speak the Algonquian-based Innu-aimun, and call themselves Iyuch, meaning “the people”. They are closely related both ethnically and linguistically to the Innu (Montagnais) settled at Utshimassits.

The Naskapi were possibly the last Native group to have sustained contact with Europeans, beginning with the first Hudson’s Bay Company post at Fort Chimo in the 1840s. At that time, since agriculture was impractical in the North, the Naskapi lived by trapping, hunting caribou, seals and migrating birds, and by fishing. For most of the year, the Naskapi roamed their homeland in small hunting bands, which came together briefly, during the summer months, in larger encampments along rivers to trade and socialize.

The nomadic lives of the Naskapi revolved around the caribou – the key to their very survival. Traditional belief holds that every animal group has a master and Papakashtshishku (orPapakassik) is the Caribou Master. Once a man, who dreamed he was a caribou, the Caribou Master woke up to find antlers on his head and a white spot marking his hindquarters. He became leader of the caribou herds and warned them to stay away from over-zealous hunters. A hunter’s success depends on the respect he gives to Papakashtshishku. The Naskapi show respect to the caribou by using every part of the animal.

Hunting became more difficult when mining and hydro-electric companies began encroaching on their land in the latter half of the 20th century. Today, the Naskapi are working to gain greater control over their ancestral lands. Their language continues to be a vibrant part of everyday life as most speak their own language fluently.

Sponsor: Naskapi Development Corporation | Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Flickr