Cree (Native Americans of the Subarctic)

Creetmp2049_thumb, from Kristeneaux, a French word for the name (possibly Kenistenoag) of a small Cree band. The self-designation is Ininiw, "person," or, among the Woodland Cree, Nehiyawak, "those who speak the same language"; Atheneuwuck, "People"; or Sackawee-thinyoowuk, "Bush People." Crees are commonly divided into Woodland (or Western Woods) Cree (west) and Muskegon (from Omaskekow), Swampy, or West Main Cree (east). Another division, the Plains Cree, is described in Chapter 6. (See Naskapi/ Montagnais; see also Anishinabe [Chapter 8]). The East Cree, who live just east of James Bay, are generally regarded as being a division of the Naskapi/Montagnais (Innu). Cree speakers whose territory included land northwest of Quebec and Trois Rivieres are known as Tete-de-Boule, or Attikamek. It should be noted, however, that all such labels are spurious and that originally such groups consisted of autonomous groups or "nations."

Three divisions make up the Woodland Cree: Rocky Cree, Western Swampy Cree, and Strongwoods Cree. Information about the traditional lives of these people should be considered sketchy and incomplete. There may also have been a fourth group, the Athabaska-Cree. Traditional Swampy Cree bands include Abitibi, Albany, Attawapiskat, Monsoni, Moose River (Mousousipiou), Nipigon, Piscotagami, Severn, Winisk, and Winnipeg.


Location Around 1700, the Cree lived from south of James Bay westward into eastern Alberta, north to around Fort Churchill and Lake Athabaska, and south to a line running roughly from just north of Lake of the Woods to the Lesser Slave Lake. Swampy Cree land was roughly the easternmost 330 kilometers of this territory, including a considerable portion of coastline along James and Hudson Bays.

By about 1800, the people lived from Labrador in the east to Lubicon Lake in the west (includes the East Cree; see Naskapi/Montagnais), north almost to the Great Slave Lake, and south into North Dakota and Montana (includes Plains Cree; see Chapter 6).

Today, there are Cree reserves in practically all of this area. There are also Cree or Iroquois/Cree communities near Edmonton, Alberta, and in the Rocky Mountain foothills. These groups are descended from people who acted as guides for the fur companies.

Population There were at least 20,000 Crees in the sixteenth century and at least 120,000 in the mid-1990s. Most Crees live in Ontario and Quebec.

Language Crees spoke dialects of a Central Algonquian language.

Historical Information

History The Cree and Anishinabe probably share a common origin. Crees have been in their known aboriginal territory for at least 4,000 years. They first encountered non-natives when the Henry Hudson exploration arrived in 1610.

The first trade forts were founded among the Swampy Cree beginning around 1670 and in the west from the mid-eighteenth century on. Crees serving as guides and trappers increased their importance to local fur trade companies. French and Scottish trappers and traders regularly intermarried with Cree Indians. The mixed-race offspring, known as Metis, eventually developed their own culture. Some fought two wars with Canada in the mid- to late nineteenth century over the issues of land rights and sovereignty (see Cree, Plains entry in Chapter 6).

In the early trade days (seventeenth century in the east and mid-eighteenth to early nineteenth century in the west), the Indians prospered in part by playing the French and British off against each other. Their acquisition of firearms from the Hudson’s Bay Company, as well as the completion of an alliance with the Assiniboine, precipitated a tremendous expansion almost to the Arctic Sea, the Rocky Mountains, and the Red River region. Groups of Crees arriving on the Great Plains, near the end of the seventeenth century, adopted many elements of classic Plains culture, especially including dependence on the buffalo.

Jesuit missionaries began working among the Swampy Cree for a short time in the late seventeenth century. The region was devoid of missionaries, however, from then until 1823, when the Church of England established a presence. By 1717, the Swampy Cree had become dependent on non-native traders for necessities such as cloth, blankets, and even food, in addition to trade goods. New foods included sugar and flour; alcohol and tobacco were also valued. Many traditional customs changed or disappeared during the trade period.

The people were devastated by smallpox in the early 1780s. Survivors succumbed to alcohol and were often attacked by enemies, including the Blackfeet Confederacy. Furthermore, the Cree’s strong trade position led to overtrapping as well as depletion of the moose and caribou herds by the early nineteenth century. Although the effects were partially offset by the Indians’ growing dependence on items of non-native manufacture, these trends combined to shrink the Indians’ land base. Also about that time, western Crees, now using an iron chisel and moving on dogsleds, began taking more of an interest in fishing.

When the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company merged in 1821, many Cree began to abandon their traditional nomadic lives in favor of settlement at or near trade posts. Eventually, all-Indian communities arose in these areas. There was a second devastating smallpox epidemic in 1838. The people never fully recovered from this event. Severe tuberculosis and influenza epidemics struck in the early twentieth century as well.

Heavy missionary activity began in the mid-nineteenth century. Most Indians were at least nominally Christian by the mid-twentieth century, although many western groups retained a core of traditional beliefs and practices. In the mid-nineteenth century, northern and eastern groups adopted a missionary-devised syllabary that soon gained wide acceptance. Parallel to this development was the elimination of practically all traditional religion in favor of the Churches of Rome and England.

The treaty and reserve period began in the 1870s. People began slowly to settle into all-native log cabin communities, and the election of chiefs was made mandatory in the 1920s. Although their land and resources were being gradually but steadily whittled away, Crees were able to use their land in at least a semitraditional way well into the twentieth century.

After World War II, however, many Swampy Crees, their land essentially trapped out, began working in local cities and towns such as Moosonee and Churchill. Many Woodland Crees altered their lives fundamentally for the first time, attending school, using non-native medicine, accepting government financial assistance, and becoming connected to the outside world via road and air links. The advent of relatively extensive roads and rail lines in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the expansion of the forestry industry, greatly increased pollution. At the same time there was a dramatic reduction in game animals. In 1975, the eastern Cree and Inuit ceded over 640,000 square kilometers of land to the James Bay Hydroelectric Project, in exchange for promises of hundreds of millions of dollars and various other provisions.


Religion Woodland Crees believed in the ubiquitous presence of Manitou, the great spirit power. Some coastal people also believed in a number of powerful creatures such as dwarfs and cannibalistic giants (Windigo). Some groups may have had the Midewiwin, which they probably borrowed from the Anishinabe.

Adolescents fasted and secluded themselves to obtain dream visions; the guardian spirits that they obtained in these visions were said to provide luck. Secret religious societies were dedicated to propitiating animal spirits. Special ceremonies followed the killing of a bear. Shamans, or conjurers, wielded much authority, in part because of the general fear that they would use their powers for evil purposes (sorcery). Several degrees of shaman were recognized. Their legitimate functions were to divine the future and cure illness. The latter activity was often associated with a "shaking tent" ritual. Both men and women could become shamans. (Herbalists also cured illness.)

Government Small local bands, consisting of several extended families, were the basic political units. Bands remained separated during all but the summer season, at which time they united on lake shores for ceremonies and councils. Band membership was fluid, and the bands probably had no clearly defined hunting territories. All groups were politically autonomous.

During the summer gatherings, temporary regional bands were led by chiefs. Band leaders had no explicit power; their authority was based on merit as well as the possession of spiritual power. In the contact period, specialty chiefs, who might have been band leaders, took charge of trade among their people.

Customs In the west, local band chiefs might have as many as seven wives. Parents had a great deal of influence regarding their childrens’ mates. Girls were often married before they reached puberty. Newly married men worked for their wives’ parents for a period of time. Among the eastern people, divorce was easily obtained. Men might temporarily exchange their wives with others and/or "lend" them to strangers as an act of hospitality, although adultery by the wife was severely punished.

Babies kept on cradle boards used diapers of dried moss. Both twins were not permitted to live: If twins were of both sexes, the girl was killed (infant girls may have been killed under other circumstances as well). Children were generally raised with great affection and without physical punishment. Girls were subjected to isolation and a number of behavioral restrictions during and immediately following their first menstrual periods; a feast was held when a young man killed his first big game.

Widows and orphans were protected by the group. Death was not generally feared, and the very old or sick were often abandoned or killed. Corpses were wrapped in bark and buried in the ground or on a scaffold. Some weapons and tools were placed on the grave. The people held an annual feast of the dead.

Murder was avenged by relatives. Crees were forced into cannibalism during periods of starvation. They learned tobacco smoking from people of the St. Lawrence valley, and this custom became important among some groups. Eastern games included cup-and-pin, football, lacrosse, and string figures. All groups also held numerous athletic contests and games of skill. Singing and dancing occurred both socially and for luck (as in hunting).

Dwellings Toward the south, the people lived in conical or dome-shaped birch-bark wigwams with a three-pole foundation. Farther north and west, the lodges were covered with pine bark or caribou, elk, or moose skin. They sheltered extended families of ten or more people.

Floors were sometimes partially excavated. Doors faced south. Some groups also built rectangular bark-or skin-covered lodges with two fires inside. There were also sweat lodges, used in curing and for cleanliness, and menstrual lodges as well as various caches and ceremonial pavilions.

Diet Cree men were considered superb hunters. They targeted caribou, elk, moose, and beaver. They killed bear when they could get them, and hare when they could not. Some southern groups also hunted buffalo. There were many behavioral taboos and customs designed to mollify spirits related to the hunt. Every hunter carried his personal medicine pouch, and hides were often painted with red stripes and dots.

Meat was generally stone boiled. It was also dried and mixed with fat and berries to make pemmican. Fowl were plentiful, especially in certain areas. Woodland people fished only out of necessity, but Swampy Cree relied on fish such as lake trout, pike, whitefish, and pickerel. People on the coast occasionally ate seals and beluga whales, spearing them with harpoons. Seal fat was often added to meat and fish in the east.

Key Technology The primary hunting equipment included bows (strung with bark or babiche) and arrows and spears (fitted with stone, bone, or antler points). Animals were also trapped, snared (willow-bark hare snares were popular,) or caught in deadfalls. Fishing gear (in the east) included bone and spruce hooks, nets, and weirs. Other tools included bone awls and fleshers, stone axes, and beaver tooth chisels.

The people made birch-bark cooking vessels, except in the east, where woven spruce-root or soapstone (around James Bay) pots were used. Some vessels were also made of clay. Other food-related items included carved wood spoons, bowls, and trays.

Some groups used an Inuit-style curved knife for scraping hides, although farther west the women used a Plains-style tool shaped more like a chisel. A balancing stick was used while walking on snowshoes or pulling toboggans. People carved soapstone pipes and made birch-bark moose calls. Cordage came from spruce roots, hide, willow bark, and sinew. Fire was generally kept alive as coals in a birch-bark container.

Trade Most trade was local, with groups such as the Chipewyan. The Cree traded in elm-bark bags and assorted birch-bark goods, carved wooden bowls, and food items. As they expanded west, the people began to trade Woodland items for buffalo-derived products. They played an important role in the fur trade, and their acquisition through trade of firearms allowed them to expand their territory greatly.

Notable Arts Artistic expression took the forms of fine moose-hair and bird- and porcupine-quill embroidery, carved wood items, and face and body tattooing and painting. Clothing generally contained painted geometric patterns and, later, beaded floral designs. There was some rock painting of both realistic and stylized animals, people, and mythological personages.

Transportation People made birch-bark canoes, toboggans (of juniper in the west), and elongated birch-frame snowshoes. Many groups had horses by the mid-eighteenth century. The people adopted dogsleds beginning in the twentieth century.

Dress Moose-, caribou-, or elk-skin clothing was often fringed. Clothing generally consisted of breechclouts (belted in the east), shirts, dresses, belts, moccasins (extended in winter), and long leggings.

Cree men were considered superb hunters. They targeted caribou, elk, moose, and beaver. This man is imitating a moose call with an old-style birch-bark device to amplify the sound.

Cree men were considered superb hunters. They targeted caribou, elk, moose, and beaver. This man is imitating a moose call with an old-style birch-bark device to amplify the sound.

Winter gear included beaver and caribou robes, socks, mittens, and hats as well as woven hare-skin coats and blankets and caribou coats. Women generally tattooed the corners of their mouths and men their entire bodies. Eastern men and women plucked facial hair. Hair was often braided. Cree men, especially, paid close attention to their various hairstyles. Ornaments were worn in pierced ears.

War and Weapons Allies included the Assiniboine (Stoney), the Blackfeet Confederacy before about 1800, and the Ojibwa. Enemies included the Blackfeet Confederacy after about 1800, the Gros Ventres, Iroquois, Dakota, and Inuit as well as western Athapaskan tribes.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Contemporary Swampy Cree bands include Albany, Attawapiskat, Churchill, Fort Severn, Fox Lake, Moose Factory, New Post, Shamattawa, Weenusk, and York Factory.

There were more than 60 official Western Woods Cree bands in 1980 with a total population of over 35,000. However, this information excludes Metis, and there are many "unofficial" bands or groups as well.

There are Cree reserves in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, Canada. Plains Crees live on the Rocky Boy Chippewa-Cree Reservation, Chouteau and Hill Counties, Montana.

The following are Attikamek reserves in Quebec: Manawan (771.36 hectares; 1,600 people in 1994, of whom 1,378 lived within the territory), Obedjiwan (926.76 hectares; 1,719 people in 1994, of whom 1,536 lived within the territory), and Weymontachie/ Coucoucache (2,982.8 hectares; 1,056 people in 1994, of whom 866 lived within the territory). These communities are governed by band councils.

The following Cree communities fall under the aegis of the Grand Council of the Crees (established in 1974), the political voice of the James Bay Crees: Mistissini (1,380.43 square kilometers; 2,445 people in 1994, of whom 2,295 lived within the territory), Waswanipi (598.5 square kilometers; 1,249 people in 1994, of whom 864 lived within the territory), Eastmain (489.53 square kilometers; 483 people in 1994, of whom 432 lived within the territory), Wemindji (512.82 square kilometers; 1,048 people in 1994, of whom 925 lived within the territory), Waskaganish (784.76 square kilometers; 1,832 people in 1994, of whom 1,364 lived within the territory), Chisasibi (1,309.56 square kilometers; 2,715 people in 1994, of whom 2,634 lived within the territory), Nemaska (152.8 square kilometers; 306 people in 1994, of whom 292 lived within the territory), Whapmagootsui (316.2 square kilometers; 581 people in 1994, of whom 563 lived within the territory), and Ouje-Bougoumou (area still to be determined; 559 people in 1994, of whom 390 lived within the territory).

Economy Hunting and fishing are still important. A few people raise horses. Important industries include mining, transportation, logging, and commercial fishing. There is some employment with the James Bay Project. Craftwork, particularly bark baskets made by women, provides some income. People also work in administrative services and programs and receive government subsidies. Unemployment and underemployment are quite high throughout the region.

Daily Life In recent years, Crees have attained greater control over local services and resources and the ability to maintain legal pressure on non-native governments. The Cree school system in Quebec is under native control. Perhaps half of all Crees speak their native language. Yet the people face several crises, including the destruction of natural resources, the need for appropriate economic development, and the need to forge a viable relationship with provincial and national governments. Crees still face severe morale problems stemming from over a century of chronic disease, ill treatment at the hands of non-natives, and a diminished capability to pursue their traditional way of life. Clear- and overcutting of forests have also negatively affected Cree hunting and trapping lands.

The Lubicon Band of Treaty Eight area never received the reserve promised them in 1939. The region around Lubicon Lake, in northern Alberta, is rich in oil. In the 1970s, the band unsuccessfully fought to prevent road construction into the drilling site. By the early 1980s there were hundreds of oil wells in and near the community, creating dangerous levels of pollution.

The band is pressing for compensation for "irreparable damage to their way of life." Once a self-sustaining hunting community, its people now depend on welfare in order to survive. However, two subgroups have settled with the government. The newly created Woodland Cree Band (unrecognized by treaty chiefs) received a reserve of 142 square kilometers and a financial settlement of almost $50 million. The Loon Lake people are negotiating for a $30 million settlement.

The James Bay hydroelectric project was allowed to proceed in 1972 over the objections of the Grand Council of the Crees. A 1975 agreement called for an Indian cession of over 640,000 square kilometers of land. In exchange, the people were promised a cash settlement of over $230 million and special concessions, including land ownership of over 3,300 square kilometers, subsistence rights on over 20,000 square miles more, and a veto over mineral exploitation.

However, not all of the money was allocated, an epidemic of childhood diarrhea was caused by the pollution of vital water supplies, and Indians are often excluded from many of the better jobs. The final project—the completion of which the Cree still oppose—is expected to affect a land area of over 360,000 square kilometers.

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