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Cree

The term "Cree" was first applied to Natives near James Bay who spoke a language with Algonquian roots. Today Cree-speaking people, have a greater territorial distribution than any other Native language group in Canada (Government figures show there were 122,000 Cree's in Canada in 1986). However, there is no general consensus on how or when the Cree became established in what is now Alberta.

Russell writes that, "various groups of Cree, each within a general territory with differing environmental adaptations, can be traced up to 1781 when the great mortality from the smallpox epidemic led to their disintegration" (Russell, p. 121). Russell uses three groupings for early Cree: Southern Tier Cree, Middle Tier Cree and Northern Tier Cree, and finds evidence of the latter two being as far west as Alberta before 1781.1

As for subsequent Cree groupings, Russell says "Their specific histories vary widely and it is not useful, except on a most general level, to speak of 'the Cree moving west' or 'the dependency of the Cree on the fur trade' without specifying which Cree group is meant" (Russell, p. 5).

Milloy talks of the Woods and Plains Cree making a "two-pronged western migration that brought them through the northern woodlands to the Rocky Mountains and in a southwesterly direction to the great plains" (Milloy, p. 5).

Milloy writes that today's Plains Cree had Woodland Cree ancestors who "trekked westward from eastern Manitoba and northern Ontario in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They built a new life and, indeed, a new western culture. In the late eighteenth century, principally on the banks of the Saskatchewan and Red Rivers, a Plains Cree nation evolved" (Milloy, p. 5).

Historical writers have generally accepted the scenario that the Cree moved west because of a dependency on the fur trade and that they used European technology, especially guns, to exploit and finally displace other tribes along the way. According to Dempsey, moving west with the fur trade in the 1700s the Cree's "drove a wedge up the North Saskatchewan River to the Rocky Mountains sending tribes retreating to the north and south" (Dempsey, p. 54 and repeated almost verbatim by Palmer, p. 9).

Russell disagrees: "Despite the wide acceptance of this view of the history of the Cree, a careful examination of both archival and secondary sources reveals that it is fundamentally misconceived," (Russell, p. 2). Russell finds evidence that the Cree may have come west over a longer period of time and had relatively good relations with tribes they encountered.

"Henday shows that in 1754, the Cree and Assiniboin were not only wintering in the Red Deer and Edmonton areas but were accompanying the local Indians, probably Blackfoot or Gros Ventre, on their raids further to the southwest. Thus within sixty years of the time when the Cree supposedly had no westward extension from Lake Superior, they were camping within sight of the Rockies and amicably trading with the very groups whom they presumably had battled for possession of the prairies."
(Russell, p. 24).2

James Smith, a NY ethnologist specializing in Woodland Cree, argues that while the Swampy Cree were indeed migrating west during the fur trade. Woodland Cree groups populated areas as far west as Peace River long before European contact (Goddard, p. 110).

Tribal Location since Signing of Treaties

The Cree have an historical presence over much of central and northern Alberta, but few agree how or when the Cree arrived. About half the official names of Native origin in Alberta are linked to the Cree.

Notes

1.Middle Tier Cree were known to be along the Saskatchewan River because Saukamapee mentioned in passing the presence in the 1730s of Cree and Assiniboine camps close to the borders of the Snake country. Northern Tier Cree were on the upper Churchill River and into the "Athabasca" area: "It is clear that at some time in the past the Cree moved into the Athabasca area just as Mackenzie states. However. he gives no date for this move which could well have preceded the fur trade . . . There is little doubt that the alliance between the Cree and Beaver Indians, established at Peace Point west of Lake Athabasca, refers to the missions of the Cree leader. Swan, between 1715-1721. However. we do not know the length of time the Cree were in the general area before this date" (Russell, p. 121).

2.Milloy suggests the Cree migration took slightly longer. "In their westward drive, the Blackfoot and their Cree and Assiniboine allies had taken more than eighty years to reach the Rockies," (Milloy, p. 13).


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