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Eastern Cree Indians

by J. W. Anderson

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1954-55 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Historically, the Cree Indians are one of the eastern Woodland tribes of Algonkian speech, closely related to the Ojibway. The Ojibway live mainly to the south of them and about equal them in number, the numerical preponderance being perhaps on the side of the Ojibway. The Crees occupied, and still occupy, a very large territory. It included all the territory around James Bay to the boundary of the Eskimo lands. It stretched east of James Bay to Mistassinni and Waswanipi, south of James Bay almost to the height of land. It included all the west side of James and Hudson Bays almost to Churchill. They expanded westward into what is now the Northern portions of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Thus it is that we have the division of the Cree tribe into the Plains Cree and the Woodland or Swampy Cree.

The Cree dialect is one branch of the Algonkian speech which prevailed from the Atlantic to the Prairies. Closely allied to it is the Ojibway, so that one conversant in Eastern Cree could, without undue difficulty, converse with the Ojibway and Plains Cree. We are told that this Cree dialect was a sort of lingua franka from the Eastern Woodlands through what is now the northern portions of the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

The question of the number of Cree Indians is not very easy to answer mainly because our Canadian Government does not tabulate the Indian population according to tribes, but according to provinces. Therefore the only definite information I can give you, and which I obtained from other sources, is a Cree population of approximately five thousand five hundred for the area in and around James Bay, as far east as Mistassinni and as far west as York Factory.

In Jenness' book Indians of Canada we are given a Canadian Indian population of 220,000 at the time of the arrival of the white man. This figure, we are told, represents the most reliable estimate available. Also from Jenness' book we learn that in 1924, the Cree population was estimated at 20,000. The 1951 Canadian census places the total Indian population at 136,407 souls. The combined Indian population of the provinces of Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan is given in the same census as 84,398. The two provinces with the largest number of Crees are Manitoba and Ontario and there are sizable groups in Quebec and Saskatchewan. A conservative estimate of the Cree population would be around 30,000. And from this we may conclude that the Crees are very definitely on the increase.

I can speak with some authority on the Cree Indians of the James Bay area because I had the privilege of living among the James Bay Crees from 1910 to 1927 and I also travelled extensively around the James Bay Country from the years 1931 to 1937. During this period, from 1910 to 1937, great changes have taken place in their mode of living. The James Bay Crees call themselves "Mus-chay-goosh", the people of the swamp lands. "Mus-cheg" is the Cree word for swamp. The corresponding word in Ojibway is "mus-keg", a word which we have incorporated into our language. This is probably the explanation for the English name "Swampy Cree".

Up until World War I their country was still largely their own. There were no railways, no telegraph or telephone, no wireless and no aeroplanes. The only resident whites were the missionaries and the traders and the only commercial activity was the fur trade for which they were the indispensable primary producers. Under such circumstances the Indian was a self-respecting man of importance, earning his livelihood in the manner of his forefathers, paying his way and honourably discharging the obligations of life. He could maintain his self-respect and dignity. Of course, as in all human communities, each tribe had their "black-sheep" but, by and large, they were orderly and industrious people, mainly because their way of life was little disturbed by the white man. To illustrate what is meant by Indian self respect, I can well remember that the -frees of the days before World War I looked almost with scorn on one of their number who accepted employment with the white man. Such an Indian was considered by the tribe as lacking in vigour and initiative, one who was afraid to step out and earn his livelihood by hunting and trapping, as his forefathers before him. What a contrast from today, when the ambition of most Indians is to live as much as possible off the white man.

It is my opinion, that there is an optimum period in the relationship of any primitive people in their dealings with the white man. This might be described as the period of time when the aborigines have sufficient of the white man's material civilization to ease the burden of life, but yet not enough to disrupt their way of life: muzzle loading guns instead of bows and arrows; twines and lines for fish nets and snares instead of tree and willow roots; canvas instead of birch-bark for canoes and wigwams; steel traps instead of deadfalls. And one must not overlook those undoubted and perhaps harmless comforts, tea and tobacco, two of the greatest amenities we have given to the original inhabitants of Canada. It is difficult for city dwellers to appreciate what a wonderful beverage tea is for the Indian. He had nothing like it before the coming of the white man. His only drink was either water or bouillon prepared from meat or fish. For the Indian on the trail, it is a veritable nectar.

I am convinced in my own mind that there was an optimum period for the Crees of James Bay. It might have started, probably about the second decade of the eighteenth century. It ended in 1914, the beginning of World War I. This was a great disturbance in the way of life of the James Bay Indian, second only in importance to the advent of the white man on the shores of Canada. After World War I the remaining Indian territories, north of the transcontinental railways, were opened up to exploitation by the whites who established mining, lumbering, commercial fisheries, pulp and paper operations, hydro-electric development and so on. The Ontario Northland Railway reached the salt water at Moose Factory on James Bay in 1931. And then World War II, with its technical developments in wireless communication, its developing airmail routes, brought the Crees more and more into that restless maelstrom which the white man calls his way of life. Grave health problems were brought about as a result of increased contacts with the whites which, in turn, necessitated active health and welfare measures by our Government. All of this resulted in further disturbances to the traditional Indian way of life though perhaps less to the James Bay Indians than to most others. Today, the James Bay Crees, as all other Indians, are willy-nilly, tied to the fast moving chariot of the white man's civilization. And with the white man, they will rise or fall.

To illustrate the Indian "way of life" let me describe the round of yearly activities of the Indian of that day. The whole life of the Indian of that day, like the life of the farmer, was very definitely governed by the seasons. Let us begin with the life of an Inland Indian, that is, the Crees who lived at the various posts located on the inland waters of the many rivers flowing into James Bay-Mistassinni, Waswanipi, Nemaska, Abitibi, English River, Ogoki, Fort Hope and so on. Let us begin with the autumn when, in the month of September, the Indian received his winter outfit from the trader-grub-stake we now call it. This was important business for the Indian, in which the whole family participated-husband, wife and children. Each family took their turn at the trader's store, often taking up as much as half a day of his time. The extent of the advance or "debt" would depend, of course, on the individual trapper and his record of accomplishment. The amount having been decided by negotiation with the trader, the trade tokens were then set out in a row on the counter. For trade tokens-Beaver tokens- were still in use when I started trading. They served a two-fold purpose. One was to enable a primitive people to "lay out" their money. The other was to give proof of the trader's honesty. If an Indian received a debt of two hundred dollars, laid out in front of him, it was important from the point of view of accuracy, as well as honesty, that the record in the ledger should be the same, especially so as each Indian was given a certificate of his indebtedness when he departed in the autumn.

The Beaver tokens would be set out on the store counter. If the debt was, say, two hundred dollars, the tokens would be set out in piles of ten. Ten piles in one row would make one hundred and a second similar row would give the total of two hundred dollars. With time, deliberation and family council, the Indian would finally set about his shopping. So may piles of coins would be set aside for food, clothing, ammunition, fish nets and twines, and of course, the all-important tobacco. If there was any surplus after the heavy items had been taken care of, he would generously give it to his wife to buy needles, thread, cloth and the other house wifely necessities. Today, your modern Indian would be insulted if you offered him Beaver tokens to help him count his money. He can usually count or check a sales slip as readily as the white man.

Next day, with tent struck, campsite tidied, canoes loaded, the whole family would proceed for a ceremonial farewell with the trader. The trapper would ask for what we would call a statement of his account. This would consist of a piece of paper, dated and signed by the trader, which would contain two rows of crosses, each cross representing ten dollars, a row of ten crosses representing one hundred dollars and two rows representing two hundred. Next the Indian would ask the price of furs for the coming winter. In those days there was no wireless and no aeroplanes. Therefore, the summer canoe brigade that brought the supplies also brought the next winter's fur tariff. As there was seldom more than one winter mail, it will be seen that the Indian of yesteryear was not bedevilled by the constant fluctuations of the white man's fur market, as is the case with the modern Indian, who receives the market news, good or bad, almost instantaneously by wireless.

This business of bidding farewell in the autumn was quite a ceremonious affair. The head of the family would lead the way with his wife and children following in single file. They would visit the trader as already described and then would bid farewell to every single family and individual in the settlement. Very few of them would meet again until the following June. So it was quite a ritual, but once completed the Indian with his family, his goods and chattels and dogs, would embark in one, two or three canoes according to his needs and his prosperity, and set off on a leisurely five to ten day journey to his winter camp. Although the canoes were heavily laden, white man's food did not bulk large in the cargo. Many Indians of that day would be quite content with a year round supply of only tea, sugar and salt. Tobacco of course, was one of the simple luxuries they tried to have with them always. Flour, salt pork, baking powder and such like were carried only for emergencies, or when game was scarce. (I have seen an Indian family go off for a whole winter with only fifty pounds of white man's flour.) And when they returned next June they would tell you they had eaten their last bannock just the night before returning to the post! They lived largely off the country, which was good for their health and made for the simplicity and independence of their life. In those days, no white man could coerce any Indian. If he did not like a particular trader, or if he objected to white men in general, he just stayed away from the trading post. He would never set eyes on a white man! It is true of course, that he still liked to have the white man's tea and tobacco, and his muzzle-loading guns with powder and ball. But his wants were so few that he could always have some other Indian trade his furs for him. Today, the modern Indian is like ourselves, pretty much tied to the corner grocery.

In a leisurely fashion, hunting and fishing as he went along, our Indian family would arrive at the winter trapping camp. This would be on a tract of land which, by tribal custom and by inheritance, would, for all practical purposes, be owned by the Indian. His rights would be respected by the other members of the tribe and no one would hunt or trap on his lands without his express permission. This was the ancient way of conservation of the James Bay Crees. Having a proprietory interest in his trapping lands, he would naturally conserve the game and fur animals for himself, his children and his children's children.

Once settled on his own trapping lands, the Indian and his family would set about preparations for the winter. A permanent winter wigwam would be built, fish caught and frozen or dried for winter use, black bears caught before hibernation so as to secure their fat for winter use. There was always something to do but never any undue haste.

Now a word, in passing, about the Indian wigwam. The Cree name for it is "mee-gee-wam" and our Anglicized "wigwam" is simply a corruption of this. It has always been a surprise to me how readily the Indian abandoned his wigwam in favour of the white man's canvas tent, even if we allow for its greater portability. No habitation, summer or winter, is more suited to the Indian way of life than the wigwam. All the materials for its construction are to be found in the surrounding woods. It is warm and comfortable and, provided the Indian housewife changes the flooring of spruce bows with reasonable frequency (which most of them do), it is very sanitary. With the wigwam, the Indian has a comfortable winter home, furnished with heat and light, and all without the expenditure of money. Today of course, many Indians live in houses and all, more or less, have the ambition to do so.

Now we have our Indian family ensconced in their winter home. Their nearest neighbour might be fifty or a hundred miles away, though often they were closer. The trading post, in all likelihood, would be still farther removed from the scene of the winter activities of our typical Indian family. In due course, the snow comes, the rivers and lakes freeze over, the pelts of the fur bearing animals become prime and their fur is at its richest and glossiest. The snowshoes and toboggans are ready. The James Bay Crees, in the day of which I speak, had no draught animals. The use of dogs was something they later learned from the white man and he, in turn, copied from the Eskimo. Moreover, the Eastern Cree country was a land of deep snows. There were no beaten trails and thus dogs were more of a hindrance than a help. In bush country, with heavy snowfalls, dogs would simply be a nuisance. Therefore, the only dogs the Crees kept were small hunting dogs and usually only one per family at that.

One very powerful conservation factor was the Indian's outlook on life. On departing from the trading post in the autumn, the Indian head of the family received a statement of account, showing his indebtedness to the trader, but made out in a manner suited to an unlettered person, as already described. While it is true that the Indian of that day could not count, nevertheless, knowing as he did the prices he would receive for his furs, he would have a rough idea of how he was paying his debt. So, as he trapped pelts from time to time, he would put a pencil stroke through the various crosses on his statement of account, and could thus arrive at a fairly close estimate of when his debt was paid. Now let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that our Indian was more than usually successful in his trapping activities and that, long before the winter was over, he had secured sufficient pelts to pay the trader what he owed. His reasoning was somewhat as follows. "I have paid my debt. The Hudson's Bay Company will give me another grubstake next fall. My wants are few and easily satisfied. So why should I work hard to trap more pelts?" Now this is not very progressive from the white man's point of view, but this outlook on life, this way of life, if you like, was admirably suited to the conservation of the wild life of the Indian territories.

Thus in simple fashion, far from the maddening crowd, the typical Indian family went the even tenor of their winter way. They had their good and bad winters, their periods of abundance and of scarcity. As with all peoples who live by the chase, it was very often a feast or a famine and the grim spectre of starvation would sometimes stalk their land. The trading post however, gradually mitigated this risk, for it enabled the Indian to carry at least a small reserve of white man's food for emergencies and, if not too far distant, he could always go to the trading post for succour.

Spring was always a welcome time for the Indian and, while it was approaching, he repaired and re-conditioned his canoes and, in an earlier day, built himself a new birch-bark canoe. There were migratory birds and their eggs as a change of diet and, while on the way back to the trading post, fish to be caught and dried for summer use.

During the winter the trader had seen very few Indians, for only those living close to the post would make the occasional visit, or perchance a family from more distant trapping areas who found themselves with food shortages. All the families, however, returned to the post by canoe in the spring, usually early in June. There would be a ceremonious welcome from the trader and his staff. There would be happy reunions with long absent friends and relatives. There would be busy trading scenes when the hunters traded their furs. There would be feasting, dancing and rejoicing. There would be marrying and giving in marriage.

All too soon, this holiday period would end. It is time to prepare for the annual trip to the coast when the canoe brigade would take down the winter's collection of furs and bring up the merchandise for next winter's use. The big thirty-foot freight canoes would be put in shape. The chief guide would be appointed and, under his direction, the voyageur crews selected. All was bustle and excitement, for this was one of the great events of the year. So, in due course, and with a salute of gunfire, the fur brigade would set out for the coast. Four to six large canoes with twenty-four to thirty-six voyageurs, practically all the able-bodied men of the settlement. Left behind for the months of July and August would be the old men and the women and children. The latter, and most of the old men, would leave the post for some suitable fishing spot where they could procure their food for the summer. A few of the older skilled Indians would remain at the post throughout the summer, building the freight canoes needed to replace those worn out and discarded.

The romantic phase of the Fur Trade was the Fur Brigades. This included the rain, the sunshine, the mosquitoes, the picturesque voyageurs; the rivers, the lakes, the rapids and the portages; up at four in the morning; a quick cup of tea, tents struck, canoes loaded and the whole brigade moving off at five, picking up the overnight fish nets as they went. Ashore for breakfast at eight, a light lunch in midafternoon, it was seldom that the brigade pulled to shore for the night before eight in the evening. By the time camp was made, supper prepared and eaten, it was "ten of the clock ere you could turn in." And long before one had enough sleep, it was four in the morning and the strident voice of the head guide was shouting "win-esh-kan"-time to be up! The days were long and arduous, though no one seemed to mind, as all were caught up in the excitement and exhilaration of another summer season and the annual visit to the trading post on the shores of the salt sea. Here was the white man's emporium, where his big ships came from over the sea. Here too were more friends and relatives who had not been seen in a twelvemonth. Here too, the Indian would renew his contact with the white man's church, for, during his short stay of a week or so, he would receive intense religious instruction with services held at least twice a day.

Thus the stay at the trading post on the shore of James Bay was a very pleasant interlude for the Indians from the interior. But like all pleasant things, it had an ending and an early ending too. The day of departure arrived. Again the air of excitement and activity. The cargoes would be laid out by the trader, each bowsman, who was the captain of the canoe, being responsible for his own cargo. With a dab of paint, each bowsman would place his own distinctive mark on each and every piece of his own cargo. This would greatly facilitate handling on the many portages when cargoes of the various canoes would be piled at the carrying stages. Each of the thirty foot freight canoes would carry approximately two tons. The entire brigade would be under the charge of the head guide.

With the canoes now loaded and ready, the voyageurs would proceed about the ceremonial farewell. They would all troop up in single file, first to the trader from whom the head guide would receive bills of lading and mail for delivery at destination. Next would came the trader's staff, the missionary and his family and then the entire Indian village. Quite a long process was this business of annual farewells. When completed the voyageurs would return to their canoes and set off to the waving and cheering of the assembled Indian population. They were going into the far interior for another year.

This business of cargo loading and farewells meant, of course, that at least half of the day was gone before the brigade set out. But the voyageurs never counted on the first day as being very productive, for it was, so to speak, a "shake-down" period when all became accustomed to the heavily laden canoes and the prodigious amount of work that had to be done on the portages. On the second morning, however, the head guide had them all down to routine and up bright and early. Now they had heavy canoes laden with the supplies for the coming winter, instead of the lightly laden fur canoes of the down-stream voyage. The fact of going up-stream meant from twenty to twenty-five days of uphill work with paddle, pole and portage. But the voyageurs went to it with a will. This was their work-work they were trained to do from infancy and over highways that were theirs. Moreover, the supplies were theirs too-powder, ball, twines and lines-practically all of which they would receive in the autumn and to be paid for with their fur hunt.

Thus the canoe brigade toiled upstream to return to the trading post they called home. Here again would be reunions and rejoicing, for the voyageurs would be re-united with their families. By now it would be early September and, for a week or two, there would be rest and relaxation at the trading post where the entire tribe would be assembled for the purpose of trading their winter outfits of supplies before once again making the autumn journey to the winter trapping lands.

The life of the coast Indian was not very much different. By coast Indian I mean the Indians who had their home in or around one or other of the trading posts on the shores of James Bay-Moose Factory, Rupert's House, Albany and so on. The coast Indians, like their inland brethren, would be trapping all winter. During the summer they too, would be engaged in freighting supplies to the inland posts, for not all inland posts had a sufficiency of able-bodied voyageurs to do their own freighting. But there was another activity at the coast posts which kept the older men busy during the summer months. This was hay making. Most of the coast posts kept cattle. Hay for winter feed, had to be procured from the marshes at the river estuaries, for there was very little cultivated land. Thus, the older Indians, past their prime for voyaging and the young lads not yet mature, would spend a good part of the summer cutting the marsh hay, boating it to the post in York boats, drying it at the post and finally stacking it for winter use.

It is mainly because of this "way of life" which I have described that I hold the "optimum period" theory. The Indian of the period I described was usefully employed, at work he liked and was competent to do, for most of the year. His aboriginal way of life was not too greatly disturbed. He had very few contacts with the whites and then only with missionaries or traders and both of them were officials who had very definite responsibilities towards the Indians. He was still governed largely by his own tribal laws for there was little or nothing of the white man's "law and order". And, above all, the Indian had none of the long periods of summer idleness so common today. I suggest that the "optimum period" theory would apply not only to the Indians and Eskimos of our own country, but perhaps to aboriginal peoples the world over.

Now a word about the relationship of the Indians with the whites during this so-called "optimum period". The whites in question were the traders and the missionaries and their families, and the trader, more often than the missionary, because mission stations were not established at all trading posts. It is often thought that in earlier days the whites, traders or missionaries, more or less "bossed" the Indians around as they liked. Nothing could be further from the truth. As already mentioned, the white man's "law and order" was far distant. Indian tribal law and customs to a great extent prevailed. Moreover, because of the "way of life" I have described, the Indian, and particularly his chiefs and leaders, were men of importance in their respective communities. They were consulted on all important matters because both the missionary and the trader required the active co-operation of the Indians in their respective spheres. Such moral suasion or leadership exercised by these white men was by virtue of their character, and their ability to deal equitably with the Indians. It is unreasonable to suggest that one white man in a remote community, far removed in time and distance from other white men or the white man's law, and surrounded by three or four hundred Indians, could exercise any unfair or domineering influence over the tribesmen. If he tried to, things would not go well with him. But if he treated his Indian neighbours with dignity and respect, he would find them for the most part reasonable and co-operative because, fundamentally, their objectives are the same.

The social organization of the Cree Indians was, in those days largely dominated by the trading post. These trading posts were, in my view, originally established at the summer gathering places of the various local sub-tribes. The evidence indicates that the Eastern Cree Indians always gathered together in sub-tribes or bands during the summer months. Such meeting places would be selected as being suitable for providing food for the entire assemblage during the summer. This food was mainly fish, though the young men of the tribe would go out every so often to secure a bear, a caribou or a moose. The bringing home of such a trophy would be the occasion for a feast, a dance and general jollification.

Looking back on my early days in the Fur Trade, I am constantly amazed at the primitive and unsophisticated state of the Crees of that day. It is only the civilized peoples who keep a record of their ages. In other words, they peg themselves from the cradle to the grave. Primitive peoples have a delightfully vague idea of the passing of time. I remember once an Indian woman who was seeking medical advice for her sick son. Came the question, "How old is your son, anyway?" She thought for a moment, then answered "Ten-perhaps twenty"! Not particularly accurate from our point of view!

In an earlier day all the coast posts, that is the posts which received their supplies by ship rather than by canoe, had a grindstone. There was very little to import-the stone itself, the spindle or axle, and the iron handle. It would be mounted on a wooden frame and set out in a public place where all and sundry could sharpen their axes and knives. The Crees, believe it or not, used to measure their ages by the grindstone! Often have I seen old cronies sunning themselves by the grindstone, arguing and vying with each other as to their ages. With a vague wave of the arm, somewhat after the matter of the fisherman describing "the big one that got away", the Indians would estimate their age by the size of the grindstone when they were boys. One would say, "When I was a boy the grindstone was this size", indicating a diameter of perhaps three feet. His neighbour would reply, "That's nothing, when I was a boy the grindstone was this size", indicating something like four feet diameter. And so the argument went on-all very interesting and all so delightfully vague.

They were similarly vague in their measurement of diurnal time as very few of the Crees of that day could count or read figures. I can well remember a favourite joke of us young fur traders. We would encounter an Indian wearing a very fine Waltham watch and with his chest decorated with a generous display of gold-plated watch chain. We would ask him the time of day. "Ta-nes-peach-a-ke-she-kak" we would say. The Indian would solemnly pull out his watch. But he wouldn't look at it. He would look at the sun and tell you it was about the middle of the afternoon. Again, delightfully vague!

It was a vague and easy-going kind of life for the Crees of that day. They had none of the pressing compulsions of civilization. The mysteries of birth, marriage and death were all taken care of within the family or within the tribe. There was no educational problem because the children were gradually trained in the tasks of maturity by their parents. They learned by doing. In my day of course, the Crees had definitely adopted the white man's clothing, though I have talked with elders of the tribe who could remember a day when the Indians would do their summer freighting clad only in the traditional loin cloth. They had many items of craftmanship admirably suited to their life the birch-bark canoe, the snowshoe, the Indian cradle, the rabbit skin robe, the wigwam which, to the primitive Indian, was a shelter from the elements rather than a home in our sense of the word. They still had their medicine men or conjurers and their numerous taboos, which only gradually lost their power with the introduction of Christianity.

The Indian way of life which I have described has already passed into history. In the telling, it sounded like a rather attractive kind of life for an Indian. I believe it was such a life, mainly happy and carefree. But we must not regret its passing. The Indian, as he imbibes more and more of the white man's civilization, material and spiritual, will derive therefrom increasing benefits for the changes that lie ahead of him. For the James Bay Crees, for a fairly extended time into the future, it should be possible to pursue their traditional means of livelihood - by hunting and trapping.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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