They call themselves Nehiyawak. The Cree (as they are called in English) are Canada’s largest First Nation today. Their traditional territory is primarily in the Subarctic and Plains regions of the modern provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario, following along the Southwestern shore of Hudson Bay, and extending into portions of Quebec. Divided into regional and dialectal subgroups, and composed of dozens of individual bands and joined by a common Algonquian language, the Cree are closely related to a number of other First Nations, blending with those people and with outsiders over the course of their history through a policy of welcoming outsiders.
Interconnected relationships between individuals and groups is a defining characteristic of Cree culture. This flexibility and welcoming of outsiders proved to be one of the Cree’s greatest strengths as a people. For most of their history, the Cree were organized into small, family-centered groups. Men were expected to hunt and defend the band, and women had the critical role of establishing the camp and its logistics. Members of the band could come and join and contribute, then leave and join another band if they wished. Outsiders could marry or be adopted into the group, cementing relationships between different Cree bands, bands of other indigenous people, or Metis and European individuals.
Leadership of these groups hinged largely on the qualities of individuals, rather than strict heredity (a chief’s son, for example, was not guaranteed to assume leadership after his father). Chiefs were expected to demonstrate physical bravery, political savvy, wisdom, flexible thinking, and oratorical skills. Chiefs needed to demonstrate generosity both within and between groups, through gift-giving and mediation. They were expected to listen to counsel from all quarters in evaluating their decisions. Warrior and dancer societies provided opportunities for the next generation of prospective leaders to gain experience in war and politics to prove their worth.
With this decentralized leadership style, talking about “the Cree” as a unified group is tricky, especially as the Cree come into contact with the governments of western civilizations. Different leaders could choose to negotiate or fight, and still ostensibly speak as members of the Cree, as we shall see.
Like many Native American groups, the Cree rely on oral tradition as a record of their history, including a rich store of creation myths often varying from band to band. In one, the ancestors of modern people were walking along in the clouds, and seeing the green and verdant world below, interlaced with creeks and rivers, and wished to live there. They ask a greater spirit to descend to this world below, and he fashions a giant bowl made from clouds, asks them to climb in, and lowers them to the world below. But the bowl comes to rest in a tree. Animals pass by, but most refuse to help, except for Fisher, who climbs the tree and carries the people down.
The first record of the Cree in the west comes from reports in the early 17th century, shortly after Henry Hudson surveyed the James and Hudson Bays. Shortly afterwards, the fur trade with Europe began in earnest, and this exchange fundamentally transformed the Cree, just as it transformed the cultures and economies of North America.
The Cree at this time lived primarily in the area around the Hudson Bay, south into modern Ontario and Quebec. They became integrally involved with the fur trade, both as trappers and traders, bringing in furs, and exchanging them for European-manufactured goods. Bands could establish a strong relationship with a Metis or European, and parlay that into ongoing trade. Often the Cree would trade Western goods along to their allies.
Eventually the Cree, the Saulteaux, and the Assiniboine nations formed a military and political alliance known as the Iron Confederacy, which would last for over 150 years as a power in central Canada. The foundation of the Confederacy was trade with the European fur market. During this time, many Cree bands continued to move west out from the woodland and into the prairie, and their society underwent a rapid evolution from forest trappers and hunters to horse-mounted warriors and bison hunters. The Cree’s westward expansion brought them into conflict with other First Nations, and led to a series of intermittent conflicts between tribes such as the Blackfoot and the Snake.
These intertribal conflicts emerged as fights over the resources of the plains: Horses, bison, and territory. Raiding, counter-raiding, and retributive violence between groups did eventually slow through negotiation, inter-adoption (see Poundmaker’s entry), and a rising need to confront a looming crisis on the plains.
But by the mid-19th century, overhunting of the great bison herds for fur and meat had led to precipitous collapse of their numbers. The Cree’s home territory in the aspen parkland suffered declining herds faster than the prairies to the south, but to the same effect. A Tragedy of the Commons situation developed, with depletion accelerating until Cree bands, their livelihood gone, began to turn to the Canadian government for help.
Bands of Cree were signatories of the Numbered Treaties with the government of Canada, under the belief that this would secure aid and developmental opportunities to create a new way of life, as well as restrict the influx of white settlers into the region. Frequently the First Nations bands would sign on behalf of themselves, while the government would assume they were speaking on behalf of the entire nation, leading to later accusations that the First Nations were reneging on their treaty obligations. These accusations served as government justification to not meet their terms, compounding the misery of the treaty signatories.
Some Cree leaders refused to sign (or signed only reluctantly), notably Mistahimaskwa (or Big Bear) and Pihtokahanapiwiyin (or Poundmaker), resisting what they saw as an effort to end their traditional way of life.
Some Assiniboine and Cree bands participated in an uprising that occurred at the same time as the North-West Rebellion by the Metis people. This rebellion was precipitated by the Canadian government’s failure to live up to the terms of existing treaties, as well as the desperate poverty of life both on reservations and for free First Nations with the vanishing bison. The superior numbers, equipment, and logistics of the Canadian government, and the disjointed nature of the uprisings led to the First Nations’ defeat. The Iron Confederacy came to an end as a power in Canada.
In the aftermath the Cree were relocated to reservations, stripped of their rights to the resources of their lands, and forced to subordinate their traditional culture to governmental oversight. Their children were forced into the residential school system, which was explicitly set up to prevent the transmission of both native language and traditional culture through forced assimilation. This had permanent, tragic consequences for the continuation of Cree culture. There is a total loss of some traditional knowledge, and the effects will continue to be felt for generations.
But the Cree have never stopped advocating for their own rights and the right to participate in the direction of their country. In the latter half of the 20th century, the number of Cree speakers has grown, and as the largest of Canada’s First Nations, they are instrumental in advocating for the rights of indigenous minorities around the world, environmental protection of their lands, and preserving traditional indigenous culture.