Their ancestors were known to have lived on these lands for several thousand years as hunter-gatherers. They used portable tents made of animal skins. Their subsistence activities were historically centred on hunting and trapping caribou, moose, deer, and small game. Some coastal clans also practised agriculture, fished, and managed maple sugarbush.
Their language, Innu or Ilnu (popularly known since the French colonial era as Montagnais), is spoken throughout Nitassinan, with certain dialect differences. It is part of the Cree language group, and is unrelated to neighboring Inuit languages.
In 1999 Survival International published a study of the Innu communities of Labrador. It assessed the adverse effects of the Canadian government's relocating the people far from their ancestral lands and preventing them from practising their ancient way of life.
The people are frequently classified into two groups: the Neenoilno, often called by Europeans as Montagnais (French for “mountain people”, English pronunciation: //), or Innu proper (Nehilaw and Ilniw - “people”), who live along the north shore of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, in Quebec; and the less numerous Naskapi (Innu and Iyiyiw), who live farther north. The Innu recognize several distinctions (e.g. Mushuau Innuat, Maskuanu, Uashau Innuat) based on different regional affiliations and speakers of various dialects of the Innu language.
The word Naskapi was first recorded by French colonists in the 17th century and was subsequently applied to distant Innu groups beyond the reach of missionary influence. It was particularly applied to those people living in the lands that bordered Ungava Bay and the northern Labrador coast, near the Inuit communities of northern Quebec and northern Labrador. It is here that the term came to be used for the Naskapi First Nation.
The Naskapi are traditionally nomadic peoples, in contrast with the more sedentary Montagnais, who establish settled territories. Mushuau Innuat (plural), while related to the Naskapi, split off from the tribe in the 1900s. They were subject to a government relocation program at Davis Inlet. Some of the families of the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach have close relatives in the Cree village of Whapmagoostui, on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay.
Since 1990, the Montagnais people have generally chosen to be officially referred to as the Innu, which means human being in Innu-aimun, while the Naskapi have continued to use the word Naskapi.