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The tribal name originated from a group of natives near James Bay recorded by the French as Kiristinon and later contracted to Cri, spelled Cree in English. Most Cree use this name only when speaking or writing in English and have other, more localized names for themselves. Cree live in areas from Alberta to Québec, a geographic distribution larger than that of any other native group in Canada.
Location and Population
The major divisions of environment and dialect are the Plains Cree (Alberta and Saskatchewan), Woods Cree (Saskatchewan and Manitoba) and Swampy Cree (Manitoba, Ontario and Québec). Subarctic hunting cultures were thinly spread over the land and periodic hardships kept their population low over the centuries. In the 1600s the population is estimated to have been roughly 30 000 and in 1996 was more than 208 000.
The Cree language belongs to the Algonquian language family, and the people historically had relations with other Algonquian-speaking tribes, most directly with the Innu (MONTAGNAIS-NASKAPI), ALGONQUIN and OJIBWA.
For perhaps 7000 years the ancestors of the Cree were thinly spread over much of the woodland area that they still occupy. Following contact with the HUDSON'S BAY CO, some Swampy Cree moved westward to trap in the new territories although many believe that they moved into areas already populated by ancestors of the historic Woods and Plains Cree.
During the late 1700s and the 1800s, many of the more westerly Cree changed with rapid, dramatic success from trappers and hunters of the forest to horse-mounted warriors and bison hunters. Smallpox, destruction of the bison herds, and INDIAN TREATIES brought the Plains Cree and other "horse-culture" tribes to ruin by the 1880s. Obliged to live on INDIAN RESERVES, they existed by farming, ranching and casual labour, yet the majority preserved their native language and religion.
During this time many Cree remained in the boreal forest and the tundra area to the north, where a remarkably stable culture persisted. In aboriginal times their living came from hunting moose, caribou, smaller game, geese, ducks and fish, which they preserved by drying over fire. They travelled by CANOE in summer and by SNOWSHOES and TOBOGGAN in winter, living in conical or dome-shaped lodges, clothed in animal skins and making tools from wood, bone, hide and stone. For an unknown time they engaged in sporadic trade with more southerly peoples. Later, they traded meat, furs and other goods in exchange for metal tools, twine and European goods.
The Cree lived in small BANDS or hunting groups for most of the year, and gathered into larger groups in the summer for socializing, exchanges and ceremonies. Religious life was based on relations with animal and other spirits which revealed themselves in dreams. People tried to show respect for each other by an ideal ethic of noninterference, in which each individual was responsible for his or her actions and the consequences of his or her actions. Leaders in group hunts, raids and trading were granted authority in directing such tasks, but otherwise the ideal was to lead by means of exemplary action and discreet suggestion.
The European traders were new authority figures, but only while the Cree were at trading posts, since few white people went into the bush. For many years the traders depended on the natives for fresh meat. Gradually an increasing number of Cree remained near the posts, hunting and doing odd jobs and becoming involved in the church, schools and nursing stations. Government programs and corporate exploitation of natural resources in the 20th century have brought the most radical changes.
Today, many Cree are townspeople for much of the year; others have migrated to cities, though often for only a temporary stay. Self-government and economic development are major contemporary goals of the Cree.
Author: RICHARD J. PRESTON
Suggested Reading: D. Ahenakew, Voices of the Plains Cree (1977); J. Helm, ed, Handbook of North American Indians, vol 6: Subarctic (1981); D. Mandelbaum, The Plains Cree (1979).
The 1999 Canadian Encyclopedia: World Edition Copyright c 1998 by McClelland & Stewart Inc.