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The Cree Nation

Plains Cree by W. Hind The Cree people represent the single largest group of First Nations in Canada. Speakers of a variation of the Algonquin language, the Cree were known in their own tongue as iyiniwak (“people”) or as ne-hiyawak, meaning “those who speak the same language.” This was but one of many names they gave themselves, each one dependent on where they lived. Some sources suggest that the word Cree is derived from the French Cris: a shortened form of the word Cristineaux, the name given to the Cree people by French explorers and traders. Cristineaux, in turn, may have been a corrupted form of the Ojibwa word for the Cree: kirištino.

Culturally, the Cree can be classed into two general groupings: the Woodland Cree and the Plains Cree. The Woodland Cree extended from present-day northern Quebec, westward to the northwest boreal forest of Alberta; while the Plains Cree lived on the central plains of present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. The majority of those who signed Treaty 6 and its adhesions in 1876 were bands of Plains Cree, although bands of Woodland Cree were also represented.

Long before they began life in the woodlands and on the plains of what is now Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Cree had a history centered in the James Bay region of present-day Northern Québec. Because of their location in the Canadian interior, the Cree established an ongoing trading partnership with European newcomers as early as the 1600s, and cemented their role as middlemen in the European fur trade. As the fur trade moved and expanded to the west, the Cree moved with it, aggressively expanding their domain. They moved west along the northern woodlands, while some of them moved south, away from the northern boreal forest and aspen parkland regions and onto the Great Plains, where they saw a shift in lifestyle, custom, and tradition.

The social life of the Cree varied according to their geographic location. The Woodland Cree maintained the older trapping traditions and lifestyle of the Cree People as a whole, while the Plains Cree adapted to a nomadic life, hunting bison on the plains. This variance in their lifestyles also led to some differences in their spiritual practices. For instance, the belief in and practice of shamanic sorcery was more common among the Woodland Cree than the Plains Cree.

A vibrant and remarkable people, the Cree have given rise to equally remarkable individuals, whose contributions to Cree and Canadian history are noteworthy. While there are far too many individuals to name here, profiles of a few significant people have been included as examples of the strong Cree presence in the history of the land now called Canada.

Darnell, Regna. “Plains Cree” in Handbook of North American Indians Volume 13 part 1 of 2. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2001.

Malinowski, Sharon and Anna Sheets, eds., “Cree” from vol. 3, The Gale Encyclopedia of North American Tribes. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1998.

Mandelbaum, David G. The Plains Cree: An Ethnographic, Historical, and Comparative Study. 5th Reprint, Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina, 1979.

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