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The Cree Nation – Historical Overview

Cree camp near Vermilion History up to 1876
In the land now known as Canada, the Cree can trace their earliest origins to the James Bay region of northern Quebec. The arrival of European fur traders into the James Bay area in the 1600s prompted the Cree to use their trapping and river navigation skills to secure a place for themselves as animal pelt suppliers. The trading of European goods brought about a shift in the traditional way of life for the Cree, as access to European firearms gave them a sudden advantage in hunting and warfare. Traditional Cree tools were gradually replaced by European-made implements. The Cree also traded extensively with the Nakoda (Assiniboine) People and forged a close alliance with them during the 1600s. Trading partnerships for the Cree often led to kinship alliances with those with whom they traded, and intermarriage with other Aboriginal peoples was common. Many Métis, for example, have Cree ancestry.

The depletion of fur-bearing animals pushed the fur trade west to the woodland regions of modern day Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, and the Cree moved and expanded their territory alongside it. By the early 1700s, the Cree had shifted south, out of the northern woodlands, living part of the year hunting bison on the plains, while spending winters in the north trapping for animal pelts. Eventually, some bands of Cree separated and became culturally distinct from the Woodland Cree. The Plains Cree opted to live a permanent life on the plains, expanding south, displacing some existing peoples in the region while establishing trade and military alliances with others. The move west and south led to a period of constant warfare for the Plains Cree, principally with the Blackfoot peoples of present-day southern Alberta. They fought mainly for access to the bison — the principal source for their food, clothing, and shelter.

By the mid to late 1800s, the bison were growing scarce; subsequently escalating tensions between the Cree and the other plains peoples. Warfare, outbreaks of European diseases such as smallpox, the depletion of the bison herds, and increased European settlement in Cree territory; led various bands of Woodland and Plains Cree to seek treaties with the government. Bands of Plains Cree signed Treaty 4 in 1874 at Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, while bands of Woodland and Plains Cree signed Treaty 6 in 1876 at Fort Carlton and Fort Pitt , respectively. In exchange for equipment, farming supplies, and (in the case of Treaty 6) health care provisions, the Cree who signed treaties were expected to surrender their land rights and settle on reserves.

1876 to Today
The years following the treaties were turbulent for the Plains and Woodland Cree bands. The leaders of the Cree had not intended to give up land or political autonomy to the government when they entered into the treaty agreements. Unfortunately life on the reserve, especially under the oppressive policies set forth by the 1876 Indian Act, which governed life on the reserves, required that they do exactly that. The Cree were frustrated by a treaty process that had not permitted a smooth transition from bison hunting to farming. Their frustrations led some bands of Cree, most notably those of Big Bear and Poundmaker, to either deliberately or reluctantly, find themselves caught up in the events of the Northwest Resistance in 1885. Although Cree involvement in the 1885 uprising was minimal, government authorities strengthened their control on reserves in the following years.

Despite poor land conditions, as well as the inferior farming supplies and livestock provided by the government, the Cree showed initial promise as farmers, pulling in marketable crops and increasing the size of their livestock herds. Farming success for the Cree sparked protests from non-First Nations farmers who felt that government assistance afforded the Cree farmers an unfair advantage in the marketplace. Such protests gave rise to policies like the 1889 farming system implemented by the Commission of Indian Affairs in Regina, Saskatchewan. The policy limited land use for Cree farmers and forced them to use only archaic farming equipment. Frustrated, many Cree abandoned their farms.

The Cree have since pursued a cultural, political, and economic fight for survival. When their traditional Sun Dance was outlawed in 1884 by the federal government, the Cree continued to hold the Sun Dance in secret until a revision of the Indian Act overturned the ban. A gradual political awakening from the 1940s onward has galvanized Cree determination to assert First Nations rights. For example, federal government attempts to end Indian status in the 1960s White Paper were halted by a Cree-led First Nations protest. The events surrounding the White Paper demonstrated that the Cree have emerged as leaders in the struggle for First Nations rights in Canada.

Darnell, Regna, “Plains Cree” from vol. 13, part 1 of 2, Handbook of North American Indians. 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.

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