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(A contraction of Cristino or Kenisteno, their Ojibwa name, of uncertain meaning; they commonly called themselves simply Eythinyuwuk, men).
The largest and most important Indian tribe of Canada, and one of the largest north of Mexico. They are part of the great Algonquin stock and closely related to their southern neighbours, the Ojibwa, although only remotely cognate to the Blackfeet, farther to the west. Until confined to reservations their various bands held most of the extensive territory about Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba, the lower Red and Saskatchewan, and eastward to the country of the Maskegon about Hudson Bay, from whom they are hardly to be distinguished. Most of their former territory is now included in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Assiniboia, and Saskatchewan. Their chief alliance was with the Assiniboin; their wars were with the Sioux, Blackfeet, and northern Tinneh tribes. With both French and English they have generally been on friendly terms. When first known to the Jesuit missionaries, about the year 1650, the Cree lived farther to the south-east, but, on obtaining firearms from the English trading posts established on Hudson Bay some twenty years later, they pushed out into the open plains in search of buffalo. They drove the Blackfeet before them, and at the same time began a war of invasion and extermination against the weaker Tinneh tribes, as far even as the Mackenzie River and the Rocky Mountains. A great small-pox epidemic in 1781 so far reduced their numbers that they retired south of Churchill River, which has since remained the extreme limit of their claims in that direction.
In physique and intelligence the Cree do not differ markedly from the general Indian type, but are perhaps slightly below the general "plains" standard. Mackenzie, who knew them before they had been greatly modified by contact with whites, describes them (1790) as naturally generous, good-tempered, and honest. Their primitive weapons and utensils were fashioned from stone, bone, and horn. They used the canoe of birch-bark, and the tipi of buffalo skins. They had no agriculture or pottery-art, but their women were expert skin-dressers and workers in porcupine quills. For their food they depended upon fishing, hunting, and gathering of wild roots and fruits. Wild plums and cherries were pounded, dried, and preserved in rawhide bags or boxes. Buffalo meat was cut into strips and dried in the sun for immediate use, or was pounded, covered with melted grease, and kept in skin bags as pemmican for winter. Two pounds of this was a sufficient day's rations for a man. Their clothing was of dressed skills; their ornamentation and style of hair-cut varied in different bands. Their dead were buried in the ground under a mound of stones, instead of being placed upon scaffolds or in the branches of trees, as was done by the Sioux and others. In accordance with general Indian customs, the personal belongings of the decreased were buried with him or destroyed near the grave. Polygamy was common, and a man might marry two sisters at once from the same family. There was no trace of the clan system, as was known among the eastern and southern tribes. They sacrificed to a number of gods, their principal myths centring about a supernatural hero called Wisukatcak. They were also great believers in conjurations and witchcraft, and had an influential order of priesthood in four degrees. Their great religious ceremony was the annual Sun Dance. Their two main divisions were distinguished as Wood and Plain Cree, each of which was again subdivided by bands differentiated by slight peculiarities of dialect and custom. With these were sometimes included the Muskegon, under the name of Swampy Cree. On account of the wide extent of the former Cree, the early estimates of the Cree populations vary widely greatly. They number now about 15,000, of whom two-thirds are located upon reservations in Ma nitoba.
The earliest missionaries in the Cree country were the French Jesuits, who accompanied the commander Verendrye in his explorations of the Saskatchewan and Missouri River region from 1731 to 1742. Chief among these were Father Nicholas Gonnor, Charles Mesaiger, and Jean Aulneau. No attempt was made at this time to found permanent mission settlements, and the work thus begun was allowed to lapse in consequence of the withdrawal of the French from Canada until after the establishment of the Red River colony by Lord Selkirk. In 1818 Father Joseph Norbert Provencher and Sèvére Dumoulin established the first regular mission station at St. Boniface, opposite the present city of Winnipeg. In 1822 Father Provencher was made bishop, with jurisdiction over all of Rupert's Land and the Northwest Territories, and at once proceeded to organize a systematic mission work throughout the whole vast region. Upon his death in 1853 he was succeeded by the noted Oblate Father Alexander Taché, who had come out eight years before. Among other distinguished workers in the same field, all Oblates, may be noted Father Albert Lacombe, author of a monumental grammar and dictionary of the Cree language, besides a number of religious and other translations; Father Valentine Végréville, founder of five missions and author of a manuscript grammar and dictionary of the Cree language, Father John Thibault; and Father Emile Petitot, better known for his great work among the remote Tinneh and Eskimo tribes. The Fathers were sisters of the Order of Gray Nuns. Protestant work was begun by the Episcopalian Rev. John west, as chaplain for the Hudson's Bay Company in 1820, the Wesleyan Methodists and Presbyterians coming later. The most distinguished Protestant worker was the Wesleyan Rev. James Evan (1840-1861), inventor of the Cree syllabary, which for half a century has been in successful use in the tribe for literary purposes for all denominations. Of the whole number of Cree officially reported as Christian the majority are Catholic and rank high in morality.
Bryce, Hudson's Bay Company (1900); Canadian Indian Reports; Thwaites, Jesuit Relations (Cleveland, 1896-1901; Lacombe, Dict. des Cris (1874); Mackenzie, Voyages (1802); McLean, Canadian Savage Folk (1896); Petitot, in Journal Roy. Geog. Soc. (1883); Pilli ng, Bibl. of the Algonquian Languages (1891); Richardson, Arctic Expedition (1861).