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The Cree Nation – Social Life

Cree at camp Social life for the Woodland and Plains Cree was quite similar, though differences in their geographic environment inevitably led to some socio-cultural variance. Cree society was composed of a number of bands: a group of people bound by blood, kinship, or familiarity, who camped and hunted together. Bands were led by the okimaw or chief, a man of the band who had distinguished himself through his abilities as a hunter and warrior, through the accumulation of wealth, and through his demonstrated generosity towards other members of the band. Bands could have more than one chief, and though leadership could be passed from father to son, this occurred only if the son was capable. The chief was guided by a council composed of leading men from within the band. Important decisions were made by the chief only after consulting council. News was transmitted throughout the camp by criers, usually older men unable to fight in battle, who were selected by the chief and supported by the band.

Life centred on the physical and spiritual world, and stages of life were marked by rites of passage. The first rite was the child-naming ceremony in which, at roughly 1 year, Cree children were named by a shaman or Elder, usually based on a vision or remembered event about the child. Children were raised in a world of gentle teaching rather than strict discipline. Parents, grandparents, Elders, and other members of a Cree band would all help to guide and teach the children until they reached adulthood.

Puberty carried its own rites of passage for Cree boys and girls. For a Cree girl, puberty was marked by a brief period of isolation — four nights — from the rest of the Cree camp. She stayed in her own tipi passing time by sewing, preparing animal hides, and performing other duties expected of an adult woman of the band. Her only company was an elder woman who would pass on stories to her, and if the girl was to have a spiritual vision, this was usually the time when it was likely to take place. The end of this passage was celebrated with a feast in the tipi of the girl’s father.

For Cree boys, puberty was marked the vision quest. A boy was taken by his father or grandfather to an isolated place, and left there to fast and pray. At this time, spirit guides would help the boy to discover the unique gifts he should use to help his people, such as curing the sick, or performing certain ceremonies. Upon his return to camp, the boy’s gifts would then manifest themselves. At camp, boys spent much of their time with the young men of the band, learning how to hunt and fight. Young males in Cree society were expected to serve during time of war, and those young men who did not participate risked shaming their band. Often, youth would be initiated into warfare by entering an enemy camp at night and stealing horses, a very dangerous endeavour as horses were one of the most highly prized commodities among plains peoples. Acts of bravery during such raids could earn a young Cree male the distinction of “Worthy Young Man,” making him eligible to join a warrior society. Cree warrior societies were responsible for hunting, defending camps and territorial boundaries, enforcing band law, preparing the dead for burial, and caring for the poor. Warriors were expected not to fear death, and to place the needs of the band before their own, resisting the temptation for material wealth.

Marriage in Cree tradition usually took place roughly three to four years after puberty for women and at roughly age 25 for men. Youth were encouraged by their parents to marry within their band so that kinship ties were made with those familiar to them. The father of the potential bride would initiate a proposal to the man he wanted her to marry by offering a gift, usually horses, to the young man’s family. If the groom’s family accepted the proposal, the bride’s family would build a new tipi. The marriage was then consecrated if the groom entered the tipi, sat down beside his potential bride, and accepted a pair of moccasins from her.

When a camp member died, their body was usually buried in the ground, though sometimes it was hung in a tree; this was usually done in the winter when the ground was too frozen to dig. The head of the body always faced north, and tobacco and grease were usually placed with the dead. Close kin unbound their hair and spent a period in mourning that would come to an end when a higher ranking member of the band combed and braided the mourners’ hair.

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.” The Gale Encyclopedia of North American Tribes, Volume 3.. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1998.

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