Member of an American Indian people who inhabited the subarctic regions of Canada (northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories to Québec). They are divided into the Woodland Cree and the buffalo-hunting Plains Cree, who migrated to Montana, in the late 18th century. Their language belongs to the Algonquian family. Primarily hunters, they became involved in supplying the fur trade from the 17th century, and also acted as guides, greatly expanding their territory. Belief in the spirits of game animals pervaded Cree religion and culture. The Cree number about 2,500 (2000) in the USA and 60,000 (1991) in Canada.
The Woodland Cree lived primarily by hunting deer, moose, caribou, beaver, and hare, and gathering wild plants. They hunted with spears, and used birch-bark canoes for transport. Trade with the Chipewyan to the north and the Chippewa to the south was long established before they became trading partners of the French and English. They lived in tepees covered in skins, and the women produced fine skin clothing and quillwork. Social organization was based on bands of related families, although large groups allied for warfare. Polygamy was common, a man often marrying two sisters. Fear of witchcraft and respect for all variety of taboos and customs relating to animal spirits formed the basis of Cree culture. Hunting magic was important, and shamans and conjurors wielded great authority. The dead were buried under a pile of stones, and their belongings buried with them or destroyed by the graveside. In the early 19th century the Cree syllabary, a set of written characters representing syllables and serving the purpose of an alphabet, was developed with the help of a Methodist missionary, James Evan, enabling high levels of literacy to be achieved among the Cree.
The Plains Cree were divided into 12 bands. Buffalo were numerous on the plains so hunting magic was unnecessary and the tradition died out. Their camps became larger than the Woodland gatherings and could be set up for longer periods, promoting the development of societies and group ceremonies. They also adopted a warrior culture similar to that of other Plains Indians and ceremonies such as the sun dance.
The Cree began to expand their territory in the 17th century, mainly in response to the French and English demand for furs. The Woodland Cree remained in the forests of Canada, but those who became the Plains Cree moved out onto the plains to follow the buffalo herds after acquiring guns. Eventually they migrated into Montana, as well as parts of the Dakotas and Minnesota. They were one of the last American Indian peoples to settle permanently on the Great Plains. Wars with the Blackfeet and Sioux, along with smallpox epidemics, particularly in 1781, diminished their population and they retreated to the south of the Churchill River. They felt unfairly treated in the US treaty negotiations of the 19th century, and refused to settle on reservations. In 1896 an act was passed by Congress to deport the Cree to Canada, but they returned to hunt the last of the buffalo.
In the USA most Cree live on the rough and arid Rocky Boys Reservation, Montana, established in 1916, which they share with the Chippewa as the Chippewa-Cree. In 1999 Congress passed a historic bill settling water rights on the Rocky Boys Reservation, with a US$50 million aid package to enable the development of a viable economy on the reservation. In Canada, the Cree now live on reservations in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In 2000 the Canadian government announced measures to compensate the Pimicikamak Cree for the extensive flooding and ecological damage caused to their Cross Lake reservation in Manitoba by the damming of the Nelson River for hydroelectricity in the 1970s.
70,000 SPEAKERS Canada One of the Algonquian languages, Cree was spoken by an Amerindian people who occupied a vast territory in...
An aboriginal nation of northern Canada residing in Quebec, Ontario, the prairie provinces, British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. Traders,...