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The Peoples, Their Places

The Woodland Cree Nation 

[Woodland Cree Profiles]

a Cree campAlthough there is evidence that may indicate the Cree have lived in the parkland regions of the west for some time, the Plains Cree originated in the east and moved to the Plains through their involvement in the fur trade. While the term "Cree" most likely originated from a French name of unknown origin, "Kristineaux", their own term is "Nehiyawak" or "exact people." There are many branches of the Cree nation spread across the country and are typically divided into the Plains Cree, Woodland Cree, and Moose Cree. 

The Woodland, or Swampy Cree, comprise the largest Amerindian group in northern Alberta.  They are Algonquian linguistic stock.  Prior to the 18th century, their territory was around Hudson Bay as far north as Churchill and east of James Bay to Lac Mistassini.  Although their western boundary was uncertain, they had ventured into Saskatchewan and Manitoba by the 18th century as middlemen, trading with western tribes.  After acquiring guns through trade, they greatly expanded their territory and drove other tribes further west and north.  A large group of Cree moved south onto the western prairies and adapted to a plains lifestyle, forming a close alliance with the Assiniboine (Stoney) tribe.

Their lodges varied in materials depending upon where they lived.  In the southern areas they lived in birch-bark wigwams, and further north, where birch was more stunted, they used coverings of pine boughs and caribou hide over conical structures.  There was a clear division of labour among men and women.  The men hunted, fished, made canoes, sledges, hunting tools and weapons of war.  The women foraged, snared rabbits and other small mammals, tanned hides, cut firewood, made snowshoes, pitched tents, hauled wood, wove fish nets, and made clothing adorned with quill and beadwork.  Coats and blankets were made from woven hare skin or soft caribou fur.  In the spring and autumn the Cree hunted ducks and geese, and ptarmigan in the winter.  Like many other tribes that depended upon showshoe hares for food and clothing, they were affected by the periodic decline in populations, especially in the ninth and tenth years when hares almost altogether disappeared.  Winter was a particularly difficult time for the Cree, as it was with all woodland groups, even in fairly recent times.  

The Woodland Cree were one of the first nations to trade with European fur traders, as early as the 1600s.  They became very closely associated with the fur trade and adapted their clothing and many aspects of their lifestyle and culture to European ways.  Considered excellent hunters and trappers, they provided meat and pemmican to the fur trade posts and furs, either directly, or indirectly from trade with other tribes.  Marriages or alliances between Cree women and fur traders became an essential link in fur trade negotiations.  Because families were on the move most of the time, women in childbirth often had their babies on the trail.

The offspring of this alliance formed the basis of a new nation of people, the Métis, or half-breed, who adopted the lifestyle of their mother's people or of Europeans and received education in order to become clerks and traders for the North West and Hudson's Bay Companies.  By 1800, the Cree were well established in Alberta, from Athabasca-Peace delta in the north, along the Peace River and south as far as the Saskatchewan River.

Reprinted from "A Sense of the Peace," by Roberta Hursey with permission of the Spirit of the Peace Museums Association and the author.