Cree are the largest First Nations people in Canada, with small numbers also in the United States. Eastern Cree people, including the Innu (Montagnais and Naskapi) and Attikamek live in Labrador and Québec. Plains Cree live in the western provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan and in the state of Montana.
Between these distant relatives of the Cree Nation in the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario are the Woods Cree, East and West Swampy Cree, and Moose Cree. Each of these groups is divided into smaller regional First Nations and local bands.
There are about 200,000 Cree people altogether in Canada, over 210,000 Métis (registered as mixed European and Cree ancestry) (Statistics Canada, 2002) and another 200,000 Canadians with some Cree ancestry (Heritage Databank Consulting, 1994). In Canada, about 30% of Cree now live in urban centers (compiled estimate from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 2002 #433.) Populations in many areas are growing rapidly. The Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee (Québec) has 13,000 registered members, with a population doubling rate of 25 years (Grand Council of the Crees, 2002).
Algonquian ancestors of the Cree were spread across the Canadian Shield of the North American Subarctic. Chipped stone tool artifacts show that Paleo-Indians lived on Cree lands 8500-9000 years ago. Until Europeans arrived on the continent, Cree people had lived in much the same way for 6000-7000 years. They traveled across the many rivers and lakes by canoe in summer and over the ice with snowshoes in winter. Large fires swept across the region on a regular basis, and the people and animals shifted their territories until the land recovered. When the first Europeans arrived, most Cree lived in what is now eastern Canada.
Cree language is derived from an early form of Algonquian spoken about 1200 BC in southern Ontario. By 900 BC, Cree moved north, later expanding to both the east and west. There are ten dialects of the Cree language in two main groups, Eastern and Western Cree. Western Cree dialects are Plains Cree, Woods Cree, Western Swampy Cree, Eastern Swampy Cree, and Moose Cree. Eastern Cree includes East Cree; Naskapi, Montagnais, and Attikamek are sometimes considered dialects but have evolved into distinct languages. Cree dialects are not all mutually intelligible. Statistics Canada estimated that, in 1998, 87,555 Canadians had Cree as their mother tongue (Summer Institute of Linguistics, 2002).
The Cree language is still used in many communities across north-central Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and in northern Ontario and Québec, where Cree are in the majority. English or French are also spoken by most Cree, often as a first language. About 147,000 Algonquian speakers live in Canada, including both Cree and Ojibway peoples (Assembly of First Nations National Indian Brotherhood, 2001). A syllabary writing system was introduced to Cree in the 1830s. Syllabics use a set of basic characters for consonants, which are turned in different directions to indicate which vowel follows. Syllabics were generally used for religious materials, but are still found in some regional newspapers.
Most Cree groups traced their kinship bilaterally, allowing for the maximum number of alliances and family ties in an often hostile environment. Marriage was sometimes polygynous, with two sisters marrying one man being the most common form. Anyone not considered related was an eligible marriage partner. This ruled out parallel cousins, but cross cousin marriage, either to a mother's brother's child or to a father's sister's child, was preferred.
The quest for beaver and other furs influenced Cree history, society, and culture significantly, resulting in changes as profound as any Native American group experienced. As trappers pursued beaver, muskrat, lynx, marten, otter, and other fur-bearers across North America for the fur trade, Cree followed. They worked as fur trappers and traders and, most importantly, established themselves as middlemen in the trade. Orientation to the fur trade disrupted traditional hunting of migratory big game. Trading posts provided new tools, foods, and other goods. The fur traders' credit system ensured that trappers would bring furs back to the same trader year after year, and Cree became dependent on the outside goods. Contact with European traders also brought diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis. A series of epidemics hit the Attikamek in the mid-1600s, bringing that group of Cree close to extinction by the 1670s. Smallpox struck the Cree in 1784 and again in 1838.
The positive side of the fur trade for Cree was that they became very powerful in the indigenous world. Before Europeans arrived on the scene, Cree were almost completely self-sufficient. They occasionally traded for items that were unavailable in the local area. Small quantities of corn came from the Hurons and high-quality stone for tool making was traded hand to hand from as far away as Wyoming. Chipewayans were close neighbors of Cree, and their relationship was a contentious one. Chipewayans believed that Cree shamans cast harmful spells on them, so they sent spells back, and in some cases raided and killed people in neighboring Cree groups. There was also some friendly exchange, evidenced by common folktales and Cree passing their belief in Manitou, the supreme spirit, to the Chipewayans.
Alliances and territories changed with the advent of the fur trade in order to obtain the best position with Europeans. Cree were one of the first native groups to trade with the Hudson's Bay Company, and by 1680 were ensconced as middlemen between post men and indigenous trappers. Because they obtained firearms early, Cree gained an advantage over neighboring tribes and were able to expand their territories to gain more profits. Cree may have driven Chipewayans to the Barren grounds after getting guns, but this is uncertain. Cree did lead raids from Alberta against the Blackfoot confederacy in the 1700s, and engaged in wars with Blackfeet, Dakota, Iroquois, and other peoples to the south—usually over who would have the best access to European traders. They also traded guns and horses with Blackfeet. Both the Plains and Woodland Cree considered Assiniboine to be allies.
Westward migration of Cree groups started as late as the 1720s or 1730s. By the early 1800s, Cree peoples occupied the largest territory of any Canadian native group, spread from Labrador to the Rocky Mountains. Besides taking advantage of the fur trade, wars between tribes also pushed some groups of Cree west. Aboriginal peoples that had once lived scattered across the land came together in big groups to visit trading posts. So many traders and trappers gathered near the posts (and hunted to survive) that the local people faced starvation if they stayed. Competition made both fur and game animals scarce by the early 1800s, making some Cree dependent on the trading posts for basic food. Cree had probably lived in Saskatchewan before contact, but Cree populations arriving in Alberta were likely there for the first time.
Cree traditionally depended on wild game, primarily caribou and moose. Bison, elk, and deer were also hunted further west. Often they relied on smaller animals like snowshoe hare, beaver, porcupine, and occasionally on bear. Berries, whitefish, salmon, pike and pickerel, migrating ducks, and geese contributed significantly to the diet, depending on regional availability. Women dried or smoked their meat and fish. With the fur trade, Cree were introduced to flour, tea, tobacco, and alcohol (see Fur Trade).
When food resources in the western woodlands became scarce due to pressures of the fur trade, Cree in Saskatchewan and Alberta turned south to the Great Plains. Between 1790 and 1820, Cree adopted the ways of other Plains Indians, hunting bison from horseback and living in teepees. Most Plains Indians, including Cree, were forced onto reserves by the late 1800s when settlers poured in and the buffalo were wiped out. Plains Cree taught themselves to grow wheat and other crops on the prairies of Saskatchewan and Alberta, and today operate huge farms with modern machinery.
As most groups of Cree became dependent on trade goods, the Canadian role in native affairs grew. Welfare programs, health care, and education programs were started in the early 1900s, when most Cree still lived on the land. After World War II, government involvement in native affairs increased. Fur prices were depressed, and many Cree depended on government transfer payments for a large part of their income. Many people left their communities to find work in larger towns and cities. Families were encouraged to send their children to residential schools in the south. Nursing stations and improved communication and transportation brought improvements in health care to bush communities.
Currently, western food makes up varying parts of the diet in Cree communities. Subsistence lifestyles persist among some Cree but not others—growing populations cannot be supported on the current Cree land base. In the James Bay Settlement Region, hunters are subsidized to harvest traditional foods for their communities. Development interferes with subsistence harvest in many areas. Flooding of land for hydroelectric projects in northern Québec resulted in contamination of fish with mercury, requiring Cree there to balance the effects of toxins with cultural and nutritional qualities of this traditional food, and to regulate their intake of fish. Mining, logging, and hydrodevelopment has had huge impacts on the subsistence base of many Cree communities, often without reasonable compensation. A small number of jobs are available on reserves and in rural Cree communities. Typically, employment rates for Canadian aboriginals average only 32% for residents of reserves and 43% for those who have moved off reserves (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 1995). In western communities, guiding and fighting forest fires provides most of the cash income. In the James Bay region, Cree are developing markets for arts and crafts: carving, painting and etching bark and leather, and bead-work.
In their many centuries of making their living on the land, Cree traditionally believed that one must show respect for animals. Successful hunts, particularly of bears, were celebrated with feasting. Bones of bears, and beavers were treated specially, their skulls and other bones placed in trees where animals would not be able to disturb them. Shamans were often relied on for where to find game. Most Cree believed in a supreme spirit known as Manitou. (The idea of Manitou may have been introduced by missionaries when they were trying to explain their Christian God.) Cree saw him as a helping spirit, who gave those that honored him personal protection from evil and sorcery. Cree also believed in an evil cannibal monster called a Windigo, perhaps because cannibalism was a fearful memory from periods of starvation.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, missionaries often arrived in Cree country on the heels of fur traders as the people were going through huge changes. Epidemics caused many to die from diseases for which they had no immunity. The sheer numbers of people who perished shook the beliefs of survivors. The missionaries told them that the old ways were evil and that they must accept the Christian God. Many Cree, grieving for their dead and doubting their own beliefs, converted to Christianity. French missionaries came with the earliest traders and were Roman Catholic. Protestants arrived soon after at English fur posts. In some areas, where people stayed on the land longer, Cree did not become Christians until the mid-1800s. Now most Cree are Christians, but there is some return to precontact rituals. Today's Cree leaders see maintaining people's connection to the land as the key to maintaining cultural identity and spiritual health. Many bands offer culture camps or other opportunities for students to go out on the land with elders to learn traditional skills and reverence for the land that has been their home for thousands of years.
The fight for Cree survival has been heard widely. Particularly during their campaign to broker a fair settlement with the governments of Canada and Québec over hydrodevelopment, the Cree of Québec took their case all over the world. In 1972, they negotiated what is considered the earliest "modern" land claim in North America (the James Bay Northern Québec Agreement), and continue to harness international opinion and support through indigenous organizations, NGOs, and even the world court (see Grand Council of the Cree).
Deborah B. Robinson
See also Fur Trade; Grand Council of the Cree; Innu; James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement; Métis; Northern Athapaskan Languages
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