The Cree


Carla, Redearth

FTLComm - Tisdale - March 22, 2001


"Hudson Bay Indians," that is how some books refer to the Cree of Canada and that reference was not only meant to denote that these people were from around the huge geographic landmark, but the reference also implies that these were the people who were the ushers to the Hudson Bay Fur Trading Company.




Perhaps the largest single aboriginal linguistic group in Canada, the Cree indeed originated all around the Hudson Bay. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Cree had long ago mastered the complex technology needed to survive in a wooded and hostile climate that was frozen solid almost ten months of every year. Despite such incredible hardship and adversity the Cree hold onto today, a rich and positive culture that is nurtured and propelled by its adaptive language.




The Cree offer to everyone an example of remarkable adaptivity. Traditionally and contemporarily always inclined to negotiate, barter, make a deal and find a way to talk rather than fight, it is truly amazing that the British would decide to launch their North American trading campaign through Cree land. The Cree knew how to make deals and the relationship between the Bay Company and these friendly people was positive for them both.




The skills and capacity to accomplish difficult problems distinguish both the Cree culture and may be the reason North Americans speak English instead of French.




The few missionaries who came with the British trading area of North America were fascinated with the Cree culture, so much so they took time to formulate a complete written language for the Cree language, referred to now as "syllabics". There are still many people who can read this language even though advances in linguistics have made it easy to use the alphabet we use with a few additions.




Like the languages of the Dakota, Nakota and Lakota people, Cree has its variant dialects and similarly these variation use a common syntax with various consonants emphasised or deleted. "L" and "N" dialects are the most common in Saskatchewan. The "N" or "Swampy" Cree is spoken at Shoal Lake, Red Earth, Pelican Narrows, Cumberland House and Waterhen Lake on the West side of the province. But even within this group there are distinct accents that have evolved simply because of isolation and the language developing in its own inevitable way.




I noticed that in Red Earth the "N" dialect took on a much higher pitch whereas the same dialect spoken in Cumberland House is smooth and vowel filled to remind one of Italian, only softer and more calm.




Within Saskatchewan there are three distinct Cree peoples, the "N" dialect Swampy Cree, the Woodland Cree and the Plains Cree. Their languages are similar but time and experience separated these people in these characteristic lifestyles and habitat.



world of

The Cree culture is endlessly rich in its folklore and oral traditions. The language has maintained a close touch with tales of the "Bushman" and the wonders and powers of spirit world. The Cree readily accepted European religions because they quickly observed that it was just a simpler form of their own traditional world of spirituality. The Cree have always taken an active part in the leadership of the adopted European religions and like so many things, have made it their own.




Each ethnic group has a tendency to share some physical features and the distinguishing feature of the Cree is seen in the round appearance of children's faces. As I wrote that last sentence I immediately could visualise those faces and it is a rarity not to see a smile on a Cree face. Humour of all kinds marks the Cree, who in my experience, truly love a good joke, and delight in teasing. For those of you who hear CBC radio personality Tom Roberts from La Ronge, Tom's good humour and passion for a good story epitomises the people with whom he shares his heritage.



culture much
much older

But a word of caution, when you encounter Cree people keep in mind that if the individual you meet is Cree speaking, and if not, but raised in a Cree home, you will be dealing with someone who comes from a culture much much older than anything found in Europe and extremely sophisticated in every conceivable way. I had lived in Cumberland House for more that a year before some one showed me a means of nonverbal communication and gesturing that is both efficient and enormously subtle. Though it was completely obvious and I am an experienced and trained communicator, I would not have seen it had it not been brought to my attention.
  By Timothy W. Shire
Timothy Shire served as principal at both Red Earth and Cumberland House.