Cree (kree). Cree groups in different regions refer to themselves by various names, and only use the term “Cree” when speaking or writing in English. The French called the people Kristineaux, most likely the French pronunciation for the tribe’s name for themselves, Kenistenoag. The name became shortened to “Kri,” spelled “Cree” in English.
Canada’s Cree live in areas spanning the nation’s provinces from Quebec in the east to Alberta in the west. The group called Plains Cree live in the parklands and plains of Alberta and Saskatchewan, and the Woodland Cree live in the forests of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The Swampy Cree live in Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. American Cree are scattered throughout many states; some share the Rocky Boy’s Reservation in Montana with the Ojibway.
In the 1600s there were an estimated thirty thousand Cree. In Canada, in 1995 there were at least seventy-six thousand Cree. In the United States, in 1990, 8,467 people identified themselves as Cree. A count of the population done by the U.S. Bureau of the Census in 2000 showed 2,445 Cree and 8,837 people who had some Cree heritage. Canadian Cree numbered 72,680 in 2001.
Origins and group affiliations
For more than six thousand years the ancestors of the Cree lived near the Arctic Circle. Some Plains Cree intermarried with the French, creating the unique Métis culture (see next entry) of the Red River Valley. At various times enemies of the Cree were the Blackfoot, the Nakota, the Ojibway, and the Athabaskans. The Assiniboin (uh-SIN-uh-boin) were their major ally.
The early Cree lived among the lakes, rivers, and spruce forests of eastern Canada, where the winters were long, the summers were short, and their lives were regulated by the seasons. They respected the animals and land that supplied their needs, and many of their customs ensured the success of tribal hunters. Their gradual movement over an immense area made the Cree perhaps the most widespread of the Native American peoples.
The Cree, who occupied lands in eastern Canada for thousands of years, have a complicated history. Before they had contact with Europeans, the Cree lived south and southwest of the Hudson Bay in northern Quebec, where they made all the tools, weapons, and warm clothing they needed to survive from materials found nearby. They used parts of trees and animals for tents, spears, bows and arrows, cooking equipment, boats, sleds, and snowshoes.
When British explorer Henry Hudson (1654–1611) arrived in 1611, trade began between the Cree people and whites. During the mid- to late 1600s the Cree carried on a thriving trade in animal pelts, primarily beaver. They had an advantage in the new trade because they had experience in hunting and gathering over vast areas, and they were feared and respected by other Native Americans.
1668–88: The Cree become middlemen in the fur trade and the chief consumers of European trade goods.
1885: Along with the Métis, the Cree in the Saskatchewan River area fight Canadian forces in the Northwest Rebellion.
1905: Treaty No. 9 is signed at Hudson’s Bay Company’s Moose Factory. For $8 upon signing and $4 a year thereafter, each Cree gives up all rights to his or her land.
1971: Quebec government unveils plans for the James Bay I hydroelectric project. Cree and Inuit protest the action in Quebec courts.
1994: James Bay II project is cancelled, largely due to the Quebec Cree’s successful legal efforts.
2002: The Cree sign an agreement with Quebec ceding (signing over) property for a $3.5 billion settlement and a say in the management of their land.
2004: The tribe signs an agreement allowing two new electical plants to built.
Middlemen in the fur trade
Between 1668 and 1688 Hudson’s Bay Company, the powerful British trading company, set up posts at the mouths of rivers in Cree territory. Soon the Cree became middlemen in the fur trade, bringing European goods to more remote inland tribes and returning with furs for European traders. The Cree were well adapted to the demands of a trapper’s life. They used canoes, which allowed them to take advantage of the waterways, and they quickly became familiar with white ways. They used guns to hunt, to control access to the trading posts, and to ward off enemies and rivals.
Over time the Cree gave up traditional tools for those of the whites, and replaced their clothing of fur and animal skins for wool and cloth garments. They swapped furs for knives, axes, metal scrapers for preparing animal skins, fishhooks, brass kettles, rifles, blankets, and steel animal traps.
The Cree traded at British posts to the north and French posts to the south. For a while their part in the fur trade made them the wealthiest and most powerful tribe in the region, but they soon paid a terrible price. They were exposed to white diseases, to which they had no immunity, and to liquor. About two-thirds of the Cree were wiped out by disease. But unlike other Native groups, the tribe’s population increased, perhaps because they moved out of the disease-infested areas when necessary.
By the 1730s many Woodland Cree had relocated to the Great Plains of western Canada to escape epidemics and explore new fur-hunting areas. Some settled as far west as the Canadian Rocky Mountains. This made them less dependent on trading posts and allowed them to live in larger tribal groups. When the beaver were depleted from over-hunting, the Cree substituted buffalo hides. They made most of the items they needed to survive from various parts of the buffalo.
Alliance with Blackfoot
For a time the Woodland Cree used the resources of both the woodlands and Canada’s Great Plains farther west. They formed an alliance with the Blackfoot (see entry) in what would soon become the United States. The Cree visited the Blackfoot in spring and obtained furs from them, trapped their own, then returned east to trade them. Afterwards they hunted in the province of Saskatchewan before visiting the Blackfoot again. The Cree also supplied the Blackfoot with weapons to drive back their enemies.
Between 1790 and 1810 the Cree-Blackfoot alliance fell apart, and the trading system disappeared. By then the Cree were using horses, which had been introduced to North America by the Spanish. Horses became so important to Cree society that they measured a person’s status by the type and number of horses he owned.
Life on the Great Plains
By the mid-1800s the Plains Cree were battling for control of land and resources. They often trailed the buffalo onto the territory of their enemies, which included their former partners the Blackfoot, as well as the Nakota, the Crow, the Cheyenne, the Nez Perce (see entries), and the Flathead tribes.
In 1870 buffalo were plentiful on the Great Plains. But within ten years, after widespread slaughter by whites, only a small number remained. With the buffalo gone, the tribe faced constant starvation. Epidemics weakened or killed many, and most Cree people believed that their god, the Great Manito, had delivered them over to the Evil Spirit for their wickedness.
Attempts at farming
In the 1870s, while negotiating treaties with the Canadian government, the Plains Cree sought help to change to a farming-based economy. The government promised them tools and livestock, but was slow to provide them. They gave the Cree poor quality grain, plows and wagons barely fit for use, and wild cattle that could not be hitched to the plow. The wheat the Cree received was useless, as there were no facilities for grinding the grain near their reserve (the Canadian term for reservation). In spite of this the Cree made a success of farming, and soon area whites argued that government assistance gave the Native Americans an unfair advantage.
The Métis rebellions
In 1885 the Plains Cree joined their relatives the Métis (see entry) in the Second Riel Rebellion to protect their land from the whites. The Riel Rebellions were among the few wars that took place between First Nations (Canadian Natives) and the Canadian government. The Cree chiefs Poundmaker (1842–1886) and Big Bear (1825–1888) led warriors against the Northwest Mounted Police (“Mounties”), who patrolled Canada’s western wilderness, and an army was sent from Eastern Canada to put down the uprising. After two major battles the Métis gave up the fight; Cree leaders eventually turned themselves in and served prison terms.
Following the conflict a group of Cree left Canada and settled in the United States in northern Montana. They later joined a group of landless Ojibway (see entry), and in 1915 the homeless Native Americans were granted the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, 50 miles (80kilometers) south of the Canadian border. Cree people still live on this reservation in the early twenty-first century.
Loss of livelihood
In 1889 the Commission of Indian Affairs in Saskatchewan began a new farming system. It reduced each Native American’s area of cultivation to one acre of wheat and a garden of roots and vegetables. They also insisted the people use only simple tools and manufacture their own farm tools, such as hay forks or carts.
In part because of these new restrictions, many Plains Cree gave up farming. They soon fell behind in technology and struggled to catch up. Many ended up on Indian reserves, scratching out a meager living through farming, ranching, and manual labor.
In 1905, faced with increasing numbers of white settlements and mining activities and railway construction that threatened their way of life, the Woodland Cree signed Treaty No. 9 at Hudson’s Bay Company’s Moose Factory. Those who did so received $8 upon signing and a payment every year after of $4 in “treaty money.” In return they gave up all rights to their land. It remains unclear whether the Native Americans understood the treaty, which many of them signed by using Native picture symbols.
Between 1920 and 1940 hundreds of Cree in Ontario died from tuberculosis, flu, measles, whooping cough, and bronchitis that they caught from whites. Starvation was widespread due to a dramatic decline in the beaver and caribou they hunted for food. In addition, the provincial government strictly enforced its wild game laws, limiting when people could hunt and how much game they could take.
During the 1940s immunization and medicines were made available to the Ontario Cree. Still, their health care and educational services remained poor.
In 1971 the Cree in the Province of Quebec were faced with a new threat. The Canadian government planned to dam the La Grande River and build electrical plants along the rapids. Electricity would be transmitted south to Montreal and to cities in the United States. At that time fifty Cree and Inuit (see entry) hunters protested this James Bay Project in Quebec courts, arguing that it would threaten their way of life. They won their case, but the decision was overturned (see “Current tribal issues”).
In 1975 the Cree signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. This document recognized that the Cree had the same rights to health care and education as other Canadians, and that the Cree should decide how their lands will be managed.
Life for the Cree on most reserves remained difficult into the 1990s, and many residents lived on government welfare payments. They sent their children to schools on the reserve, and received health care from a government nursing station. This way of living can result in what has been called a “forced and numbing idleness,” in the words of Rupert Ross in Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Indian Reality. On top of a harsh economic situation, the Cree also face racial discrimination from many of their neighbors.
After receiving a large monetary settlement for the loss of their lands (see “Current tribal issues”), the Quebec Cree now have capital to invest in economic growth. The guaranteed income for fifty years gives the tribe the opportunity for a brighter future.
For the Cree, the life force, similar to the Christian idea of the soul, resided in all living beings. They also believed in spirits, ghosts, and demons, which sometimes revealed themselves in dreams.
The Plains Cree honored one powerful creator—the Great Manito, who controlled all things in the universe. Manito was too powerful to be approached directly for blessings. Instead he was approached by go-betweens, spirit powers called atayohkanak. All unpleasantness, disease, and wickedness in life came from the Evil Manito.
The Cree repeated long prayers asking for help from the kind and caring gods. They used objects such as eagle feathers and eagle wings during these rituals, and many wore amulets (small objects encased in a beaded envelope) to keep evil away.
During times of near starvation the Cree occasionally were forced to resort to cannibalism (eating the bodies of other humans). They viewed cannibalism with horror, however, and greatly feared the windigos, human beings who had eaten human flesh and been transformed into supernatural, man-eating giants.
In the late 1880s missionaries converted a number of Cree to Christian religions. The missionaries burned the drums of Cree people, hoping to end traditional Cree beliefs and practices. But many people retained their traditional beliefs.
In the mid-1800s Abishabis (“Small Eyes;” died 1843) called himself “Jesus” and, with a friend, Wasiteck (“Light”), claimed to draw “The Track to Heaven” on paper or wood. These prophets began a religious movement that spread from Manitoba to Ontario. Their followers sang psalms and painted books. An elder priestess helped spread the movement. They combined Christian teachings with Cree beliefs. People supported them with gifts of clothing and food, but later turned against Abishabis when he wanted more goods for his followers. Some suspected him of robbing and murdering a family, so they seized and killed him. Many Cree believed he had become a windigo (see “Traditional beliefs”).
Cree is an Algonquian language spoken by more than forty-five thousand people. The five dialects are Western/Plains Cree, Northern/Woodlands Cree, Central/Swampy Cree, Moose Cree, and Eastern Cree. Most speakers, especially those who live near each other, can understand each other.
The Cree language is written using a series of symbols called syllabics. These symbols are unique because the Cree use shapes for consonants and rotate them in the Four Directions to represent vowels. In the mid-2000s children on most Cree reserves speak their native language for the first years of elementary school, adding English a few years later.
The Cree government was based on a system in which chiefs, councils, leaders, elders, women, and youth all participated in group decision-making, and all voices were heard.
In the early twenty-first century Canadian Cree villages are still headed by chiefs, and a grand chief presides over the Grand Council of the Cree, founded in 1974. The Cree hold a general assembly in a different community each year. Leaders report on events of the past year, and all the people discuss the course of Cree affairs for the year ahead.
The Chippewa-Cree on Rocky Boy’s Reservation adopted a constitution in 1935, which they later amended in 1973. As of 2007 they are governed by a nine-member business committee elected by the people from the reservation-s five districts.
The Woodland Cree were hunters and fishermen who trapped in winter, hunted goose in spring, and fished in summer. They used bows and arrows, clubs, spears, and snares to capture large and small game. They later served as middlemen in the prosperous fur trade, trading first with the French, then the British.
The buffalo supplied more than just food for the Cree. Bones were carved into arrowheads; the skull served as a lamp in wet weather. The tail worked as a fly swatter. They twisted the hair into ropes and used tendons for bowstrings and sewing thread. Boiled bones made glue, while teeth were fashioned into ornaments and necklaces. They turned buffalo hooves into ladles and spoons. They also burned the waste material, dried dung, for fuel.
The Seasons of a Cree Trapper’s Life
Some Cree still rely on hunting, trapping, and fishing to survive, and their lives are regulated by the seasons. While many Cree live in villages in the winter, they go into the woods to bring back game to share with their people.
The trapping season runs from September through March, when the men snare beaver, lynx, otter, muskrat, mink, weasel, marten, red fox, arctic fox, wolf, and red squirrel. April through March is hunting season, when they pursue birds such as geese, ducks, and loons. Men who live near the coast hunt beluga whales in June and July and seals in October. Fall is the time for hunting large game, such as bear and caribou. In winter and spring their prey is porcupine, rabbit, and grouse. Fishing takes place throughout the year, and in summer whole families use nets to catch whitefish, trout, arctic char, pike, sturgeon, and longnose sucker.
The Woodland Cree shared the work, and both sexes knew how to perform the duties of the other. Men usually hunted, conducted raids and warfare, and protected their families. Women prepared meat, tanned, netted fish, killed beaver, watched over children, and tended the fire.
Woodland Cree lived in both cone-shaped and dome-shaped wigwams covered with birch bark, pine bark, or caribou skins. For the Plains Cree, a large hide-covered tepee that held between ten and twelve people was the main dwelling. It had a three-pole foundation, a covering of twelve to twenty buffalo hides, and a central fireplace with a smoke hole.
Women made the tepees, assembled them, and owned them. Inside each tepee were beds made of bundles of dried grass or rushes, with buffalo robes placed over them for warmth. Pillows consisted of rawhide sacks filled with duck feathers.
Most Cree now live in homes with modern conveniences. But at winter camps, hunters live in muhtukan, rectangular-shaped houses made of logs and sod. They also build tepee-shaped structures called michwaup, which are made of logs and spruce boughs.
Until about the age of five, most children wore little or no clothing. Babies were carried in sacks lined with soft moss that cushioned them and served as a diaper material.
During summer men wore leather breechcloths (flaps that hung from the waist and covered the front and back). In winter they wore leggings decorated with quill and beadwork. Except when the men wore buffalo robes, they usually left their upper bodies uncovered. They wore a poncho, often heavily quilled or beaded, but only for ceremonial occasions such as dances.
Women wore buffalo robes in all seasons. They also wore dresses made of two oblong pieces of cloth or hide, placed one on top of the other, sewed or laced together lengthwise, and worn with a fancy belt. They decorated the dresses with elk tusks and bear claws, as well as much quillwork, beadwork, and painting. The Plains Cree made use of beadwork with elaborate floral designs. Painting on garments usually appeared in geometric designs of red and blue.
Cree made summer moccasins of one piece of hide sewn around the outside. They made winter moccasins of buffalo skin with hair turned to the inside for warmth, and often stuffed them with dried grass for more insulation. The Plains Cree wore snowshoes to gain an advantage over other tribes during winter warfare.
Adornments, hairstyles, and body painting
Cree headgear included a ring of buffalo hide with the hair on the outside, rectangular summer visors made of hide, and ceremonial headdresses such as eagle feather bonnets and buffalo horn caps. Sometimes people made ceremonial head coverings from entire skins of birds, especially the raven.
Popular jewelry included disc earrings made of mussel shells that hung from the ears by short thongs; necklaces made of buffalo teeth, elk tusks, or bear claws hung on tendons; and mussel shell necklaces fastened about the throat by a leather thong. Over time, beads and spangles purchased through the Hudson’s Bay Company replaced these items.
Men plucked their facial hair. Both men and women parted their hair in the center, and formed two braids. Women tied the two plaits together in back, while men tied them together in front. Some people lengthened their hair by weaving in additional horsehair. Warriors cut bangs into the front of their hair, stiffened them with grease, and combed them up into an erect wave. They brushed their hair with the rough side of a buffalo tongue, and smeared red paint along the middle part.
Both genders created tattoos by working charcoal paste into punctures in the skin made by needles. While men painted their arms and chests, women generally painted only their chins, cheeks, and foreheads. Face painting was accomplished by first greasing the face, then applying pigment. To make the paint, they colored clays, mixed them with water, and baked them into small cakes. They scraped the pigment off the cake and combined it with hot grease. Before entering battle, warriors often covered themselves with white clay over which they laid wet charcoal. When they returned from war, they blackened their faces.
The Plains Cree regarded fishing as undignified for a hunter and only ate fish when hunting was poor. Buffalo was their main staple, but they also hunted moose, caribou, musk ox, elk, deer, and other game.
Their most important root food was turnips, which they ate raw, roasted, boiled, or dried into a powder for soup. They also added berries to dried meat, especially in August when buffalo meat had a poor taste. They ate the first berries of the season only after each family held its own ritual feast. Women cooked the berries, and an elderly man blessed them. In spring the people collected sap to make maple sugar and built fish traps.
When food was in short supply, the people gathered algae, fungus, and caribou dung, which they boiled and ate. Although the Woodland Indians ate dog meat, the practice was less common among the Plains tribes.
Cree children were allowed a great deal of freedom. They were never punished physically and rarely scolded. They usually spent more time with their grandparents than they did with their parents, so grandparent-grandchild ties were very close. Elders helped them learn to make important decisions regarding personal, family, community, and tribal matters.
During the early twentieth century the Anglican Church in Canada ran elementary schools (supported by the federal government) at various Cree communities. At Canadian boarding schools they were expected to adopt white ways and never speak their native language.
The Cree School Board was created in the late 1970s to help reclaim an education based on Cree values and needs. As of the mid-2000s each Cree community in Quebec runs its own school under the management of the Cree School Board, working along with the Quebec provincial department of education. Many children study the Cree language at school.
Healers called shamans (pronounced SHAH-munz or SHAY-munz) had much authority within the tribe. People considered shamans links between the human and animal worlds, who could cure illnesses and perform magic. Shamans cured by singing, blowing on the patient, and sucking out the disease. They made use of tobacco and small charms for healing.
Often a tribe had several shamans. Some Woodland Cree shaman practiced sorcery, but the Plains Cree rarely did. Shaman used dreams and rituals to make contact with the spirit world. The Cree believed that evil shaman could bring disease or misfortune upon victims if they chose.
The Cree practiced bloodletting (opening a vein to drain blood) to cure the sick and could set broken bones. Knowledge of medicinal plants was passed down through families or purchased from other informed Native Americans. Entire plants, or just the root, stem, or bark, were used to cure ailments ranging from headaches to sexually transmitted diseases. Raw buffalo liver treated tuberculosis, and various teas relieved coughs or cleaned out the system. Cree treated frostbitten hands or feet by pricking them with a sharp bone and rubbing salt or snow around or into the frozen part.
The Cree god of campfire tales was called Wisagatcak, the Trickster. The people told a favorite story about a great flood that had taken place in the past. When the flood came, the Trickster constructed a raft to save the animals. He then used his magic to call upon the wolf to run about the raft with a ball of moss in his mouth, forming a new world where the Cree could once again hunt in peace.
The High Cranberry Bush
The Cree tell of the Man-Who-Wanders, a magician who is sometimes wise and sometimes foolish. In this tale he saw cranberries floating on the water. He dove in after them, but came up with nothing, so he dove deeper, but found none. Then he realized it was only a reflection and the real cranberries hung overhead.
Finally the thought of his stupidity began to annoy him, so he stood up and threw a few big stones into the water where the reflection of the berries seemed to mock him.
“So!” he cried. “That will teach you to trick me.”
The river chuckled on its way as each splash the stones made leapt up into the face of the Man-Who-Wanders and made him splutter again.
As the old man was throwing the stones into the river, the cranberry bush decided to play a trick on him. The bush remembered how many tricks the magician had played on the birds, beasts, trees, and plants. Now, thought the bush, is my chance to get even.
“Well,” he told himself, “I will forget my troubles after I have eaten some of this good fruit.” He reached up above his head to gather a handful of the tempting berries, then gasped. When his fingers almost touched the cranberries, the branches seemed to rise a little, just enough to keep the fruit beyond his reach.
“You must not try to match your magic against mine,” he shouted in anger at the bush.
Once more he tried to pick some of the berries, but they were always just beyond the tips of his eager fingers. Now he became really angry and jumped up and down under the bush, shouting and clutching at the lowest branches. They still avoided his grasp, so he became angrier and angrier. He threw some big stones as hard as he could at the elusive berries. He managed to knock down only a few, but they were so squashed and juiceless that they were not fit to eat. As he scowled up at the brilliant berries he did get some juice—in his eye.
“Hear me!” he shouted. “From now on you will remain tall. I will not eat your berries and nobody else will ever like their taste. You will always be scraggy. You will be known from now on as high-bush cranberry, so that you will never be mistaken for your sweet little sister. Sour berries, I have spoken!”
Macfarlan, Allan. Fireside Book of North American Indian Folktales. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1974.
Birth and Naming
Because they were often traveling, the Cree had no ceremonies connected with the birth of a child. Two or three older women attended the birth as midwives. Babies were strapped into a cradleboard and kept clean and dry with moss. If a woman had twins, one was killed because mothers could not nurse and care for two children in the harsh climate. If the twins were a boy and a girl, the boy was kept.
Children were named at around age one by a shaman, who chose a name based on an incident or a character in one of his visions. During the child-naming ceremony, the baby was passed around the tepee from person to person; each one addressed the child by its new name and wished it future happiness. Children often received nicknames for special incidents in their lives. For example, a mother once left her baby girl unattended for a few minutes and returned to find the cradle surrounded by dozens of birds. From that point onward, she called her baby “Many-birds.”
During puberty a Cree boy took part in the most important rite of initiation into the tribe, the vision quest. This rite put him in touch with the spirit who would guide him through life, and during the ritual he was taught a special song. The boy traveled with his father to a secluded spot—a bear’s den, or out on a raft in water, or on an unsaddled horse—for the duration of the quest. Wearing nothing but his breechcloth, the boy covered himself with white clay and built a brush shelter with his father. Then the father made a pipe offering to the spirits and left the boy alone to pray and fast. The boy often undertook various feats of endurance in hopes of encouraging a vision. Sometime after returning to camp, he described his vision to others.
Female coming of age ceremony
At the time of a Cree girl’s first menstruation she was secluded for four nights in a small tepee at a distance from the village. An old woman stayed with her, telling her stories and teaching her the duties of an adult woman. During this time the girl chopped wood, sewed, and prepared hides. It was then that a girl was most likely to receive a vision from a spirit. After the fourth and final night in seclusion, a feast was held in her honor in her father’s tepee.
The Sun Dance
The most important Plains Indian ceremony, the Sun Dance, was called the All-Night-Thirst Dance by the Plains Cree. During the entire four-day ceremony participants drank nothing. They tied cloth to poles as offerings to the gods.
Long ago Sun Dancers engaged in a bloody rite in which they pierced their skin with a sharp buffalo horn threaded with a leather thong. They tied the thong to a pole or the rafters of a building. As they danced, they tore themselves free from the poles, and offered pieces of their flesh to the god Manito. They hoped to be blessed with a vision, to gain the gods’ acceptance, or to give thanks for help they received in battle or in sickness.
Some groups did not practice the self-torture ritual, but danced without food or water for four days, gazing at the Sun, and swaying back and forth until they fainted from exhaustion. In a modern form of the ritual dancers stand behind green foliage and bend their knees while blowing on a whistle. As the Sun’s rays beat down on them, they fasten their gaze on one spot on the center pole, and refrain from eating or drinking.
Shaking Tent Ceremony
Another important ceremony was the Shaking Tent Ceremony (also called the Divining Booth), in which a shaman summoned spirits to a tent. After praying, fasting, and purifying himself in a sweat lodge, the shaman stripped to his breechcloth, was bound with leather thongs, and was suspended inside the tent (the spirits were supposed to free him). Outside were onlookers and drummers.
When the spirits arrived, the tent began to shake. Voices and animal sounds could be heard coming from inside. Listeners could hear a conversation between the spirits and the shaman, with the shaman asking questions. Then the leather thongs binding the shaman would shoot out of the top of the tent. The last Shaking Tent Ceremony took place in 1962.
Walking Out Ceremony
Young Cree children were not allowed to cross the threshold of their home by themselves until they had taken part in a Walking Out ceremony. At dawn on the day of the ritual, family and friends gathered with the village toddlers in a large tent, forming a circle around the children. Then, each child crossed the threshold with its parents or grandparents, went outside, and followed a path littered with fir branches to a tree about twenty feet away that symbolized nature. The child made a circle around the tree and returned to the tent to be congratulated by the village elders on becoming an official member of the tribe. A feast followed. This ceremony is still practiced.
The Grass Dance
The most common ceremonial activity on the Cree reservations in modern times is the Grass Dance, also called the Warriors Dance. Bundles of braided grass are tied to the dancers’ belts; the bundles symbolize scalps. In the 1940s, when many Cree men were away fighting in World War II (1939–45;; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), women kept the dance alive. After the war the women continued to participate by dancing with the men who had returned home from battle.
Sweat baths and passing pipes
Baths in a sweat lodge were used for ceremonial cleansing and for pleasure. Inside the lodge, men burned sweetgrass, shared a pipe, and poured water on hot stones to produce a refreshing steam.
All Cree rituals and social occasions began by sharing a pipe. Men passed the pipe in a clockwise direction. They believed the gods smoked along with them and listened to any requests they made during the ceremony. They braided grasses together in long strands and during the ritual, broke pieces off the strands and threw them onto live coals. The fragrant smoke that resulted was considered a purifying agent.
For the Cree, the hunt was not simply a source of food, but a great mystery. In their view, the gods had given them animals, and each animal had its own way of thinking and living. Animals made their own decisions to participate in the hunt, and in return, hunters made sure animals could grow and survive on the Earth.
Buffalo were hunted by driving them into places where they would stumble—snowdrifts in winter, marshes in summer. Then hunters made the herd stampede into a corral-type structure called a pound, where they shot them with arrows. Before the animals were butchered shamans climbed the wall of the pound and sang power songs. During the butchering young boys undressed, climbed inside the pound, then threw buffalo intestines over the branches of a tree.
War rituals and raids
A Cree man gained respect in one of three ways: through warfare and raiding, by accumulating wealth, or by being generous. There was much social pressure on young men to participate in warfare, and those who did not were publicly shamed. When he took to the warpath, a man gave up his rights to material possessions. He took with him a sacred bundle containing a single article of war equipment; the bundles were believed to have magical properties. Often a warrior was stripped of his belongings when he returned to the village; even the horses he took in raids were given to relatives and friends.
For the Plains Cree, war was a tournament. The objective was not to kill or to conquer other tribes, but to gain honors by “counting coup” (pronounced COO). Counting coup involved riding up to a live, armed enemy, and touching him with a lance or coup stick. Four coups were enough to make someone a chief.
Raiding another tribe for their horses was a warlike undertaking. The object of the raids was to steal as many horses as possible. Raiders did not wish to engage the enemy in battle. But if battles took place, a warrior rose in the ranks depending on the degree of danger involved. For example, a man who shot an enemy while he himself was under fire outranked one who killed an enemy during an ambush.
The more danger the warrior exposed himself to, the higher his merit. If a Cree male performed an act of bravery during his first raid, he was named a “Worthy Young Man.” His next step was to join a warrior society, and from there he might be made a chief. The position of chief was often hereditary (passed down from father to son), but if the chief’s son was deemed incompetent, another man could be given the position of chief. Ranking among chiefs depended upon their war exploits.
Courtship and marriage
The Cree did not place a high value on virginity, and it was common for unmarried couples to have sexual relations. Women usually married three or four years after their first menstruation. Men married around age twenty-five. High-ranking men often had two or more wives, and wives often had sexual relations with men other than their husbands.
Parents usually selected their children’s mates. The father of a marriageable daughter would present a gift to the young man he considered a good match. If the young man’s parents approved, they set up a new tepee for the couple. The bride sat inside, and then the groom entered the tent and sat down beside her. The bride offered him a new pair of moccasins, and if he accepted them, the marriage was sealed.
Among the Cree, mourning was very dramatic. Close relatives dressed only in robes, left their hair loose, and cut gashes in their forearms and legs as a sign of their grief. They gave away the property of the deceased, but usually not to family members. The Cree believed that giving possessions to relatives would only lengthen the mourning period. They usually placed their dead in a grave dug about five feet deep and lined with a robe. Tepee poles were fitted over the body, a robe was placed over the poles, and a partially tanned cattle hide was fastened down over the area that had been dug; then earth was placed over the rawhide to keep animals from disturbing the body.
Current tribal issues
Modern Cree face many problems. They have adopted many white ways and have lost many of their traditional beliefs and customs. The incidence of alcoholism, suicide, vandalism, and family violence has increased.
For many years the Cree fought Quebec’s plan for a $6 million hydroelectric project (a plant that generates electricity from water power). Though they received $300 million and hunting and fishing rights on 29,000 square miles (75,110 square kilometers) of land, the first phase of the construction flooded one-third of their lands. The Cree managed to stop the project for eight years, but in 2002 they signed an agreement with Quebec. It gave them $3.5 billion, payable over a fifty-year period, as well as part of the revenue and shared management of mining, forestry, and hydroelectric resources on traditional Cree lands. Many Cree saw this agreement as proof that the government recognized the tribe as a sovereign, or self-governing, nation, something they have been trying to accomplish for decades.
Buffy Sainte-Marie (c. 1942–) is a folk singer and Academy Award-winning songwriter as well as an advocate for Native American rights. She has written about North American Indian music and Indian affairs and is the author of Nokosis and the Magic Hat (1986), a children’s adventure book set on a Native American reservation.
Chief Poundmaker (c. 1842–1886) was adopted as a boy by Blackfoot Chief Crowfoot (1930–1890) and named Makoyi-koh-kin (Wolf Thin Legs). In 1876 he sought better conditions for his people in treaty talks with the Canadian government. With his followers, he participated in the Métis rebellion against the Canadian government in 1885. As a result he was convicted of treason, imprisoned, and died shortly after his release.
Other notable Cree include: head chief and resistance leader Big Bear (c. 1825–1888); Payepot, nineteenth-century leader of the Western Canadian Plains Cree; painter and illustrator Jackson Beardy (1944–1984); tribal leader Harold Cardinal (1945–); Jean Cutland Goodwill, editor of Tawow, the first Canadian Indian cultural magazine; playwright, director, and producer Thomson Highway (1951–); Plains Cree artist George Littlechild; recording artist Morley Loon; and twentieth-century teacher and missionary Ahab Spence.
Bial, Raymond. The Cree. New York: Benchmark Books, 2006.
Erdoes, Richard. The Sun Dance People: The Plains Indians, Their Past and Present. New York: Random House, 1972.
Flannery, Regina. Ellen Smallboy: Glimpses of a Cree Woman’s Life. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995.
Loyie, Larry. As Long as the Rivers Flow. New York: Groundwood Books, 2003.
Ryan, Marla Felkins, and Linda Schmittroth. Cree. San Diego: Blackbirch Press, 2003.
“First Nations History.” ManitobaChiefs.com. (accessed on July 29, 2007).
“Four Directions Teachings: Cree.” FourDirectionsTeachings.com. (accessed on July 13, 2007).
“Native Languages of the Americas: Cree.” Native Languages of the Americas: Preserving and Promoting Indigenous American Indian Languages. (accessed on July 29, 2007).
“Our Languages: Dene History & Background.” Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre. (accessed on July 29, 2007).
Swampy Cree Tribal Council. (accessed on July 29, 2007).
“Quebec’s Northern Crees.” Arctic Circle. (accessed July 29, 2007).
Gordon L. Pullar, Director, Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development College of Rural and Community Development, UAF, Anchorage, Alaska
Brian Wescott (Athabaskan/Yup’ik)
CREE. The Crees are a tribe with a long history in the United States and Canada. Their current territory ranges from the eastern shores of James Bay, down through northern Ontario, across the Prairie Provinces of Canada to the Rocky Mountains, north to the Northwest Territories, and south to the states of Montana and the Dakotas.
Traditionally the Crees were adept at selecting from other cultures those things they saw as useful while ignoring the rest. This trait was especially evident during the fur trade, when they were known as middlemen. The Crees' trade practices in Prince Rupert's Land involved holding the prime locations around Hudson Bay Company posts. The trade goods they received were paid for with furs that came from other Crees in the northwest. The Crees near the posts would use the goods for a time and then pass them on to other Crees. Eventually, these used goods, especially firearms, would be traded to other tribes, such as the Blackfeet, for horses. In turn, the Blackfeet would use the guns to protect themselves from other warlike tribes and, in the process, protect the Crees from
these same people. Using trade goods to arm a buffer tribe between themselves and their enemies is a good example of the Crees' astute use of an economic power in the political arena.
In the modern era, the Crees have been major players in the political activities of Aboriginal people in Canada. They successfully negotiated a modern treaty in the James Bay area (1975) and are often found as political leaders in tribal organizations. Despite their history of economic and political astuteness, many Crees are located on isolated reserves and suffer from extreme poverty. Land claims and other claims for past mismanagement and abuse are now seen as the basis for re-creating the Crees' economic system. From their historic leader Big Bear in the 1880s and his dream of a collective of tribes living in western Canada to the Crees' modern political leaders, the object remains the same: the establishment and protection of a self-reliant nation of Crees.
Mandelbaum, David G. The Plains Cree: An Ethnographic, Historical, and Comparative Study. Regina, Saskatchewan: Canadian Plains Research Centre, University of Regina, 1979. Originally published in 1940, it is one of the best sources for Cree cultural practice in the Plains area. Despite its age, there is no other work currently available that describes in such detail the Crees' spiritual, cultural, and social activity, with attention to specific practice and its development in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.
Milloy, John S. The Plains Cree: Trade, Diplomacy, and War, 1790– 1870. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1990. A telling description of the Crees' use of fur trade economics for their political requirements. The descriptions of why and how the Plains Crees used trade as a political tool should be required reading for anyone who assumes that First Nations were unable to manage the fur trade for their own purposes.
Richardson, Boyce. Strangers Devour the Land. Vancouver, British Columbia: Douglas and McIntyre, 1991. One of the better descriptions of a modern treaty-making process and the Crees' determination not to be disadvantaged by hydroelectric development. Combined with the two texts mentioned above, this work should provide the reader with an excellent overview of the reality of the Crees, historically and in the modern era.