For other uses, see Cree (disambiguation).
"Nehiyaw" redirects here. For the children's book author, see Glecia Bear.
Total population
(Over 200,000)
Regions with significant populations
Canada, United States
Cree, Cree Sign Language, English, French
Anglicanism, Pentecostalism, Roman Catholicism
Related ethnic groups
Métis, Oji-Cree, Ojibwe, Innu

The Cree (historical autonym: Nēhiyaw; French: cri) are one of the largest groups of First Nations in North America, with over 200,000 members living in Canada. The major proportion of Cree in Canada live north and west of Lake Superior, in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories. About 38,000 live in Quebec.[1]

In the United States, this Algonquian-speaking people historically lived from Lake Superior westward. Today, they live mostly in Montana, where they share a reservation with the Ojibwe (Chippewa).[2]

The documented westward migration over time has been strongly associated with their roles as traders and hunters in the North American fur trade.[3]


The linguistic subdivisions of the Cree

The Cree are generally divided into eight groups based on dialect and region. These divisions do not necessarily represent ethnic sub-divisions within the larger ethnic group:

Due to the many dialects of the Cree language, there is no modern collective autonym. The Plains Cree and Attikamekw refer to themselves using modern forms of the historical nêhiraw, namely nêhiyaw and nêhirawisiw, respectively. Moose Cree, East Cree, Naskapi, and Montagnais all refer to themselves using modern dialectal forms of the historical iriniw, meaning 'man.' Moose Cree use the form ililiw, coastal East Cree and Naskapi use iyiyiw (variously spelled iiyiyiu, iiyiyuu, and eeyou), inland East Cree use iyiniw (variously spelled iinuu and eenou), and Montagnais use ilnu and innu, depending on dialect. The Cree use "Cree," "cri," "Naskapi, or "montagnais" to refer to their people only when speaking the languages of the European colonists, French or English.[5]

Political aboriginal organization


Nēhiyaw camp near Vermilion, Alberta, in 1871

As hunter-gatherers, the basic unit of organization for Cree peoples were the lodge, a group of perhaps eight or a dozen people, usually the families of two separate but related married couples, who lived together in the same wigwam (domed tent) or tipi (conical tent), and the band, a group of lodges who moved and hunted together. In the case of disagreement lodges could leave bands, and bands could be formed and dissolved with relative ease, but as there is safety in numbers, all families would want to be part of some band, and banishment was considered a very serious punishment. Bands would usually have strong ties to their neighbours through intermarriage and would assemble together at different parts of the year to hunt and socialize together. Besides these regional gatherings, there was no higher-level formal structure, and decisions of war and peace were made by consensus with allied bands meeting together in council. People could be identified by their clan, which is a group of people claiming descent from the same common ancestor; each clan would have a representative and a vote in all important councils held by the band (compare: Anishinaabe clan system).[6]

Each band remained independent of each other. However, Cree-speaking bands tended to work together and with their neighbours against outside enemies. Those Cree who moved onto the Great Plains and adopted bison hunting, called the Plains Cree, were allied with the Assiniboine and the Saulteaux in what was known as the "Iron Confederacy" which was a major force in the North American fur trade from the 1730s to the 1870s.

When a band went to war, they would nominate a temporary military commander, called a okimahkan. loosely translated as "war chief". This office was different from that of the "peace chief", a leader who had a role more like that of diplomat. In the run-up to the 1885 North-West Rebellion, Big Bear was the leader of his band, but once the fighting started Wandering Spirit became war leader.


There have been several attempts to create a national political organization that would represent all Cree peoples, at least as far back as a 1994 gathering at the Opaskwayak Cree First Nation reserve.[7]


The name "Cree" is derived from the Algonkian-language exonym Kirištino˙, which the Ojibwa used for tribes around Hudson Bay. The French colonists and explorers, who spelled the term Kilistinon, Kiristinon, Knisteneaux,[8] Cristenaux, and Cristinaux, used the term for numerous tribes which they encountered north of Lake Superior, in Manitoba, and west of there.[9] The French used these terms to refer to various groups of peoples in Canada, some of which are now better distinguished as Severn Anishinaabe (Ojibwa), who speak dialects different from the Algonquin.[10]

Depending on the community, the Cree may call themselves by the following names: the nēhiyawak, nīhithaw, nēhilaw, and nēhinaw; or ininiw, ililiw, iynu (innu), or iyyu. These names are derived from the historical autonym nēhiraw (uncertain meaning) or from the historical autonym iriniw (meaning "person"). Cree using the latter autonym tend to be those living in the territories of Quebec and Labrador.[11]


Main article: Cree language
Illustration of a Snake woman (left) and a Nehiyaw woman (right), c. 1840–1843, Karl Bodmer

The Cree language (also known in the most broad classification as Cree-Montagnais, Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi, to show the groups included within it) is the name for a group of closely related Algonquian languages spoken by approximately 117,000 people across Canada, from the Northwest Territories to Labrador. It is the most widely spoken aboriginal language in Canada.[12] The only region where Cree has official status is in the Northwest Territories, together with eight other aboriginal languages.[13][14]

The two major groups: Nehiyaw and Innu, speak a mutually intelligible Cree dialect continuum, which can be divided by many criteria. In a dialect continuum, "It is not so much a language, as a chain of dialects, where speakers from one community can very easily understand their neighbours, but a Plains Cree speaker from Alberta would find a Quebec Cree speaker difficult to speak to without practice."[15]

One major division between the groups is that the Eastern group palatalizes the sound /k/ to either /ts/ (c) or to /tʃ/ (č) when it precedes front vowels. There is also a major difference in grammatical vocabulary (particles) between the groups. Within both groups, another set of variations has arisen around the pronunciation of the Proto-Algonquian phoneme *l, which can be realized as /l/, /r/, /y/, /n/, or /ð/ (th) by different groups. Yet in other dialects, the distinction between /eː/ (ē) and /iː/ (ī) has been lost, merging to the latter. In more western dialects, the distinction between /s/ and /ʃ/ (š) has been lost, both merging to the former.

Golla lists Cree as one of fifty five languages that have more than 1,000 speakers which are being actively acquired by children.[16]

Identity and ethnicity

In Canada

Cree Indian, taken by G. E. Fleming, 1903

The Cree are the largest group of First Nations in Canada, with 220,000 members and 135 registered bands.[17] This large population may be a result of the Crees' traditional openness to intertribal marriage. Together, their reserve lands are the largest of any First Nations group in the country.[17] The largest Cree band and the second largest First Nations Band in Canada after the Six Nations Iroquois is the Lac La Ronge Band in northern Saskatchewan.

Given the traditional Cree acceptance of mixed marriages, it is acknowledged by academics that all bands are ultimately of mixed heritage and multilingualism and multiculturalism was the norm. In the West mixed bands of Cree, Saulteaux and Assiniboine, all partners in the Iron Confederacy, are the norm. However, in recent years, as indigenous languages have declined across western Canada where there were once three languages spoken on a given reserve, there may now only be one. This has led to a simplification of identity, and it has become "fashionable" for bands in many parts of Saskatchewan to identify as "Plains Cree" at the expense of a mixed Cree-Salteaux history. There is also a tendency for bands to recategorize themselves as "Plains Cree" instead of Woods Cree or Swampy Cree. Neal McLeod argues this is partly due to the dominant culture's fascination with Plains Indian culture as well as the greater degree of written standardization and prestige Plains Cree enjoys over other Cree dialects.[7]

The Métis (from the French, Métis - of mixed ancestry) are people of mixed ancestry, such as Nehiyaw (or Anishinaabe) and French, English, or Scottish heritage. According to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the Métis were historically the children of French fur traders and Nehiyaw women or, from unions of English or Scottish traders and northern Dene women (Anglo-Métis). Generally in academic circles, the term métis can be used to refer to any combination of persons of mixed Native American and European heritage, although historical definitions for Métis remain. Canada's Indian and Northern Affairs broadly define Métis as those persons of mixed First Nation and European ancestry, while The Métis National Council defines a Métis as "a person who self-identifies as Métis, is distinct from other Aboriginal peoples, is of historic Métis Nation Ancestry and who is accepted by the Métis Nation".[18]

In the United States

At one time the Cree lived in northern Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana. Today American Cree are enrolled in the federally recognized Chippewa Cree tribe, located on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation, and in minority as "Landless Cree" on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and as "Landless Cree" and "Rocky Boy Cree" on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, all in Montana. The Chippewa Cree share the reservation with the Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians, who form the "Chippewa" (Ojibwa) half of the Chippewa Cree tribe. On the other Reservations, the Cree minority share the Reservation with the Assiniboine, Gros Ventre and Sioux tribes. Traditionally, the southern limits of the Cree territory in Montana were the Missouri River and the Milk River.

First Nation communities

1 Naskapi (Iyiyiw and Innu)

2 Montagnais
a Eastern Montagnais (Innu)

b Western Montagnais (Nehilaw and Ilniw)

3 Atikamekw (Nehiraw)

4 James Bay Cree
Iyiyiw and Iyiniw Eeyou Istchee/Baie-James Territory

5 Moose Cree (Mōsonī / ililī)

6 Swampy Cree (Maškēkowak / nēhinawak)

7 Woodland Cree
a Rocky Cree (Asinīskāwiyiniwak)

b Woods Cree (Sakāwithiniwak / nīhithawak)

8 Plains Cree (Paskwāwiyiniwak / nēhiyawak)
a Downstream People (Māmihkiyiniwak)

i Calling River / Qu'Appelle Cree (Kātēpwēwi-sīpīwiyiniwak)

ii Rabbit skins (Wāpošwayānak)

iii Touchwood Hills Cree (Pasākanacīwiyiniwak)(also Saulteaux) – Punnichy, Saskatchewan

iv Cree-Assiniboine / Young Dogs (Nēhiyawi-pwātak)(also Assiniboine)

b Upstream People (Natimiyininiwak)

i Beaver Hills Cree (Amiskwacīwiyiniwak)

ii House Cree (wāskahikaniwiyiniwak)

iii Parklands Cree / Willow Cree (Paskokopāwiyiniwak)

iv River Cree (Sīpīwininiwak)

v Northern Plains Cree / Western Woodland Cree / Bush Cree (Sakāwiyiniwak)


The Hudson Bay Cree use a decoction of the leaves of Kalmia latifolia for diarrhea, but they consider the plant to be poisonous.[20]

Notable leaders

Other notable people

Mähsette Kuiuab, chief of the Cree ca. 1840–1843, Karl Bodmer
Buffy Sainte-Marie, Cree singer-songerwriter, performing in Norway, 2012

See also


  1. "Culture Areas Index". the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
  2. "Gateway to Aboriginal Heritage". Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation.
  3. Alexander Mackenzie, Voyages from Montreal Through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in 1789 and 1793.
  4. 1 2 Moose Cree First Nation community profile
  5. David Pentland, "Synonymy", in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 6, June Helm, ed., Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1981, p. 227
  7. 1 2
  8. MacKenzie, Alexander. (1793) Journal of a Voyage from Fort Chipewyan to the Pacific Ocean in 1793.
  9. David Thompson noted, "The French them 'Krees', a name which none of the Indians can pronounce...", "Life with the Nahathaways", in David Thompson: Travels in Western North America 1784-1812, Victor G. Hopwood, ed., Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1971, p. 109.
  10. Adolph M. Greeberg, James Morrison, "Group Identities in the Boreal Forest: The Origin of the Northern Ojibwa", Ethnohistory 29(2):75-102 (1982)
  11. David H. Pentland, "Synonymy", in "West Main Cree", in Handbook of North American Indians, v. 6, June Heilm, ed., Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1981, p. 227.
  12. Canada: 2006 Census
  13. Northwest Territories Official Languages Act, 1988 Archived 24 March 2009 at the Wayback Machine. (as amended 1988, 1991-1992, 2003)
  14. "Languages of Canada", Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Note: The western group of languages includes Swampy Cree, Woods Cree and Plains Cree. The eastern language is called Moose Cree. Retrieved 21 September 2008.
  15. "Cree", Language Geek. Retrieved 21 September 2008.
  16. Moseley, edited by Christopher (2007). "North America". In Moseley, Christopher. Encyclopedia of the world's endangered languages. London & New York: Routledge. pp. 1–96. ISBN 978-0-7007-1197-0.
  17. 1 2 Source: Canadian Geographic
  18. "Citizenship: The Métis Nation". Métis National Council.
  20. Holmes, E.M. 1884 Medicinal Plants Used by Cree Indians, Hudson's Bay Territory. The Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions 15:302-304 (p. 303)
  21. Mistawasis First Nation
  23. not to confused with the Ahtahkakoop (‘Starblanket’), of the House Cree (Wāskahikaniwiyiniwak)
  24. Ahchuchhwahauhhatohapit
  25. Nehiyawak Leadership
  26. by his knowledge of Sioux spirituality and medicine the Cree called him Payipwāt - 'One who knows the secrets of the Sioux'
  27. they had more than any other Cree group adapted to the life on the Plains, were known as horse thieves and warriors, and as they drove little trade, they were feared by the Hudson's Bay Company as troublemakers
  30. Cree Nation
  31. not to be confused with the Ojibwe leader Mino-giizhig ("Fine Day")
  32. Poundmaker was given his name because he had a special skill in the construction of Buffalo Pounds for slaying of grazing bison.
  33. Back to Batoche
  34. Pitikwahanapiwiyin
  35. Treaty 6 - The Signing
  36. Peechee's Band
  37. clue to his Métis descent, as the ermine fur is white in winter and brown in summer - as well as the skin of a Métis
  38. The People Who Own Themselves
  39. Beardy's Okemasis First Nation
  40. was the daughter of George Sutherland’s first wife Papamikiwis (‘Swinger’)
  41. Indians Who Fought in the 1885 Resistance
  42. One Arrow
  43. Little Pine First Nation
  44. Lucky Man Cree Nation
  46. Maskepetoon
  47. Red Pheasant First Nation
  48. Kahkewistahaw First Nation
  49. Kahkewistahaw band
  51. Métis Who Withdrew From Treaty


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