Quebec History Marianopolis College

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


Cree Indians



  [This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[Further information on the Cree may be found in the Canadian Encyclopedia , the Encyclopedia of North American Indians and at the Native Languages of the Americas site .]



Cree (contracted from Kristinaux, French form of Kenistenoag, given as one of their own names). An important Algonquian tribe of British America whose former habitat was in Manitoba and Saskatchewan , between Red and Saskatchewan rs. They ranged northeastward down Nelson r, to the vicinity of Hudson bay , and northwestward almost to Athabaska lake. When they first became known to the Jesuit missionaries a part of them resided in the region of James bay, as it is stated as early as 1640 that "they dwell on the rivers of the north sea where Nipissings go to trade with them"; but the Jesuit Relations of 1661 and 1667 indicate a region farther to the N. W. as the home of the larger part of the tribe. A portion of the Cree, as appears from the tradition given by Lacombe ( Dict. Lang . Cris ), inhabited for a time the region about Red r., intermingled with the Chippewa and Maskegon, but were attracted to the plains by the buffalo, the Cree, like the Chippewa, being essentially a forest people. Many bands of Cree were virtually nomads, their movements being governed largely by the food supply. The Cree are closely related, linguistically and otherwise, to the Chippewa. Hayden regarded them as an offshoot of the latter, and the Maskegon another division of the same ethnic group.


At some comparatively recent time the Assiniboin, a branch of the Sioux, in consequence of a quarrel, broke away from their brethren and sought alliance with the Cree. The latter received them cordially and granted them a home in their territory, thereby forming friendly relations that have continued to the present day. The united tribes attacked and drove southwestward the Siksika and allied tribes who formerly dwelt along the Saskatchewan . The enmity between these tribes and both the Siksika and the Sioux has ever since continued. After the Cree obtained firearms they made raids into the Athapascan country, even to the Rocky mts. and as far N. as Mackenzie r. Mackenzie, speaking of the region of Churchill r., says the original people of this area, probably Slaves, were driven out by the Cree.


As the people of this tribe have been friendly from their first intercourse with both the English and the French, and until quite recently were left comparatively undisturbed in the enjoyment of their territory, there has been but little recorded in regard to their history. This consists almost wholly of their contests with neighbouring tribes and their relations with the Hudson 's Bay Co. In 1786, according to Hind, these Indians, as well as those of surrounding tribes, were reduced to less than half their former numbers by smallpox. The same disease again swept off at least half the prairie tribes in 1838. They were thus reduced, according to Hind, to one-sixth or one-eighth of their former population. In more recent years, since game has become scarce, they have lived chiefly in scattered bands, depending largely on trade with the agents of the Hudson 's Bay Co. At present they are gathered chiefly in bands on various reserves in Manitoba , mostly with the Chippewa.


Their dispersion into bands subject to different conditions with regard to the supply and character of their food has resulted in varying physical characteristics; hence the varying descriptions given by explorers. Mackenzie, who describes the Cree comprehensively, says they are of moderate stature, well proportioned, and of great activity. Their complexion is copper-coloured and their hair black, as is common among Indians. Their eyes are black, keen, and penetrating; their countenance open and agreeable. In regard to the women he says: "Of all the nations which I have seen on this continent, the Knisteneaux women are the most comely. Their figure is generally well proportioned, and the regularity of their features would be acknowledged by the more civilized people of Europe . Their complexion has less of that dark tinge which is common to those savages who have less cleanly habits". Umfreville, from whom Mackenzie appears to have copied in part what is here stated, says that they are more inclined to be lean of body than otherwise, a corpulent Indian being "a much greater curiosity than a sober one." Clark ( Sign Language , 1885) describes the Cree seen by him as wretchedly poor and mentally and physically inferior to the Plains Indians; and Harmon says that those of the tribe who inhabit the plains are fairer and more cleanly than the others.


Their hair was cut in various fashions, according to the tribal divisions, and by some left in its natural state. Henry says the young men shaved off the hair except a small spot on the crown of the head. Their dress consisted of tight leggings, reaching nearly to the hip, a strip of cloth or leather about 1 ft. wide and 5 ft. long passing between the legs and under a belt around the waist, the ends being allowed to hang down in front and behind; a vest or shirt reaching to the hips; sometimes a cap for the head made of a piece of fur or a small skin, and sometimes a robe thrown over the dress. These articles, with moccasins and mittens, constituted their apparel, The dress of the women consisted of the same materials, but the shirt extended to the knees, being fastened over the shoulders with cords and at the waist with a belt, and having a flap at the shoulders; the arms were covered to the wrist with detached sleeves. Umfreville says that in trading, fraud, cunning, Indian finesse, and every concomitant vice was practised by them from the boy of 12 years to the octogenarian, but where trade was not concerned they were scrupulously honest. Mackenzie says that they were naturally mild and affable, as well as just in their dealings among themselves and with strangers; that any deviation from these traits is to be attributed to the influence of the white traders. He also describes them as generous, hospitable, and exceedingly good natured except when under the influence of spirituous liquor. Chastity was not considered a virtue among them, though infidelity of a wife was sometimes severely punished. Polygamy was common; and when a man's wife died it was considered his duty to marry her sister, if she had one. The arms and utensils used before trade articles were introduced by the whites were pots of stone, arrow-points, spearheads, hatchets, and other edged tools of flint, knives of buffalo rib, fishhooks made out of sturgeon bones, and awls from bones of the moose. The fibrous roots of the white pine were used as twine for sewing their bark canoes, and a kind of thread from a weed for making nets. Spoons and pans were fashioned from the home of the moose (Hayden). They sometimes made fishhooks by inserting a piece of bone obliquely into a stick and sharpening the point. Their lines were either thongs fastened together or braided willow bark. Their skin tipis, like those of the N. Athapascans, were raised on poles set up in conical form, but were usually more commodious. They occasionally erect a larger structure of lattice work, covered with birch bark, in which 40 men or more can assemble for council, feasting, or religious rites.


The dead were usually buried in shallow graves, the body being covered with a pile of stones and earth to protect it from beasts of prey. The grave was lined with branches, some of the articles belonging to the deceased being placed in it, and in some sections a sort of canopy was erected over it. Where the deceased had distinguished himself in war his body was laid, according to Mackenzie, on a kind of scaffolding; but at a later date Hayden says they did not practise tree or scaffold burial. Tattooing was almost universal among the Cree before it was abandoned through the influence of the whites. The women were content with having a line or two drawn from the corners of the mouth toward the angles of the lower jaw; but some of the men covered their bodies with lines and figures. The Cree of the Woods are expert canoemen and the women lighten considerably their labours by the use of the canoe, especially where lakes and rivers abound. A double-head drum and a rattle are used in all religious ceremonies except those which take place in the sweat house. Their religious beliefs are generally similar to those of the Chippewa.


The gentile form of social organisation appears to be wanting. On account of the uncertain application of the divisional names given by the Jesuit missionaries and other early writers it is impossible to identify them with those more modernly recognized. Richardson says: "It would, however, be an endless task to attempt to determine the precise people designated by the early French writers. Every small band, naming itself from its hunting grounds, was described as a different nation." The first notice of the Cree divisions is given in the Jesuit Relation of 1658, which states that they are composed of four nations or peoples, as follows: Alimibegouek, Kilistinons of the bay of Ataousbouscatouek, Kilistinons of the Nipisiriniens, and Nisibourounik. At least 3 of these divisions are erroneously located on the Creuxius map of 1660, and it is evident from the Relation that at least 3 of them were supposed by the writer to have been situated somewhere S. or S. W. of James bay. Nothing additional is heard of them in the subsequent notices of the tribe, which is otherwise divided into the Paakwawininiwug and Sakawininiwug (people of the plains and of the woods), the former subdivided into Sipiwininiwug and Mamikininiwug (river and lowland people), the latter into Sakittawawininiwug and Ayabaskawininiwug (those of Cross lake and those of N. Alberta - probably Lac Île-à-la-Crosse). In 1856 the Cree were divided, according to Hayden, into the following bands, all or nearly all taking their names from their chiefs: Apistekaihe, Cokah, Kiaskusis, Mataitaikeok, Muskwoikakenut, Muskwoikauepawit, Peisiekan, Piskakauakis, Shemaukan, and Wikyuwamkamusenaikata, besides several smaller bands and a considerable number around lac Île-à-la-Crosse in N. Saskatchewan who were not attached to any band. So far as now known the ethnic divisions, aside from the Cree proper, are the Maskegon, and the Monsoni. Although these are treated as distinct tribes, they form, beyond doubt, integral parts of the Cree. It was to the Maskegon, according to Richardson, that the name Kilistenaux, in its many forms, was anciently applied, a conclusion with which Henry apparently agrees.


In 1776, before smallpox had greatly reduced them, the population of the Cree proper was estimated at about 15,000. Most of the estimates during the last century give them from 2,500 to 3,000 (probably an error for 12,500 to 13,000). In 1911, there were approximately 18,000 Crees in Canada.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 117-119. See the entry under Cree and Cree language at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College