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This is an introduction to the Cree Indians way of life explaining about the foods they ate, significance of story telling, myths, religious beliefs, rituals performed, and their present day way of life. It is almost impossible to touch on every aspect because of what is not printed and only known by elders.
Some native words used by Cree Indians: Kiwetin meaning the north wind that brings misfortune (Gill, Sullivan 158). Another word is maskwa used for bear, the most intelligent and spiritually powerful land animal (Gill, Sullivan 182). A water lynx that holds control over lakes and rivers is called “Michi-Pichoux”; they are associated with unexplained deaths (Gill, Sullivan 189). Tipiskawipisim is used for the moon who is the sister of the sun. Once a flood destroys the first humans, Tipiskawipisim creates the first female (Gill, Sullivan 303).
The history of the Cree Indians begins where they live for the most part in Canada, and some share reservations with other tribes in North Dakota. The Cree Indians, an Alogonquian tribe sometimes called Knisteneau, were essentially forest people, though an offshoot, the so-called Plains Cree, were buffalo hunters. The Cree’s first encounter with white people was in 1640, the French Jesuits. The Cree Indians later lost many of their tribe in the 1776 break out of small pox, battles with the Sioux, and a defeat to the Blackfeet in 1870. The Cree lived by hunting, fishing, trapping, and using muskrat as one of their staples. They made sacrifices to the sun; the Great Master of Life (Erdoes, Ortiz 504).
The Cree lived in the Northern Plains, which was also home to the Sarsi, Blackfoot, Plains Ojibway, and Assiniboin. Many of the tribes were equestrian bands moving to pursue the buffalo. The buffalo was their resource for food, material for dwellings, clothing, cooking vessels, rawhide cases, and bone and horn implements. The introduction of the horse by the Spanish led to the plains Indians to become more able and skillful hunters. Each tribe had different methods of hunting, preservation, and preparation of meat (Cox, Jacobs 98).
One method of the nomadic plains tribes for cooking was to use rawhide cooking vessels which came from the hump of the buffalo, staked over a mound of earth and left to dry in the shape of a bowl. The pot was put in a shallow hole near the fire, and then carefully selected stones that would not shatter easily would be put in the fire and transferred to the bowl with wood or bone tongs to heat the contents of the pot.
Some items that they would be cooking would be thinly sliced or diced fresh or dried meat, wild vegetables, and tubers (Cox, Jacobs 98).
Another method of cooking was to use a paunch of freshly killed animal suspended with stakes, of which inside it was placed water and meat, along with organ meats and the stones (Cox, Jacobs 99).
The plains hunters leading a mobile life would find ways to reduce bulk to become efficient in moving there belongings, which was one of the reasons foods were dried such as jerky. Jerky consisted of thinly sliced meat spread out and dried in the sun. Other ways of preserving the meat to reconstitute later into a broth would be to bake the meat over the coals, pound with stones into a pulp, mixed with bone marrow and packed into rawhide containers. The tribes would also trade with river and eastern tribes for dried corn, squash, and wild rice (Cox, Jacobs 99).
The tribes who were nomadic to pursue hunting buffalo would trade dried meat, tanned hides, and decorated garments for vegetables of the tribes that were raising vegetables.
Corn, beans, and squash were all dried to reduce bulk. Corn could be left to dry in the fields, gathered and shelled to make into hominy by boiling with ashes. Corn was also parched by baking in pottery containers over fires. Later it could be pounded into a coarse flour mixed with either sunflower seed flour, shelled nut meats, service berries, a little water, and hot melted tallow or marrow formed into small balls known as corn balls. Cornballs were used by hunters and used for trading. Another way to preserve corn was to parboil or roast unshucked ears of green corn for ten to fifteen minutes then remove from the water. Then the husk was braided two to three foot strands and dried in the sun. Squash and pumpkin were cut into spirals and hung to dry in the sun, later broken into pieces and stored. An assortment of berries was gathered in different seasons, dried, and later used in cooking. Tea was made from wild mint, bark of elm tree, chokecherry trees, and roots of wild rose bushes. Medicinal teas were derived from wild broad-leafed sage, calamus, and cedar berries (Cox, Jacobs 100).
Turnips were dug as a family tradition when the flowers turned purple to lavender in color. Once the skin was removed from the turnips they were eaten raw as a special treat or boiled with fresh meat, fresh tripe, or corn. Raw turnips used for future use were sliced and dried on a flat surface. Later when using the turnips they had to be soaked in water over night to cut the boiling time in half (Cox, Jacobs 102).
Some of the foods prepared consisted of: buffalo and berry soup, turnip and corn soup, sautéed wild mushrooms and onions, corn griddle cakes, cattail pollen flapjacks, buffalo medicine sausage, buffalo jerky, venison mincemeat meat, and choke berry pudding (Cox, Jacobs 102).
The Cree Indians used the art of storytelling as a process that continues in its meaning and importance for the present and even future. Stories are remembered and told to be able to explore the world of things, beliefs, and ideas. Indians used stories for entertainment, education, and to explain life (Penn 6).
Penn interprets what most Americans have yet to realize about the Native American Indians legends and stories:
Native American legends and stories combine over time, for the listener who hears them again and again, into a kind of epic of his community, her tribe, their family, and the relationship among them all. In that relationship the people find meaning in maintaining that relationship, they find their value or worth as human being (Penn 6).
This Cree story told about a young man courting a woman for the wrong reasons. The story was adapted by Barry Lopez and called “Coyote Marries A Man”. A young man named Not Enough Horses decided he could not find any woman beautiful enough for him in his village. He sets off to find someone worthy of him, once he does he is married only to find out when awakes he married a Coyote. His whole village makes fun of him; however, he has still not learned his lesson. Once again he leaves and marries the first woman he comes in contact with thinking he would now be accepted in his tribe and finds out once again he was tricked and had married the Coyote the second time. This story was used to teach woman and men who were thinking of marriage how not to look for a mate by outward beauty, but inward beauty (Penn 112).
The Cree Indians mythology consisted of many things, an example is that curing is often done through spiritual intervention. The Cree call on the helping spirits “Pakahk” and “Maskwa”, a bear ally, to cure (Gill, Sullivan 120).
Another myth of the Crees is that Pine Root and Beaded Head is the first two beings on earth. They perform extraordinary feats of spiritual power and prepare for the comings of humans. When they finish their stay on earth, Pine Root and Beaded Head are transformed into stars and plants. A Cree ritual performed called the shaking tent is used to become a conjurer with the permission of the spirit Mistapew. The ritual takes place at night, the conjurer is bound and hidden in a lodge, and a tent is erected. The conjurer sings and drums to call on invisible airborne spirits. The arrival of the spirits is when the tent begins to shake and move from side to side. The spirits then release the conjurers bonds, talks with the conjurer, and with the audience. The spirits help give information about persons or events, treatment of illness, and locate things like animals for hunting or lost items (Gill, Sullivan 303).
The northern plains Native American religion sometimes differed from tribe to tribe and yet was similar. The plains geographical area is approximately 1.25 million square miles, with about one third of the land in the United States. The boundaries are the Mississippi River to the east, the Rocky Mountains to the west, the central Canadian provinces to the north, and the Gulf of Mexico to the South. Since contact with whites, seven linguistic families have divided these groups with the Plains Cree being one of them (Carmody 60).
Upon the introduction of the horse, some tribes became nomadic moving to where they found buffalo, deer, and other wild life to hunt or fish. When tribes met up with one another they would use sign language to trade and barter. Recently, three forms of religious beliefs have been found in the entire plains area: the sun dance, the ghost dance, and the Native American Church. Some tribes for visionary purposes used sweat lodge ceremonies, Two great resources of the plains people, buffalo and maize were associated with a female figure in reference to her fertility suggesting female beginnings. Indians would hold rituals calling upon each of the four winds to give them good gifts and keep back the bad. An example would be in the summer the heat from the south and in the winter the freezing cold from the north (Carmody 61).
The Carmody’s give one introspective viewpoint of native people:
Human beings did not dominate nature or transform it. They reacted to it more than they altered it to fit forms in their minds. The aesthetic component of Native American spirituality can be a salutary shock. It can remind pragmatic people that, long before things are useful, they are wonderful in their simple being (Carmody 66).
A ritual the plains tribes held sacred was the use of the sacred pipe and the sweat lodge. The pipe filled with tobacco and smoked was used to mediate with the Great Spirit as the smoke drifted heavenward. The pipe was also used for social purposes such as reconciling enemies, uniting tribal members, and to express good fellowship. The sweat lodge was used for a person to be cleansed by perspiration as water was poured over hot stones to create steam. While the bodies impurities left it, the mind and heart would also be cleaned of anything bad to be able to commune with the Great Spirit (Carmody 66).
Joseph Epes Brown writes that, for plains Indians, animals and other natural forms reflected aspects of God: Animals were created before human beings, so that in their divine origin they have a certain proximity to the Great Spirit, which demands respect.
In them the Indian sees actual reflections of the qualities of the Great Spirit, which serve the same function as revealed scriptures in other religions. They are intermediaries or links between human beings and God. This explains not only why religious devotions may be directed to the deity through the animals, but it also helps us to understand why contact with or from the Great Spirit, comes almost exclusively through vision involving animal or other natural forms (Rockwell 6).
Hunting was an important part of a Crees life. The Cree had a ritual that included parts of a bear that were not edible like the skull and bones. After feasting on a bear, a tree was cut down and stripped of bark and branches leaving a little growth at the very top of the tree. Then it was painted with horizontal red stripes and stuck in the ground by the edge of the camp. Circle and bar designs were put on the bears skull, tobacco put in its jaw, ribbons of hide and cloth were tied to it, than lashed to the pole about ten feet above the ground facing east towards the rising sun. The rest of the bones were hung in a bundle from the pole about six feet above the ground. The Cree did this every time they killed a bear so it would return to life to come back to be killed again. If more than one bear was killed in a winter, a long column of painted and decorated skulls hung from the pole. Sometimes before placing the skull on the pole a hunter would place the skull in his lodge over where he slept to help him dream more bear dreams. Out of respect for the bear the hunter sometimes would put the hide away for one year before using it. The skin under the bear’s chin was given special attention. A successful bear’s hunter’s wife would decorate it with beads, quills, and little tassels of cloth to give to her husband as a hunting charm (Rockwell 39).
The Grand council of the Crees provides information over the Internet on the culture, values, political, cultural, social, economic past and current events. The political voice of the James Bay Crees who live in the province of Quebec, Canada is the Grand Council of the Crees (GCCEI). Recently eight Cree communities lands and traditional way of life were threatened in 1971 by the construction of the James Bay hydroelectric development project It has been contested because of Native rights, mercury pollution, loss of wildlife habitat, and other form of cultural and environmental disruption.
In the 1960s a major Canadian pulp and Paper Company constructed a mill and hired 1000 woodcutters and 300 mill workers. The impacts of this and large mining companies moving in for copper and other base metals were profound, especially with all the clear cutting of forests. It was hard for the Cree because of this destruction to be able to trap and hunt like they used to. To find jobs to help them survive a skill that was necessary but few held were to be able to speak French (GCCEI).
The Cree nation is comprised of nine communities having a total population of well over 12,000 Eeyou (Cree People). A large area east of James and Hudson Bays is where the Eeyou Istchee has lived since the glaciers left about 5,000 years ago. They have held title to it since the beginning of time, which was confirmed under common law by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the James Bay, and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975. The Crees name “Eeyou Istchee” means “People’s Land”. They are an Algonqian speaking people (GCCEI).
Schooling for Cree children started from birth through the age of five to six years old becoming totally involved in learning their language, social patterns, traditional norms, expectations appropriate for their age and sex. Upon the late arrival of the 1950s the children’s way of life changed drastically as they were sent from the homes away to boarding schools. They were taught for nine months of the year a different language, ate different foods, and teachers taught them what they thought would be useful to them for a modern way of life. The children soon found it difficult while they were in school as well as when they returned home. They felt like they did not belong in either world (GCCEI).
A Cree term used having a variety of meanings is Nitao. It has five basic meanings: to see something or to look at something; to go to get or to fetch something; to need something; to want something; and to grow or continue to grow (GCCEI).
The Cree believe animals are gifts and do not only give themselves, they are given by the “wind persons” and by God or Jesus. The wind persons live at the Four Corners of the earth and have specific personal characteristics related to particular seasons, weather and animal patterns, hunting conditions, and success. The wind persons also like God to the world (GCCEI).
The Americans see the meaning of power as a way to control others or the world. The Crees see power in a different complex way being that human knowledge is always incomplete, and there is a gap between what humans think and what actually happens. An example is when a hunter first dreams of an animal, then hunts, and when the things he thinks about come to be he is given the animal which is an indicator of power (GCCEI).
Social growth by the Cree was expressed by more formal community based decision-making institutions. The Cree took over formal control of the many organizations that provided services in their communities. Some of these include school boards, health committees and social services boards. Because of the lack of formal education and professional training the changes to policies, programs, and structures of the organizations were slow to develop (GCCEI).
Currently there continues to be a high level of unemployment. The economic benefits of the hydroelectric project has been directed to southern urban centers, not boosting the development of Cree villages in any way. The Cree face several major threats presently considering natural resources that are no longer available to them because of the hydro dam, paper mills, and mining companies. Even though the Cree have made it through the last two decades as a united people, they struggle to achieve their goals in relationship to the government and project developers on the land they share (GCCEI).
The Cree Indians are a very diverse cultural group of people who have true meaning in all aspects of their life. The European culture has changed their way of life from what is used to be from the start of their existence. It is important that the Cree youth not loose touch with their native ways of being able to carry on their story telling, myths, legends, religion, rituals, and native customs.
Carmody, John and Denise. Native American Religions: An Introduction. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1993.
Chance, Norman and Conklin, Paul. “The Crees of Northern Quebec: A Photographic Essay.” Online. Grand Council of the Crees. November 21, 2000.
Cox, Beverly, and Jacobs, Martin. Spirit Of The Harvest: North American Indian Cooking. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1991.
Erdoes, Richard, and Ortiz, Alfonso. American Indian Trickster Tales. New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1998.
Erdoes, Richard, and Ortiz, Alfonso. American Indian Myths And Legends. Marshall, Eliot. Legalization: A Debate. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Gill, Sam D., and Sullivan, Irene F. Dictionary Of Native American Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Penn, W. S. The Telling Of The World: Native American Stories And Art. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1997.
Rockwell, David. Giving Voice To Bear. Niwot, Colorado: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1991.