Montagnais-Naskapi - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. During the winter season several multifamily lodge groups of about fifty individuals remained in close proximity to one another and traveled and hunted Together. Several multilodge groups, in turn, formed named Regional bands of between 150 and 300 people who joined Together when attending festive summer gatherings. When trapping and trading furs for European goods became the focus of the Montagnais-Naskapi economy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, seasonal band movements revolved increasingly around trips to European trading posts. Gradually, native groups attached themselves to a particular post, and the trading post band emerged as a characteristic form of social organization. During the second half of the nineteenth century, interior trading posts were closed as the fur trade declined, and as a result trading post bands merged into larger groups at mission stations and coastal trading centers. By the middle decades of the twentieth century, relatively large centers of permanent settlement had replaced the trading post band form of social organization.

Political Organization. Within the lodge group and, later, within the hunting group, important matters were resolved through group discussion. Above this no formal decision-making structure existed. Leadership within the lodge-hunting group was ephemeral and fell to those most knowledgeable or skilled in the particular task at hand. In Mistassini hunting groups leaders were men, usually forty years of age or older, who possessed considerable religious and practical knowledge. If a leader was sensitive to the wishes of others in his group and did not attempt to force his own will (action that would result in an immediate loss of his prestige and influence), the group usually followed his initiative. Seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries attempted to introduce formal chieftainships among the Montagnais-Naskapi as a way to facilitate Christianization and acculturation, but with very little success.

Social Control. Generosity, cooperation, harmony, and patience were key elements in the fabric of Montagnais-Naskapi society. Those who failed to contribute their fair share of goods and services to the group or to those in need were not respected and were the object of ridicule and scorn.

Conflict. The harmony and cooperation central to Montagnais-Naskapi society unraveled under the impact of European contact. Confrontations with European settlers and missionaries, the spread of epidemic diseases, the easy availability of alcohol through French traders, and the concentration of people at trading posts and mission stations all contributed to an increase in social friction and conflict. After the development of trapping rights in defined hunting Territories, trespass with the intent of trapping was resented, with retaliation sought through shamanistic performances.

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