Origin of Name

The tribal name originated with a group of Indigenous people near James Bay whose name was 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 (Saskatchewan, 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.

Language

The Cree language belongs to the Algonquian language family, and the people historically had relations with other Algonquian-speaking nations, most directly with the Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi), Algonquin and Ojibwa.

Early History

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 Company, 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.

Radical Changes

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 Aboriginal treaties, however, brought the Plains Cree and other "horse-culture" nations to ruin by the 1880s. Required to live on reserves, they existed by farming, ranching and casual labour, yet the majority preserved their native language and religion.

Stable Traditions

During this time many Cree remained in the boreal forest and the tundra area to the north, where a remarkably stable culture persisted. The Cree lived by 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, during the European fur trade period, they traded meat, furs and other goods in exchange for metal tools, twine and European goods.

Social Relations

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 those actions. Food was always the first priority, and would be shared in times of hardship or in times of plenty when people gathered to celebrate by feasting. Although the ideal was communal and egalitarian, some individuals were regarded as more powerful, both in the practical activities of hunting and in the spiritual activities that influenced other persons. 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.

EuroCanadian Influences

The European traders were new authority figures, but only while the Cree were at trading posts, since few Europeans went into the bush. For many years the traders depended on the Aboriginal people 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. Missionizing began when some fur traders held services; trained Christian missionaries soon followed. Their religious messages were taken seriously, but not incautiously.

Treaties were made with all except the Québec Cree; although promises of protection were made, the treaties gave the federal and provincial governments the power to intervene in Cree traditional culture. Government services, health programs and education, including residential schooling, were usually administered through the missionaries and traders until the middle of the 20th century. Residential schools left two lasting legacies. The first was a result of the separation of children from their families and communities, which prevented the children from developing within their culture. Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a formal apology in 2008 for this legacy of harm. The second legacy was the acquisition of bi-cultural skills that have provided Aboriginal people with the basis for political and administrative self-government.

Corporate exploitation of natural resources in the 20th century has brought the most radical changes. In Québec, the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement for the James Bay hydroelectric project required a treaty which was negotiated during the 1970s and provided the first step in Aboriginal self-government for the Québec Cree. Since then, a series of further agreements between the Cree of Québec, the provincial government and the federal government have followed. The Cree have also been central to UN negotiations, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).

Contemporary Situation

Today, many Cree are townspeople for much of the year; others have migrated to cities, though often for only a temporary stay. Aboriginal self-government and economic development are major contemporary goals of the Cree. Many of their goals have been achieved, while some struggles remain. The Lubicon Cree of Alberta and other Cree First Nations across Canada have been stymied for decades in their efforts to negotiate with development corporations and governments.

There are several Cree who have had a national role in furthering the aims of Aboriginal people of Canada, including Assembly of First Nations chiefs Noel Starblanket, David Ahenakew, Ovide Mercredi, and Matthew CoonCome.

See also Aboriginal People: Plains; Aboriginal People: Subarctic and general articles under Aboriginal People.