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Manitoba History: Review: Dale R. Russell, Eighteenth-Century Western Cree and Their Neighbours

by Michael B. Payne
Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism, Edmonton

Number 24, Autumn 1992

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Dale R. Russell, Eighteenth-Century Western Cree and Their Neighbours, Mercury Series Paper no. 143, Ottawa, Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1991, x, 238 pp., maps. ISBN 0-660-12915-9.

The basic premise of Dale Russell’s Eighteenth-Century Western Cree and Their Neighbours is quite simple. Russell argues that David Mandelbaum, Arthur Ray and virtually every other historian, anthropologist, and ethnographer who has written on the subject share a common—but erroneous—view of western Cree history.

Russell characterizes this version of history as a long chain of circumstance: following the introduction of the fur trade on the shores of Hudson Bay local native groups, most of whom were Cree, became dependent upon trade goods which led to depletion of fur resources which in turn forced migration into new territories in search of new fur supplies. This migration was not, however, peaceful, and armed with guns acquired through trade, the Cree were able to displace a number of other tribal groups to the north and west of their ancestral territories in northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitoba. Thus the fur trade set in motion massive demographic and territorial changes and led directly to the creation of what was essentially a new people: the Plains Cree.

Russell suggests that the evidence for this largely depends upon two brief passages in Alexander Mackenzie’s Voyages which suggest that the Cree were “invaders” in the Saskatchewan River area and that their encroachments were only halted when other groups, like the Gros Ventre and Blackfoot Confederacy, also acquired firearms, and that a similar process occurred further north. There the Cree displaced Athapaskan-speaking groups on the upper Churchill and Athabasca Rivers, before the Cree and Dunneza or Beaver Indians arranged a truce at Peace Point on the Peace River. According to Russell subsequent fur trade authors merely paraphrased Mackenzie, thus lending spurious support to these doubtful observations.

Russell also argues that modern scholars have not questioned Mackenzie’s authority, despite the fact that he had no direct experience of trade on the Plains, nor any contact with Plains Indian groups. And he does not specify when these invasions actually occurred. In fact, Mackenzie’s comments might well relate to the pre-historic or proto-historic period, at which point the fur trade ceases to be an adequate explanation of these events, if they even occurred.

After attacking conventional historiography Russell then goes on to reexamine and reappraise documentary evidence relating to the identity, location and interrelation-ships between various native groups in the interior in the 17th and particularly the 18th centuries. He finds evidence that plains adapted Cree groups existed long before most scholars concede the existence of an identifiable Plains Cree culture, and suggests that the apparent north and westward migration of the Cree may be only a product of “the fallacy of displaced observation” Just as it is almost impossible for train travellers passing a stopped train to tell which train is moving, in much the same way fur traders exploring westwards may have confused their own migration with the migration of their trading partners. In addition Russell disputes many earlier scholars’ identification of the trading bands that came down to Hudson Bay in the early 18th century. For example, he suggests the “Askee” Indians, which Ray identified as the Gros Ventre, were in fact Cree of the plains and parklands region living west of the Manitoba Escarpment and south of the Saskatchewan River.

Overall this book makes an important contribution to early Western Canadian historiography. On a number of contentious issues Russell adopts clear and unequivocal positions that are sure to make this book a lightning rod for dissenting opinion. However, it is probably safe to say that Eighteenth Century Western Cree and Their Neighbours will not convince as many readers as perhaps it should, in part because it is based solely on documentary evidence. In many respects the best evidence for pre-contact Cree occupancy of the plains is archaeological, and since Russell was an active participant in much of this fieldwork with David Meyer and David Burley, his failure to use this material can only be described as unusually reticent. Others may also find he expends considerable energy demolishing a model of early Western Canadian history that few still take seriously. The notion that the fur trade fostered native dependency and thus resource depletion followed by massive migration has been roundly criticized by other scholars for some time now, yet Russell characterizes it as still typical of historiographical reasoning. In fact, Russell refers to almost no historical studies which have appeared since Arthur Ray’s Indians in the Fur Trade which was published in 1974, and as a result he ends up attacking a pretty tattered strawman on occasion.

Cree buffalo hunt, painted by George Catlin, no date.
Source: Glenbow Alberta Institute

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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