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The Cree Nation – Customs and Traditions

Sun Dance It is important to note that the culture is not a static enterprise, but changes and shifts over time. The Cree who moved south from the boreal forest onto the plains of present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan were already a culture in transition. As a result of years spent trading with European merchants, the Cree had already witnessed profound changes to their traditional way of life. An in-depth examination Cree cultural tradition can be found in the Social Life and Spiritual Life sections.

The Woodland and the Plains Cree approached food – both its hunting and gathering – slightly differently. The Woodland Cree lived in the north, where the cooler climate made farming impractical. Hunting, fishing, and trapping were the norm. Moose, caribou, beaver, muskrat, and other animals were hunted for their meat and furs. Their meat-based, northern diet was supplemented by berries, roots, fish and waterfowl. The Woodland hunted and gathered enough food to last them the winter, a time they spent trapping animal pelts for the fur trade.

In contrast, the Plains Cree subsisted primarily by hunting bison, though smaller animals like rabbits and wild fowl were also hunted. Roots and berries served as supplements to their meat-heavy diet. The bison were critical to Plains Cree survival: its meat provided them with food, its hide was used for clothing and shelter, and its bones were used to make tools and weapons. To hunt the bison, the Plains Cree would drive herds of them into fenced corrals where they could more easily be killed. Bison meat was either broiled or dried and pounded with berries and fat to make pemmican.

Traditionally, Cree men wore soft leather breechcloths tied at the waist by a narrow belt. Hide leggings decorated with porcupine quills or beadwork were worn in the winter. Loose fitting quilled or beaded shirts were worn on special occasions.

Women wore dresses adorned with designs made of quills, beads, or paint. The dresses were usually two pieces of oblong hide or cloth, one on top of the other and tied at the waist by an intricately decorated belt. Dresses extended to the middle of the leg while leggings covered the lower leg. Both women and men wore buffalo robes to cover their upper bodies. Cree children, on the other hand, wore little or no clothing before the age of five. Infants wore diapers made of hide and stuffed with absorbent, sphagnum moss.

Moccasins were the standard footwear for everyone, in both summer and winter. The Cree also made use of snowshoes in the winter if snowy conditions required. Headgear ranged from pieces of hide placed around the head to ceremonial headdresses.

The Woodland Cree traditionally favoured either conical or dome shaped, wigwams: hut-like dwellings covered with caribou hide or the bark of birch or pine trees. The Plains Cree dwelled in hide-covered tipis that were big enough to house ten to twelve people. Cree women were charged with setting up and taking down the camp, and were considered the owners of the tipis.

Darnell, Regna. “Plains Cree.” 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.

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