The Cree

The Cree is one of the most interesting cultures in all of North America, because the Cree have inhabited such a large territory. They are an innovative and resourceful people who have adapted to their ever-changing environments. Their history has evolved into a culture that is both distinct and different than most other native North American groups.

The word Cree comes from the French word, Kristineaux, which is actually a mis-pronunciation of the word, Kenistenoag. Kristineaux became shortened to Kri, spelled Cree in English. Today, most Cree use this name only when speaking or writing in English.

The Cree adapted very well to their surroundings in the boreal forest. Birchbark canoes were the best way of getting around in the warmer seasons.

The red area shows Algonquin languages have been spoken. The white dots are represent today’s largest Cree populations. The Woodland Cree make their homes near the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay.

Before the European fur traders arrived near Hudson Bay in the late 1600s, the Cree were already a well established and complex nation. In fact, the Cree people have occupied more land than any other Native North American group. The Cree were a nomadic people, meaning they were constantly on the move. The bands of the early Cree moved with the seasons, sharing much of the same lands as their Algonquin neighbors, the Assiboine and Ojibway. As a result, all three nations share a very similar history and cultural traditions, even if they didn’t always get along.

The Cree are part of the Algonquin people. The Cree, Ojibway, and Assiniboine are all considered to be Algonquin because they share a similar language.

The Ojibway, whose ancestors are called the Anishinabeg, or First People, refer to the Cree as Kinistenoog, “They Who Were First”.

As a result of being spread out over such a large area, the traditions and cultural differences between the Cree tribes evolved into three distinct regional groups: the Plains Cree (southern Saskatchewan, Alberta), Woodland Cree (Great Lakes Region), and Swamp Cree (southern boreal forest). Since Dave and Adam will be traveling in the area inhabited by the Woodland Cree, we will discuss the Woodland Cree.

Constructing new snowshoes in the fall was a regular activity, and still is in many Cree villages.

The crest of the Hudson Bay Company, the most powerful fur-trading company during the height of the North American fur trade

Before the early European fur traders came into contact with the Cree in the late 1600s, the Cree lived very comfortably in the northern reaches of the boreal forest. The Cree was a vast network of tribes that extended from James Bay to the far reaches of Lake Superior.

They were a powerful tribe, feared by their enemies, the Lakota, against whom they waged fierce wars. The Cree also had many friends in the forest. Together with their Assiniboine and Algonquin-speaking allies, the Cree were regarded as some of the finest and most relentless warriors in North America.

When the Hudson Bay Company began penetrating deeper into the Canadian interior, life began to change for the Cree who were living between James Bay and Lake Winnipeg. As posts were developed further and further from Hudson Bay, the Cree were able to trade directly with the voyageurs and couer du bois. This greatly affected the Cree way of life.

By 1680, the Cree were well established fur traders and became more reliant on manufactured goods being brought from the east. While the Cree had been considered to be a terrifying nation to other tribes in North America, the Cree readily embraced (or at least didn’t fight) their new European neighbors. In fact, many of the Hudson Bay posts would give priority or special distinction to furs trapped by the Cree.

Cree people would come from far off places to trade furs with the Hudson Bay Company. With the fur the Cree trapped, they could buy manufactured goods from all over the world. How do you think this impacted the traditional way of life?

The Cree had been a hunter-gatherer tribe for thousands of years, and was now faced with the challenge with developing and modernizing in order to compete with neighboring, and often warring nations. Within Cree communities, people began to work harder at fur trapping than gathering food for part of the year, expecting the fur prices to cover food for the rest of the year. And since the fur trapping had to keep going further and further toward the interior of Canada, the Cree had to move along. Their territory began to shift west toward Great Slave Lake and Lake Athabasca, and gently moving south toward the Great Plains of Saskatchewan, Montana, and Alberta.

Fur trapping is still a very important industry for the Cree today. Many of the younger people of the villages are learning the traditional skills from the elders of the community. It is good to know that this culture’s rich history is being passed down to younger generations.

During the fur trade, Cree populations throughout Canada were drastically reduced due to forced relocation and diseases that the Europeans brought. Because the diseases had never been encountered by the Cree, their bodies did not have the proper immune systems and many died as a result.

Today, people of the Cree Nation can be found throughout Canada (Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec), and parts of Montana. About 120,000 Cree live in 135 bands in Canada. They have the largest population and are spread over the largest geographic area of any native group in Canada. The Cree are one of the only nations who have lived in the eastern boreal forest and western Plains.

While most Cree live in homes today, there is a growing interest among the Cree to re-discover their history and ancestors. Throughout Canada there are programs and classes that modern Cree can take to better understand where they have come from by learning about their history.

Dave Freeman is the Executive Director of the Wilderness Classroom. Dave and Amy Freeman have traveled over 30,000 miles by kayak, canoe and dogsled through some of the world’s wildest places. National Geographic named the Dave and Amy Adventurers of the Year in 2014.

When the Freemans aren’t on expeditions or conducting school assemblies, they guide canoe, kayak and dogsled trips.

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