The Cree (nehiyawak in the Cree language) are the most populous and widely distributed Aboriginal people in Canada. Cree First Nations occupy territory in the Subarctic region from Alberta to Québec, as well as portions of the Plains region in Alberta and Saskatchewan. As of March 2015, the registered population of Cree First Nations was more than 317,000. This number is an approximation; some Cree First Nations have members who are not Cree, or who have blended identities. In addition, this population figure does not take into account anyone who may have lost or been denied status through enfranchisement. In 2011, the National Household Survey recorded more than 95,000 speakers of Cree.

Language, Geography and Population

Cree live in areas from Alberta to Québec in the Subarctic and Plains regions, a geographic distribution larger than that of any other Aboriginal group in Canada. Moving from west to east the main divisions of Cree, based on environment and dialect, are the Plains (Alberta and Saskatchewan), Woods (Saskatchewan and Manitoba), Swampy (Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario), Moose (Ontario) and James Bay/Eastern (Québec) Cree.The Eastern Cree are closely related, in both culture and language, to the Innu and Atikamekw. Many Cree First Nations in western provinces have blended populations of Ojibwa, Saulteaux, Assiniboine, Denesuline and others. In addition, the Oji-Cree of Manitoba and Ontario are a distinct people of mixed Cree and Ojibwa culture and heritage. 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.

The name Cree 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. Nehiyawak is the Cree name for the Cree people, though it is often also used to describe Plains Cree. Plains Cree (paskwâwiyiniwak or nehiyawak), Woods Cree (sakâwiyiniwak), Swampy Cree (maskêkowiyiniwak), and James Bay/Eastern Cree (Eeyouch) are the major linguistic and geographic divisions; Moose Cree is considered a sub-group/dialect of Swampy Cree. The suffix –iyiniwak, meaning people, is used to distinguish people of particular sub-groups. For example, the kâ-têpwêwisîpîwiyiniwak are the Calling River People, while the amiskowacîwiyiniwak are the Beaver Hills People.

Dialects of Cree are generally more mutually intelligible — understandable to each different speaker — the closer the speakers’ communities are. The Eastern Cree dialect is more closely related to Innu-aimun, the Innu language, and is therefore less intelligible to western dialect speakers. Michif, the language of the Métis, is also considered a dialect of Cree, and Oji-Cree, a dialect of Ojibwa, is heavily influenced by Cree. In 1988, linguists Richard A. Rhodes and Evelyn M. Todd counted 80 dialectical variations of Cree (including Innu-aimun). In 2011, the National Household Survey reported more than 95,000 speakers of Cree, with a further 6,000 speakers of Atikamekw, 12,000 speakers of Innu-aimun, 10,000 speakers of Oji-Cree and 1,000 Michif speakers.

As of March 2015 the total registered population of more than 130 Cree First Nations was approximately 317,000, of which approximately 170,000 (54 per cent) lived on reserve. Saskatchewan nations had the largest approximate registered population with 115,000, followed by Manitoba with 81,000, Alberta with 78,000, and Ontario and Québec with 25,000 and 18,000 respectively. It is important to note that these numbers include several blended communities with more than just Cree people. As well, they do not reflect Cree who themselves, or through their ancestors, have lost or been denied status through enfranchisement or other historical injustices under the Indian Act.

Traditional Life

For thousands of years the ancestors of the Cree were thinly spread over much of the woodland area that they still occupy. After the arrival of Europeans, participation in the fur trade pushed Swampy Cree into the Plains. During this time many Cree remained in the boreal forest and the tundra area to the north, where a stable culture persisted. They lived by hunting moose, caribou, smaller game, geese, ducks and fish, which they preserved by drying over fire.

They travelled by canoein summer and by snowshoes and tobogganin winter, living in conical or dome-shaped lodges, clothed in animal skins and making tools from wood, bone, hide and stone. Later, during the fur trade period, they traded meat, furs and other goods in exchange for metal tools, twine and European goods. Plains Cree exchanged the canoe for horses, and subsisted primarily through the buffalo hunt, and developed cultural practices, like the Sun Dance, separately from their Subarctic relations.

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 non-interference, 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 (see Shaman). 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 Cree worldview incorporates Trickster(wîsahkêcâhk) mythology and describes the interconnectivity between people and nature. (See alsoReligion of Aboriginal People.)

Contact with Europeans

Jesuit missionaries first mentioned contact with Cree groups in the area west of James Bay around 1640. Fur trading posts established after 1670 began a period of economically motivated migration, as bands attempted to make the most of the growing fur trade. For many years European traders depended on 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.

During the late 1700s and the 1800s, Cree who had migrated to the Plains changed with rapid, dramatic success from trappers and hunters of the forest to horse-mounted warriors and bison hunters. Epidemics, the destruction of the bison herds, and government policies aimed at forcing First Nations to surrender land through treaties, however, brought the Plains Cree and other "horse-culture" nations to ruin by the 1880s. The Canadian government, under the leadership of Sir John A Macdonald, actively withheld rations and other resources in order to force starving Plains people into signing treaties and relocating to reserves. There, Cree existed by farming, ranching and casual labour, and were subjected to further cultural destruction through decades of trauma endured in the residential school system.

Treaties were made with all Cree except the James Bay/Eastern Cree. Though the government made general promises to protect Cree land rights and their traditional way of life, 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.

Contemporary Life

Government-backed corporate exploitation of natural resources in the 20th and 21st centuries has brought radical changes in many Cree communities. In the 1970s in Québec, the James Bay Cree successfully negotiated the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement. The agreement was a response to the James Bay hydroelectric project, which had been undertaken without consultation of the communities it would affect. The project pushed the James Bay Cree to action, and the resulting agreement provided the first step toward self-government. 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).

Many registered members of Cree nations no longer live in their reserve communities. Nevertheless, for many nations, especially in the James Bay and Plains regions, the portion of registered members living on reserve is very high. For example, the rate of population living on reserve among James Bay Cree averaged 83 per cent in 2015, reaching 96 per cent in the case of Whapmagoostui.

Self-government and economic development are major contemporary goals of the Cree. Cree First Nations across Canada have attempted to negotiate with development corporations and governments. For example, the Lubicon First Nation of Alberta have sued the provincial and federal governments for their share of natural gas revenues and further recognition of treaty rights, while in Manitoba, several Cree nations have reached agreements with the federal and provincial governments, as well as resource companies.

Several Cree leaders have had a national role in furthering the aims of Aboriginal people of Canada, including Assembly of First Nationschiefs Noel Starblanket, Ovide Mercredi, Matthew Coon Come and Perry Bellegarde, and Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence, who gained national attention for her involvement with the Idle No More movement in 2012 and 2013.

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