Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
March 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Cree Indians


[This article was published in 1948; for the full citation, see the end of the document. Some comments - such as those on the degeneration of the "race" - are typical of those made about Amerindians in the period of the 1930's and 1940's. The reader will exercise caution in considering the accuracy of some of the information provided below.]

Cree, an important tribe of Algonkian Indians, closely related to the Chippewa, and situated to the north and west of them. The name is a contraction or abbreviation of Kristinaux, the French form of Kenistenoag, a term of unknown meaning applied by a part of the tribe to itself. At the coming of the white man, their habitat stretched from lake Mistassini in the east to lake Winnipeg in the west, and from the height of land north of the Great Lakes to Hudson bay and the Churchill river. At an early date, however, they obtained fire-arms from the trading-posts on Hudson bay ; and with these they pushed north-westward over what is now northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, driving back the Athapaskan and other tribes in this area. They seem to have made raids even down the Mackenzie river toward the Arctic ocean and up the Peace river toward the Rocky mountains, thus foreshadowing the explorations of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. As the neighbouring tribes acquired firearms, their expansion was checked; and they suffered severely in the great smallpox epidemic of 1781 and subsequent years. They became debauched by the spirituous liquors of the fur-traders, and fell victim to the raids of such tribes as the Blackfoot. Finally, they were decimated by a second epidemic of smallpox in 1838; and for the last hundred years they have remained scattered in bands, in whatever districts they found themselves, eking but a living by means of hunting and trapping.


The Cree are commonly divided into two large groups, the Woodland Cree (often known as Swampy Cree or Muskegon) and the Plains Cree. The Woodland Cree include not only the bands about the southern part of Hudson bay, but also those living about the Athabaska and Great Slave lakes. These are a marginal people, requiring a wide range of territory for hunting and trapping. They were formerly great hunters and indeed despised fishing as beneath their dignity, except when forced to it by necessity. They were organized in local bands, of varying sizes, like the other Algonkian tribes; and these bands rapidly took on colour from the tribes with whom they came into contact, and varied their customs in accordance with the character of their territory. The northern bands borrowed certain traits from the Eskimo, and the southern from the Chippewa. bike the Naskapi, they tattooed themselves; and like the Naskapi, also, they wore coats and blankets made of woven bare skin or of caribou fur, in preference to the tanned hides worn by other Algonkian tribes. The more northerly bands also made wigwams of pine-bark or caribou skin, rather than the birch-bark wigwams found farther south.


The Plains Cree were originally limited to a few bands, in what is now northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They emerged from the forest to hunt the buffalo on the prairies. There they came into contact with the Blackfoot, and allied themselves with the Assiniboin. As they acquired fire-arms and horses, they were joined by other bands o€ the Cree, and became a serious menace to the older Indian tribes on the prairies. They raided the Blackfoot country as far as the Rocky mountains on the west and the Missouri river on the south. But smallpox decimated them, as it did the Woodland Cree, about 1781, and again half a century later; until by 1858 their numbers had been reduced to barely 1,000. The disappearance of the buffalo about 1878 deprived them of their chief means of livelihood; and shortly afterward they were placed by the government on reserves in Manitoba and the North West Territories, where they have remained ever since. Possessing a weak culture of their own, they adopted most of the traits of their allies, the Assiniboin, with whom on some of the reserves they are now mingled. The tradition among them is that they were formerly divided into twelve bands, each with its own chief; but all traces of this organization have disappeared.


In their heyday, the Cree were among the most bold and adventurous of the Indian tribes; and their women were noted for their beauty, being perhaps better proportioned and possessing more regular features than those of any other tribe in the Canadian area. But drunkenness, disease, and malnutrition have brought about degeneration. Tuberculosis and influenza have played havoc with them; and the impoverishment of their hunting-grounds has undermined not only their physique but also their morale. Their numbers (including the Plains Cree) have not perhaps diminished as much as might have been expected; for in 1924 they were computed to number about 20,000. But miscegenation has with them gone so far that a large number of these are really half-breeds.


For the Cree language, see A. Lacombe, Dictionnaire de la langue des Cris (Montreal, 1874) and Grammaire de la langue des Cris (Montreal, 1874), and E. A. Watkins, A dictionary of the Cree language (London, 1865).

Source  : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 146-147.



© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College