Cree, Western Woods

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Cree, Western Woods

ETHNONYMS: Ne-hiyawak, Ne-hiδawak (we speak the same language), Maskegan [from omaske-ko-wak (swamp or muskeg)], Rocky Cree or Asini-ska-wiδiniwak (people of the place where there is an abundance of rock), Bush Cree or Saka-wiyiniwak (bush people)


Identification. The Cree are a Subarctic group whose name is derived from the name of specific bands in the region between Lake Superior and Hudson Bay, known to the French, from Ojibwa, as "Kiristino," later shortened to "Cree." The meaning is unknown. The regional designations are those by which they know themselves.

Location. Aboriginally the Western Woods Cree occupied the subarctic or boreal forest from Hudson and James bays westward to the Peace River in what is now Canada. This is the Precambrian or Canadian Shield, except for westernmost northern Alberta, with a mixed-wood boreal forest. The Subarctic has long cold winters, during which temperatures may fall to 60° F or lower, and short moderately warm summers. "Freeze-up," the period during which the lakes, rivers, and streams freeze over, is a time of limited travel, and "break-up," or spring thaw, is the harbinger of summer. The severity of the subarctic climate makes its mark on the cultures, which are closely tied to the environment. In only a few favored areas is horticulture even marginally possible.

Demography. Reliable population estimates are for recent times only, and these figures include only those having legal status under the provisions of the Indian Act. Cree were Seriously affected by great smallpox epidemics in 1781 and later and other European-introduced diseases to which they had no immunity. After World War I, influenza epidemics struck at various times and places across the subarctic. In 1970, there were approximately forty thousand Western Woods Cree with legal status and an unknown number of people of mixed Cree and European ancestry who were not legally classified as Indian.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Cree language or dialect group is the northern variant of Central Algonkian, extending from the Montagnais-Naskapi of the Labrador Peninsula to the Rocky Mountains. Swampy Cree is the /n/dialect, Rocky Cree the /δ/ dialect, and Bush and Plains Cree speak /y/ dialects. An /r/ dialect was spoken south of Lake Athabasca until the late eighteenth century.

History and Cultural Relations

Historical traditions, linguistic evidence, and a growing amount of archaeological data confirm oral traditions that the Cree occupied the boreal forest from Hudson Bay to approximately the Peace River, with some protohistoric, probably seasonal expansion north of Lake Athabasca to the south shore of Great Slave Lake. In addition, there may have been some expansion into Beaver areas near Peace River. The Cree were bounded on the north by Athapaskan-speaking peoples including the Chipewyan, on the northwest by the Slavey, and on the west by the Beaver. To the south were Algonkian speakers, including Blackfeet, Piegan, Blood, Ojibwa, and Gros Ventre. Later, Siouan-speaking Assiniboin occupied part of the adjacent prairies. Until the early nineteenth Century, relationships with Athapaskan-speaking groups and those Inuit near Hudson Bay were hostile. Warfare on the Plains periphery continued until the late nineteenth century.

Earliest contacts with Europeans were with the French near Lake Superior, beginning after 1640, and with the English at Hudson's Bay Company forts on Hudson and James bays after 1670. French exploration reached the Rocky Mountains by 1751, but ended after the cession of New France to the British in 1763. Thereafter, fur trade competition involved the Scots partnerships that became the Northwest Company out of Montreal. European exploration increased in the western hinterland of Hudson Bay, and trading posts were established by the competing fur companies. The sanguinary contest was resolved in 1821 by the merger of the two companies under the royal charter of the Hudson's Bay Company. The stabilization of the fur trade economy coincided with the end of intertribal warfare and endured until the impact of Canada's national policies in the mid and late twentieth century was felt. The gradual diminishing of the big-game and fur-bearing animal populations in the late eighteenth century led many Cree, Ojibwa, and Iroquois to move west. Intermarriage between fur traders and Cree led to a new population element, and from the Algonkian-French combination emerged the first and culturally distinctive Metis of the Red River.

In 1870 the Hudson's Bay Company ceded Rupert's Land to the new Dominion of Canada and the era of treaty making began. Through treaties, Canada attempted to end aboriginal title to Indian lands in return for reserves and small annuities, but a number of remote and isolated Bush Cree bands were overlooked. They neither entered into treaty relations nor surrendered their lands or sovereignty; the discovery and exploitation of oil on their lands was the source of much tension later (1988). In recent times, many Cree have received varying degrees of education and have taken positions of leadership with their own people and in the larger Canadian society in the economic, political, and artistic arenas.


Cree settlement patterns varied seasonally. As nomadic Hunters, local bands were widely distributed among camps in their small autumn-winter-spring hunting ranges. The camps were located near water, usually on the windward side of a lake where they were protected from the cold winds. In summer they gathered in large regional bands, widely spread out along the leeward side of a favorable lake, where winds blew the voracious flies and mosquitoes into the bush. The basic shelter was a conical lodge, made of moose or caribou hides. It Usually held an extended family, including several hunters. Animal hides were later replaced by canvas coverings, often made into ridge pole tents. About the end of the nineteenth Century log cabin settlements developed, reflecting a higher degree of sedentism. In very recent times, federal and provincial governments have provided relatively modern houses, band offices, schools, and health facilities.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Cree were basically hunters of big game, especially moose. In some areas, moose were supplemented by woodland caribou or barren-ground caribou (reindeer), and in others by white-tailed or Virginia deer. Bear were hunted and were also Ritually important. Waterfowl, geese, and ducks, were seasonally available in favored localities and flyways. Fish were apparently taken by women in the vicinity of the camps, but fishing by men did not become important until the decline of big-game populations, especially among the inhabitants of the Shield. Except for beaver, small fur-bearing animals became valuable only after the beginning of the European fur trade. The early trade introduced an increasing variety of goods. Metal items were of great value and included awls, axes, Kettles, knives, muskets, fishhooks, and other items, such as alcohol, beads, and mirrors. Blankets and cloth were introduced and became common. Cree bands became oriented to specific trading post-mission complexes. Low-cost trade goods had ended with the establishment of the Hudson's Bay Company monopoly, but toward the end of the century independent or "free traders" entered the region. In the mid-twentieth century commercial fishing was added to trapping as a basis of the cash economy.

By the mid-twentieth century, government programs induced subarctic peoples to concentrate in nucleated villages, for "administrative convenience," where the social institutions of Canadian industrial society were located. This increasingly brought an end to or weakened traditional Socioeconomic adjustments and social control mechanisms, as well as many cultural institutions; it also increased unemployment, alcohol abuse, and other social problems, leading to greater dependence upon social welfare programs.

The only aboriginally domesticated animal was the dog, used in hunting or as a pack animal. By the end of the nineteenth century, dog teams were increasingly used for hauling toboggans. In some areas on the southern margins of the Forest, horses came into use as pack animals, saddle horses, and draft animals, until they were replaced by motorized toboggans and pickup trucks.

Industrial Arts. The women were expert in preparing hides and making clothing, storage bags, lodge coverings, and other items. They also made baskets of birchbark and were potters until ceramics were replaced by metal. Men made weapons, showshoes, and birchbark canoes.

Trade. There was probably trade between friendly Algonkian-speaking bands in prehistoric times, although the archaeological record is incomplete. With the establishment of trading centers on the Great Lakes and Hudson and James bays, some Cree were employed seasonally as "home-guard" Indians, hunting, fishing, and carrying messages between forts. Others became middlemen, bringing furs to the traders and trade goods to the Indians of the interior. This phase lasted until the trading companies expanded throughout the forest. Trade was so important that many bands were oriented toward specific posts, and some new bands came into existence around such places.

Division of Labor. Men were responsible for hunting, trapping, fishing with nets, and traveling to the trading posts. Women were responsible for processing the game, preparing food and hides, making clothing and other items such as baskets, and caring for girls and small boys. Shamans were Usually men, and they were concerned with ritual, while female shamans were often skilled in the use of herbal medicine. As a result of concentration in villages and the decline of traditional activities, this division of labor is disappearing and new patterns may be emerging.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Cree were typical subarctic band societies. The basic unit was a small hunting group or local band made up of one or more extended families and numbering about twenty-five persons. Unity was based on father-son relationships, or cooperation among brothers. The life expectancy of such a band was limited, as sons became adults and developed highly valued personal autonomy. The leader was usually the eldest active male hunter. These winter bands dispersed to hunt the widely distributed nomadic game and to trap relatively sedentary fur-bearing animals. They were usually known by the name of the best-known lake. Regional bands were the largest and most permanent groups, named after some feature of the area, usually a lake at which the people assembled during the summer or some common animal. The regional band was a bilateral grouping, made up of individuals, families, and hunting groups related by primary ties of consanguinity and affinity. They probably numbered from one hundred to two hundred or more. Descent was bilateral, with paternal and maternal relatives equally recognized.

Kinship Terminology. The kinship system was bilateral, with bifurcate merging terminology in the first ascending Generation, and Iroquois cousin terminology in one's own Generation. Males and females were both differentiated on the basis of relative age and sex.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages were arranged by parents between opposite-sex cross cousins. Marriage with parallel cousins, first or classificatory, was prohibited, as they were considered siblings. Arranged marriages ensured that the son-in-law would be a good hunter and provider. The levirate and sororate were practiced. Sororal polygyny was permitted and was an indication of the bride's parental approval. Bilateral cross-cousin marriage tended to establish or maintain cooperative relations between hunting groups, and the marriage of sibling pairs (two brothers to two sisters, or a brother and sister to a sister and brother) was considered exceptionally good. Some marriages were arranged with more distant groups, and with the advent of the fur trade, marriage of a daughter to an important fur trader was highly desirable. Following marriage, there was temporary matrilocal residence involving bride-service, until a child was born. The groom hunted for his parents-in-law and performed other services. After the birth of a child, residence was patrilocal. Divorce in the past was highly informal, but marriages are now performed in Roman Catholic or Anglican churches or by civil authorities and are subject to religious restraints and civil law.

Domestic Unit. The typical residential unit was an extended family, adjacent to another related unit.

Inheritance. Property was minimal and on the death of an individual was abandoned. Later, as material goods accumulated, survivors inherited appropriate items, but Canadian law is now applicable in the new village and urban context. Socialization. Children were raised permissively, and Control and discipline were instilled gradually. Mothers trained their daughters, and boys were gradually taught hunting and trapping skills by their fathers. A boy usually killed his first big game at about the age of fourteen, marking him a true hunter. Girls were secluded at first menses and regularly thereafter. These traditional practices are rapidly disappearing. In recent generations, many Cree children were sent to boarding schools, but now elementary and secondary schools are commonly found on the reserves, and some children go on to university or other postsecondary institutions.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditional Cree hunting society was egalitarian, with status distinctions based on relative age or abilities, as in hunting success, and on one's sex. In summer, regional bands were normally the largest social aggregation and gathered at lake shores. At the end of the summer, Regional bands dispersed into constituent hunting groups to exploit the seasonally dispersed game. The pattern was only slightly altered when the Cree began to hunt and trap furbearing animals, although the orientation was to a trading post center which later included a Christian mission. Intermarriage with Whites created no problems until treaties were made, after which the patrilineal provisions of the Indian Act of 1869 separated status Indians from nonstatus or Metis.

Political Organization. Leadership was based on age, with the eldest active male the head of the extended family, and informal councils of elders reaching consensus on behalf of the members of regional bands. During the treaty-making period, chiefs and councilors had to be elected. At first these were respected elders, but with the increase in importance of government authorities, younger and more articulate men skilled in English became the formal chiefs, principally acting as foreign ministers or ambassadors. The elders remained extremely important in decision making, however.

Social Control and Conflict. The socialization of children and informal pressures were usually enough to prevent serious problems. Face-to-face conflict was always avoided, and interpersonal tensions were resolved by families leaving one local band and realigning with another. Belief in conjuring and witchcraft was also important, but there is little information available about specific practices. In the contemporary period, order is maintained by special constables or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Throughout history, Cree have always been reticent about sharing their beliefs with scoffing outsiders. Beliefs in a Great Spirit (misi-manito ) or Evil Spirit (macimanito-w ) may be of postcontact origin. The cannibal giant (wi-htikow ) was greatly feared. The religion was animistic, and all living beings and some inanimate objects had spirits, or manitowak. Humans, through dreams and visions, were able to secure the help of powerful animal spirits in such activities as hunting, warfare, and love. Since all beings, including humans, had spirits, there was no concept of the supernatural.

Religious Practitioners. All individuals had some power, but some men or women had more. There was no priesthood.

Ceremonies. No ceremonies are recorded for the earliest periods, but in recent history tea dances of thanksgiving were held in spring and autumn. Feasts and dancing were held following successful hunts. Christian rituals are now common.

Arts. There was a rich oral tradition that included both sacred and secular tales. Wisakecahk was the hero of the popular trickster or transformer tales. In the past, the face and body were tattooed and painted with elaborate designs. Women worked with quills and, later, beads.

Medicine. Sickness and injury were considered the result of personal malevolent forces, for which treatment by a shaman was necessary. Treatment included herbal medicines and setting broken limbs, but the spiritual help invoked in the ritual of the shaking tent or the sweatbath was equally Important.

Death and Afterlife. Fatal illness was greeted with equanimity, but the dying person required that his survivors avenge his death, for death was believed to be the result of witchcraft. Burial was in a grave or on a scaffold. A gun was fired in the tent to drive away the spirit.


Helm, June, ed. (1981). Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 6, Subarctic. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Isham, James (1949). Observations on Hudsons Bay, 1743-1749, edited by E. Rich. Toronto: Champlain Society.

Mandelbaum, David G. (1940). The Plains Cree. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers 37, 155-316. New York.

Mason, Leonard (1967). The Swampy Cree: A Study in Acculturation. National Museum of Canada, Anthropological Paper no. 13. Ottawa.

Smith, James G. E. (1987). "Western Woods Cree: Anthropological Myth and Historical Reality." American Ethnologist 14:434-448.

Smith, James G. E. (1981). "Western Woods Cree." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 6, Subarctic, edited by June Helm, 256-270. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.