The term “Cree ” is derived from the French renderings (Kristineaux , Kiristinous , Kilistinous) of the Ojibway term kinistino . The proper term in the Plains Cree language is nêhiyawak . The Cree occupy a large area of Saskatchewan, from the northern woodlands areas to the southern plains. While being one people, there is a great variation amongst the different regional groups. One of the main differences is in terms of dialect, of which there are three main ones: “th” Woodlands, “y” Plains, and “n” Swampy Cree. There are also important differences in terms of culture: the Sun Dance, for example, is practiced only in the southern areas. Despite those variations, the Cree are bound together by a shared collective memory, worldview, religious practices, and experience of colonialism.
The nêhiyawak began to move onto the prairies with the fur trade in 1740. The Cree in the south were part of the Iron Confederacy, an alliance with the Saulteaux and Assiniboine; they were middlemen in the fur trade, trading with the English and the French, as well as with other Indigenous groups. As the nêhiyawak began to move onto the prairies in greater numbers, they slowly adapted from using canoes to using horses; the latter also replaced dogs as pack animals. Despite these changes, the nêhiyawak retained many of their Woodland beliefs and practices. In their worldview, it is believed that humans are intimately linked with the world around them: for instance, hunters would have pawâkanak (dream helpers) to guide people towards game; the pawâkanak would also help the person in times of need. Furthermore, one of the key values of the Cree was sharing: game was shared as well as any other resources. Another key concept was wâhkotowin (kinship), important not only for the way in which people were related, but also in terms of peoples’ connection to the land. An important part of nêhiyawak oral tradition is reflected in the stories of wîsahkêcâhk, commonly referred to as the “trickster.” wîsahkêcâhk links humans to the rest of creation (e.g., other animals), makes the world safe for humans, teaches humans many things, and also is a joker who often gets caught up in his own jokes. These stories, which taught children lessons about life, are referred to as âtayôhkêwina (sacred stories).
In the 1870s, the Canadian government began to expand westwards and initiated a Treaty process with the Indigenous people, including the nêhiyawak. One major difference between the English and Cree accounts is that the latter understood the deal as tipahamâtowin (rent), whereas the former understood it as land surrender; also, the Cree used the pipestem to invoke the powers of the land (asotamâkêwin: a sacred vow). Some leaders such as mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear) were skeptical of the process. He did not stand against the Treaty process, but rather against the way in which the Crown was handling matters. He tried therefore to organize his people peacefully, but the Resistance of 1885 brought trouble; and despite Big Bear’s efforts to avert trouble, many people lost their lives. While this series of events is called the North-West Resistance (or Rebellion) in English, in Cree it is referred to as ê-mâyihkamikahk, which means “when it went wrong.”
The Cree of the woodland and northern areas entered into Treaty through later adhesions. There was also less pressure for European settlement in their territories, and as a result they were able to maintain their traditional hunting and trapping much longer than the southern Cree. The Cree are today the most numerous Indigenous group in Saskatchewan. Many efforts are made to revive the language through immersion programs, writing of dictionaries, and increased use of Elders in the classrooms. Cree people have revived many ceremonies which were banned for a long period of time, and social gatherings such as powwows and round dances enjoy popularity amongst many people. nêhiyawak are becoming more and more significant in the culture and economy of Saskatchewan.