Cree Religious Ethos

The Cree community is the microcosm and representation of the entire Cree nation. The whole system of relationships includes not only the family and extended family, but also the alliances with natural and supernatural entities. These relationships extend to the participation level, where everything in the world takes part in the experience that the spirit of things is all one. The community is a structure of support mechanisms that emphasizes reciprocity: not only is the collective to be upheld, respected and protected, but conversely the nature of personhood is to be honoured and clearly identified. The community is the primary expression of a natural context and environment where personhood can aspire and achieve what it is meant to be: movement within this community context allows individuals to discover all there is to discover about one’s self.

In Cree communities it is the older people who keep the stories and who relate the teachings of good thought and action to the children: they tell the children how the world and their people came to be and what it means to be one of the people. The Cree community can be thought of as a living organism which has its vital components and functioning units, such as the mind, heart, soul, and all the attributes that give essence and character to a living being. Like any living organism, the communal soul needs to be nurtured in order for it to be healthy and vital. One can conceive of the many separate units functioning together and appropriately for the benefit of the whole living entity. As an example, particular people in the communities perform the role of the mind for the organism: it is their compulsion to sit long hours thinking, calculating, anticipating and charting the best course for the community to follow. There are also some within the community who represent the eyes of the organism: gifted with second sight, they foresee the future and mobilize the conditions necessary for the community to negotiate that future.

The most important parts of this organism are the heart and the soul. The heart of the community may be represented by the many people who engage in work dedicated to health and well-being. Their work is done with no expectation of recognition or reward, but they are models for others to follow. The sacredness of communities may well be expressed by the wholeness of the people, but it is the spiritual leaders who remind others of the sacred connections: these are the people who rise with the dawn and silently pray that only good may come to all.

The community ethos is the inviolable spirit of the collective. It acts as the dynamic blueprint for families to adjust and live in the varying contexts imposed by time.

The Elders and spiritual people of the Cree meditate about the meaning of existence and about the relationship between human inner space, the natural world, and the mysterious life force that permeates creation. This practice of Cree metaphysics provides insight into the origin and nature of knowledge, with the result that there is a deeper understanding of the natural order; this spiritual understanding and connectedness is the foundational principle of the Cree ethos. The earth, plants, animals, elements and everything in nature exhibit an intelligence that is perceptible and responsive to human endeavour. Within this perspective, dividing the universe into living and non-living things has no meaning: animate and inanimate matter is inseparably interwoven, and human life is also enfolded in the totality of the universe. The attitude of a personal relationship with the spiritual and natural worlds is moulded into a systematic code of conduct and behaviour and includes agreements with the spirits of creation. In each Cree territory, covenants were established with land, water, plant-life, animals, etc., which would act as spiritual agreements of reciprocity dictating how all life would co-exist in mutual protection, benefit, and continuity. This reciprocity is maintained through the various ceremonies, songs, narratives, and personal sacrifices of Cree spirituality.

The accumulated knowledge of the Cree people is embedded in the ethos of the community as a representative form of the collective. In this sense, additional insights and understandings about Cree existence are obtained through close observation and participation in communal ceremonies and ritual, teachings and inheritance, connectedness to the dream world, and the affirmation and study of sacred oral narratives. Language is also a part of the Cree ethos because it describes the worldview, the spiritual consciousness, and narratives of that consciousness. The language of the Cree describes and makes understandable the processes governing Cree reality; it works as a system of knowledge where it becomes possible to identify the human actions congruent with the flowing wholeness in nature. Every Cree community holds the religious ethos of the entire Cree nation: this heritage not only informs the people of their roots and of the rights to a tradition entrusted to Cree society, but also reminds them that the future is collectively negotiated.

Willie Ermine