Unlike their prairie counterparts the Plains Cree, the Woodland Cree
did not have elaborate ceremonies or a complex society of religious
fraternities. This does not mean that they were not as deeply
religious. It had more to do with isolation. Vision quests for
young males and seclusion for females in the time of their menses were practiced
much the same as with other woodland tribes. They sought
supernatural help and propitiated animal spirits as did the Athapaskan
groups. Hunters had medicine bundles to help them in acquiring game.
There was a fine line between survival and starvation, and evil spirits
could bring bad luck to a hunter. There was the Wittigo (or Windigo), a
cannibal monster that had a heart of ice. This monster could enter
the body of a person and cause them to kill and devour their own.
The Pakakos, a skeleton spectre, flew through the air and attacked
Among the Woodland Cree were sorcerers who had supernatural powers to
kill their enemy, make a woman fall in love or drive one insane.
They could also provide protective amulets to people to protect them from
the effects of other sorcerers.
The Woodland Cree used plants for a variety of purposes besides food
and building materials. Birch bark was used for syrup and tea as
well as for making canoes and baskets. Black currant, Labrador tea, high bush
cranberry, wild rose, wild mint and yarrow made refreshing
teas. Wild sarsaparilla could heal cuts and wounds; white spruce
cones, when chewed, soothed sore throats. Willow, an all-purpose
pain cure, was used for cleansing during religious ceremonies.
Saskatoon berries and chokecherries were an important ingredient in the
making of pemmican, and the branches of saskatoons were made into arrow
shafts and pipestems. Sphagnum moss made the ideal disposable
diaper, and northern bedstraw roots mixed with cranberries made a red
dye. Kinnikinnik (bear berry) and red osier dogwood were used as
tobacco. Modern medicine has not altogether replaced these
traditional plants, which are still used for food, medicine and religious
Many Woodland Cree succumbed to European diseases. In 1780, they
were devastated by an epidemic of smallpox. This favoured the Beaver
in their battles with the Cree as much as the acquisition of firearms in
1782. In later years, tuberculosis, measles and influenza had
depleted their numbers. As devastating as white man's diseases were
to the Cree, so was the introduction of liquor to the fur trade, resulting
in a high mortality rate for those addicted to it.
By the mid-1800s, missionaries like Robert Rundle, Father Lacombe,
Henry Steinhauer and Bishop Bompas were visiting the Woodland Cree at
important gathering places, at Fort Vermilion, Lac Ste. Anne, Whitefish
Lake, Lac La Biche, and Lesser Slave Lake. One Methodist missionary,
James Evans had invented Cree syllabics in 1841. This written
language spread throughout the north, so that by the turn of the century
the Cree had one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
Christianity had a strong influence on the Cree, who adapted many aspects
to their own belief system.
Reprinted from "A Sense of the Peace," by
Roberta Hursey with permission of the Spirit of the Peace Museums
Association and the author.