Plains Crees traditionally occupied–and still occupy–a large section of the Canadian Plains, extending through much of central Alberta and central and southeastern Saskatchewan. Most of this territory is within the Parkland Belt, a transitional zone between the open grasslands on the south and the boreal forests to the north. Plains Crees speak a dialect of Algonquian.
Archeological remains (Selkirk composite) attributed to the western boreal forest Crees date from at least A.D. 1350 in northern Saskatchewan. Whether Crees also occupied the Aspen Parklands at this time is not certain, although there are some late archeological materials in this zone that reflect Selkirk influence. Indeed, when Henry Kelsey, the first European known to have visited the Canadian Plains, traveled through the Aspen Parklands of eastern Saskatchewan in 1690, he met Crees there, along with Nakotas (Assiniboines). Certainly, the detailed observations of Hudson's Bay Company employees in the mid-1700s record the presence of at least four named Cree groups–Susahanna, Sturgeon, Pegogamow, and Kiskatchewan–in the Aspen Parklands of Saskatchewan through to central Alberta. The nature of the social and political organization of these groups remains uncertain. It should be noted that the predominant occupants of the Parklands of Saskatchewan and Manitoba at this time were the Nakotas (Assiniboines), who were friends and allies of the Crees. They often located their camps in close proximity, particularly at bison pounds.
Beginning in the late seventeenth century and continuing through most of the eighteenth century, many of these Crees (and Nakotas) played a prominent role in the developing fur trade. In particular, they acted as middlemen traders, and each summer they took canoe loads of furs to York Factory on Hudson Bay. These they traded for European goods, which, upon returning to the borders of the Plains, they exchanged with other Native peoples for furs. Of particular importance was the Blackfoot-Cree alliance, which formed in the 1730s and continued throughout the eighteenth century. At the heart of this alliance was the provision of guns by the Crees to the Blackfoot in return for furs.
Important changes occurred in the second half of the eighteenth century, including the establishment of a number of fur trade posts on the fringes of the Canadian Prairies, beginning with the French posts in the 1740s and 1750s. By 1780 the Hudson's Bay Company, the North West Company, and some smaller companies operated many posts in the western interior. The Parkland Crees and the Nakotas became much involved in the provisions trade, producing pemmican for the support of the employees of the trading companies. An even more important agent of change was disease, particularly the smallpox epidemics of 1780–81 and 1837–38, which greatly reduced the Cree population. Notably, during 1838 most of the Parkland Crees were vaccinated against smallpox, a reflection of their close relations with the Hudson's Bay Company. Unfortunately, this was not the case with most of the Nakota bands, which were decimated. The Parkland Crees then emerged as the predominant occupants of the Aspen Parklands and adjacent grasslands of central Saskatchewan and Alberta, and very quickly became a new tribal group–the Plains Crees.
Through the mid–nineteenth century, the Plains Crees maintained an economic cycle that positioned them near the grassland/parkland interface during the winter. A common method of taking bison at this season involved building a pound–a circular corral with an opening on one side. Wings extending outward from the opening for a considerable distance were employed to funnel small herds into the pound where they were dispatched. In the course of the winter, some families traveled into the forest edge to trap fur-bearing animals, an activity that continued through the spring. During the latter season they sometimes built fish weirs on streams in order to intercept spawning runs. Following this they moved out into the Plains for the summer. While the Plains Crees valued horses highly, the number of horses remained low because the northern winters impeded their reproduction and caused a high general mortality. Therefore, dogs remained an important draft animal.
By the second half of the nineteenth century the Plains Crees were divided into eight major bands. Each of these bands had at least one prominent chief who often was the focus of a large camp group; however, all the members of each band gathered together only once a year, during the summer. At this time, in late June or early July, there was a ceremonial gathering at which the Sun (Thirsting) Dance was celebrated. The Plains Crees also observed nine other sacred ceremonies, the most prominent of which was the Smoking Tipi. However, in central Saskatchewan the Goose Dance–a ceremony of certain boreal forest Crees with elements adapted from the Midewiwin (the Grand Medicine Society) of the Ojibwas–was also important.
During the second half of the nineteenth century the bison herds were decimated, their range contracting to the south and southwest. As a result, many Crees were drawn far out onto the grasslands of southwestern Saskatchewan and northern Montana, where they came into conflict with their former allies, the Blackfoot. In the 1870s, with the approaching extirpation of the bison, most of the Plains Cree bands entered into treaty agreements with the Canadian government and took up residence on some twenty-four reserves in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where they survived by farming and ranching.
Over the years, many of the Plains Crees (and Plains Ojibwas) had intermarried with French traders, creating the Métis culture. In 1885, led by chiefs Poundmaker and Big Bear, they joined their relatives in the North-West Rebellion. Defeated after two major battles, Cree leaders were imprisoned, and one group left Canada and eventually settled on the Rocky Boy's Reservation in northern Montana. In the late 1800s the Plains Cree population was about 7,000; by 1998 it had increased remarkably to 62,330 persons, with 37,314 living in Saskatchewan and 25,016 in Alberta. In recent decades there has been considerable out-migration from the reserves to the cities of the Canadian Prairies, and there are now probably more Plains Crees living in urban areas than on the reserves.
See also WAR: North-West Rebellion.
David MeyerUniversity of Saskatchewan
Ahenakew, Freda, and H. Christoph Wolfart, eds. Kwayask ê-kî-pê-kiskinowâpahtihicik. Their Example Showed Me the Way. Told by Emma Minde. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1997.
Mandelbaum, David G. The Plains Cree: An Ethnographic, Historical and Comparative Study. Canadian Plains Studies no. 9. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1979.
Russell, Dale. Eighteenth-Century Western Cree and Their Neighbours. Archaeological Survey of Canada Mercury Series Paper no. 143. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1991.