The Nêhiyaw (Cree)

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The Nêhiyaw or Cree (Nēhiyawak, Nīhithaw, Nēhilaw, and Nēhinaw; or Ininiw, Ililiw, Innu, Iyyu) are the most populous and widely distributed Indigenous people in Canada. Cree First Nations occupy territory in the subarctic region from Alberta to Québec, as well as portions of the Plains region in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Cree groups moved permanently onto the Plains starting in the 1790s. The Plains Cree emerged from the main Woodland Cree, who were subarctic boreal forest hunters in what is now called Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Their early relationship with the Hudson’s Bay Company starting in 1670 and Montréal-based fur trade networks starting in 1731, the Cree became central figures in the Western North American fur trade. The Cree maintained almost exclusive access to manufactured European trade goods, such as firearms, iron knives and hatchets, coarse woolen cloth, wool blankets, cooking utensils, beads, and needles. Because of their prominent role in the fur trade, marriages or alliances between Cree women and fur traders became an essential component of fur trade negotiations, which resulted in many Métis people tracing their descent from Cree women and French-Canadian fur traders and voyageurs. Although the fur trade did shift some economic conditions and altered some of the everyday aspects of the Cree lifestyle, it did not fundamentally undermine or alter their culture, beliefs, and traditions.

Chief Starblanket and group of men at Treaty 4 signing

Photograph of Chief Starblanket and group of men at Treaty Four signing. 1874. H series-H-4 (H series),
PAHS Archives Collection Fonds. Prince Albert Historical Society, Saskatchewan. Our Legacy. 

Cree social and kinship structures are guided by the principle and law wahkôtowin:

“This concept translates to ‘relatedness or interrelatedness’. An underlying assumption of this kind of relatedness is that it signifies a kinship not just to humans but also to all other living entities and spirit beings… Reuben Quinn is of the view that many of what are described as values, are actually laws (personal interview May 26th, 2014).

Many traditionalists see wahkôtowin as a natural law. As a law, there would have been a great sense of personal responsibility to live by the teachings of wahkôtowin. It would not simply have been a personal choice in the pre-colonial nîhiyaw world but carried out as a lifelong task and reinforced by the entire community.” - Napoleon, Art. “Key Terms and Concepts for Exploring Nîhiyaw Tâpisinowin the Cree Worldview.” Master’s thesis. University of Victoria, 2014. 85-87.

Other foundational Cree Laws are: "pimâtisiwin (life), pimâcihowin (livelihood), pâstâhowin (breaking laws against humans), ohcinêwin (breaking laws against anything other than a human, manâtisiwin (respect), miyo-ohpikinâwasowin (good child rearing), wahkôtowin (kinship) and tâpowakêyihtamowin (religion, faith). These tenets of nêhiyaw wiyasowêwina (Cree laws) form the foundation of Cree Justice" (Muskeg Lake Cree Nation Website, Justice Services).


The Importance of Circles in Cree Legal Traditions (TRC Final Report: Vol. 6)

“When actions must be taken to facilitate reconciliation, Cree people often gather in circles to conduct such business. These circles exist to remind participants of these sacred teachings and of the impact that their deliberations will have on a person’s and community’s progression through life. By using circles, the Cree reaffirm their unity under the Creator’s laws and their understanding of the larger wheel of life […] Although other traditions and approaches to reconciliation are apparent within Cree society, circles are critically important in working towards reconciliation within Cree law. In fact, there are many types of circles that can be convened in a Cree context, including prayer circles, talking circles, and healing circles. Such circles can be activated when someone is unbalanced and does something harmful. These circles provide a place where such people can discuss the causes and consequences of their actions with family members, Cree Elders, leaders, and medicine people in an attempt to restore proper balance in their lives and within their communities.


These laws were discussed at a gathering of Cree Knowledge Keepers and Treaty 6 territory Elders on March 22 and 23, 2011. At this meeting, nêhiyaw wiyasowêwina (Cree law) was identified as residing within an intricate matrix of complex principles. The Elders identified eight principles within their laws that helped to balance their communities. These principles are pimâtisiwin (life), pimâcihowin (livelihood), pâstâhowin (breaking laws against humans), ohcinêwin (breaking laws against anything other than a human), manâtisiwin (respect), miyo-ohpikinâwasowin (good childrearing), wahkôtowin (kinship), and tâpowakêyihtamowin (faith, spirituality). All were recognized as being an essential part of Cree life. These legal principles have obvious value for reconciliation since each concept is directed towards healthier relationships.” Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “Canada’s Residential Schools: Reconciliation,” in The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 6, (Ottawa: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), 58-59. 

Family and community members support each other in times of need, mutual assistance and cooperation is highly valued. Respect for one another and non-human beings is key to understandings of kinship and responsibility to one another and the natural world.


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After acquiring guns and iron weapons through trade, the Cree expanded their territory to control of much of the Hudson Bay Watershed, hampering access to European posts to all western Indigenous peoples apart from their allies, the Nakoda Oyadebi (Assiniboine). Armed with muskets and iron-tipped weapons, the Cree began a two-pronged western migration that brought them through the northern woodlands to the Rocky Mountains and in a southwesterly direction to the Great Plains. Although the Cree first occupied the Prairie parkland only seasonally, some Cree permanently exchanged their canoes for horses, and subsisted primarily on the buffalo hunt on a year-round basis. During this time, many Cree remained in the boreal forest and the tundra area to the north, where a stable culture persisted – these groups are the Swampy Cree and the Woodland Cree. They continued to rely on hunting moose, caribou, smaller game, fowl, and fish. While the Buffalo was an important staple during the Fur Trade, the Woodland Cree did not rely on Buffalo exclusively and continued a diverse way of life supplemented with Boreal resources.

Rather than supplying furs and pelts to the expanding Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company, Cree provisioned trading posts and fur brigades with Pemmican, which was made by pounding dried meat with berries and pouring melted fat over the mixture. It was a dense, high-protein and high energy food that could be stored and shipped with ease to provision voyageurs in the fur trade travelling in the prairie regions where regular game could be scarce. As a result, prairie bison herds were recognized as a rich resource, whose dried meat and fat became a lucrative alternative to the trade of furs.

Control of buffalo and horse herds brought the Cree into conflict with other Indigenous peoples, such as the Blackfoot, A'aninin, Shoshone, Ktunaxa, Lakota, and Métis. The Plains Cree population was impacted greatly by recurrent smallpox and influenza epidemics between 1781 and 1838. The Canadian government, under the leadership of Sir John A. Macdonald, purposefully withheld rations, medicine, and other aid to force starving Plains peoples into signing treaties and relocating to marginal reserves. The Canadian Government chose to delay Treaty making with Woodland and Swampy Cree who lived in Northern Boreal Parklands until the end of the 19th Century, some years after negotiations with Plains peoples occurred. This was despite requests to engage in Treaty making in the North; the Canadian Government delayed negotiations until mineral and resource deposits were found in regions not covered by Treaty, at which point they hastily sought Treaty Adhesions. For many Indigenous peoples in the North, including the Cree, reserve selection was delayed for years after Adhesions were signed, leaving them without a protected and recognized land-base (Treaty Rights).  

After 1884, the Canadian government suppressed and banned many Cree cultural ceremonies and rituals including the Thirst Dance, powwows, vision quests, feasts, pipe ceremonies, sweat lodges, prohibited First Nations from seeking legal counsel, instituted Residential and Day Schools, the informal pass system, and the ‘Sixties Scoop’ which has been continued through current Child Welfare apprehensions. This is my no means a finite list. Today, Saskatchewan has the largest approximate registered Cree population with 115,000.


  • Indigenous Encyclopedia Saskatchewan. "Cree." The University of Saskatchewan.
  • Arthur J. Ray, Indians in the Fur Trade: Their Role as Hunters, Trappers and Middlemen in the Lands Southwest of Hudson Bay 1660-1870 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974). 
  • David G. Mandelbaum, The Plains Cree: An Ethnographic, Historical, and Comparative Study (Regina: Canadian Plains Studies, 1979). 
  • John S. Milloy, The Plains Cree: Trade, Diplomacy and War, 1790 to 1870 (Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1988).
  • Victor P. Lytwyn, Muskekowuck Athinuwick: Original People of the Great Swampy Land (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2002).