The Cree (the Knisteneaux of Mackenzie) were closely related to the Ojibway; they spoke the same language, and had many customs in common. As Hayden wrote: “The Cree nation was originally a portion of the Chippewa, as the similarity of language proves; and even now they are so mingled with the latter people as with difficulty to he considered a distinct tribe, further than a slight difference in language and their local position.” 1 Formerly they occupied the forest region to the eastward of the country which they later claimed. There they were probably accustomed to the mat or bark covered structures, similar to those of the neighboring Ojibway, but in more recent times, after having been attracted to the prairies by the buffalo, they followed the customs of the prairie tribes and for the most part made and used the typical conical skin covered lodge.
After reaching the open country, and becoming more accustomed to the life of roving hunters, they were necessarily less sedentary in their habits than formerly and their camps probably seldom remained long in any one place. They became scattered over a wide region, and in 1856 it was said: ” They number about ten or eleven hundred persons. Like most of the tribes in the Northwest Territory, they are separated into clans or bands, and live in different districts for greater advantages in hunting.” Here is given a list of the several bands, with the number of skin lodges claimed by each group, but the “Pis-ka-kau-a-kis, or ‘Magpies,’ are about thirty lodges; are stationed at Tinder Mountain; live in dirt lodges and log-cabins; cultivate the soil to some extent, and raise considerable quantities of corn and potatoes; hunt buffalo during the winter, and trade also with the. Hudson’s Bay Company.” 2 The same writer continues 3 : “Besides the foregoing there are about two hundred lodges more who are not formed into bands, but scattered along Lac de L’Isle Croix, and live by hunting reindeer, moose, fish, and wild fowl. They live in skin tents in the summer, but sometimes build log and bark huts in winter, and seldom more than one cabin is found in the same place. These are the poorest of the Crees.”
Thus it will be understood how scattered bands of the same tribe often reared and occupied several forms of habitations, influenced by their natural surroundings and requirements. And here are references to the use of the bark-covered lodge, the skin-covered lodge of probably a different shape, the structure covered with earth or sod, and, lastly, the log cabin, by widely dispersed bands of the Cree.
A simple form of temporary shelter was constructed by the Cree and Ojibway to serve during certain ceremonies. This was described about a century ago when recounting the customs of the ” Sauteaux and the Crees.” It was told that in public feasts ” Several chiefs unite in preparing a suitable place, and in collecting sufficient provisions, for the accommodation of a numerous assemblage. To provide a place, poles are fixed obliquely into the ground, enclosing a sufficient space to hold several hundred, and at times. nearly a thousand people. On these poles, skins are laid, at the height of twelve or fifteen feet, thus forming a spacious court, or tent. The provisions consist both of dried and of fresh meat, as it would not be practicable to prepare a sufficient quantity of fresh meat, for such a multitude, which, however, consists only of men. At these feasts, the guests converse only on elevated topics, such as the public interests of the tribe, and the noble exploits of their progenitors, that they may infuse a publick and an heroic spirit, into their young men. Dancing always forms the concluding ceremony, at these festivals; and the women, who are not permitted to enter the place where they are celebrated, dance and sing around them, often keeping time with the music within.” 4 It is to be regretted that these early accounts are often so lacking in detail, and that so much is left to imagination. In this instance the form of the large structure was not mentioned, but it was probably extended, resembling to some degree the Midé lodge of the Ojibway. Among the latter the large ceremonial lodge was covered with mats, sheets of bark, or sometimes with skins or boughs of pine or spruce. Like customs may have prevailed among the Cree.
Proving the wandering, roving disposition of the Cree, and the consequent lack of permanent villages, Maximilian wrote from Fort Union, at the mouth of the Yellowstone, during the latter part of June, 1833: ” The Cree live in the same territory as the Assiniboin, that is, between the Saskatchewan, the Assiniboin, and the Missouri. They ramble about in small bands with the others, are poor, have many dogs, which carry their baggage, but only a few horses. They live, like the Assiniboin, in leather tents, follow the herds of buffaloes, of which they sometimes kill great numbers in their parks. The Cree are reckoned at 600 or 800 tents.” 5
The dog travois, such as was used by the Cree and mentioned in the preceding account, was of very ancient origin, having been seen and described by the first Spanish explorers to traverse the prairie lands of the Southwest. In Relacion Postiera de Sivola, prepared in the year 1541, appears this interesting note “These people have dogs like those in this country, except that they are somewhat larger, and they load these dogs like beasts of burden, and make saddles for them like our pack saddles, and they fasten them with their leather thongs, and these make their backs sore on the withers like pack animals. When they go boating, they load these with their necessities, and when they move, for these Indians are not settled in one place, since they travel wherever the cows [buffalo] move, to support themselves, these dogs carry their houses, and they have the sticks of their houses dragging along tied on to the pack-saddles, besides the load which they carry on top, and the load may be, according to the dog. from 35 to 50 pounds.” 6 This description could easily refer to conditions and customs among the tribes three centuries and more later.
A very graphic sketch of a dog travois was made at Fort Union, October 10, 1851, by the Swiss artist, Friedrich Kurz, and is now reproduced in plate 26b, showing the method of attaching the poles, and how the load was rolled and placed upon the latter. The use of the horse for a similar purpose in later years followed as a natural sequence.
Among the many paintings by Paul Kane, now preserved in the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology, at Toronto, is one bearing the legend: “Cree Indians Traveling.” It represents a small party of Indians, some walking, others mounted on horses, with several horse and dog travois. The latter show long poles attached to the sides of the dogs, one end of the poles dragging on the ground, while about midway of their length is a small pack upon which a child is seated. The broken, rolling land of the north is represented with a few clumps of small trees. The picture is one of much beauty and interest, depicting as it does some of the primitive customs of the Cree.
During the summer of 1858 the Hind expedition into the region far west of the Red River encountered many small groups of Cree hunters and also observed the ancient camp sites of the same tribe. They wrote in part: “Immediately on the banks of the Qu’appelle Valley near the ‘Round Hill’ opposite Moose Jaws Forks, are the remains of ancient encampments, where the Plain Cree, in the day of their power and pride, had erected large skin tents, and strengthened them with rings of stones placed round the base. These circular remains were twenty-five feet in diameter, the stones or boulders being about one foot in circumference. They wore the aspect of great antiquity, being partially covered with soil and grass. When this camp ground was occupied by the Cree, timber no doubt grew in the valley below, or on the prairie and ravines in detached groves, for their permanent camping grounds are always placed near a supply of fuel.
“Making an early start in search of wood, we came suddenly upon four Cree tents, whose inmates were still fast asleep; about three hundred yards west of them we found ten more tents, with over fifty or sixty Indians in all. They were preparing to cross the valley in the direction of the Grand Coteau. following the buffalo. Their provisions for trade, such as dried meat and pemmican, were drawn by dogs, each bag of pemmican being supported upon two long poles, which are shaft, body, and wheels in one. Buffalo Pound Hill Lake, sixteen miles long, begins near Moose Jaws Forks, and on the opposite or south side of this long sheet of water, we saw eighteen tents and a large number of horses. The women in those we visited on our side of the valley and lake, had collected a great quantity of the mesaskatomina berry which they were drying.” And not far beyond we “began to find the fresh bones of buffalo very numerous on the ground, and here and there startled a pack of wolves feeding on a carcass which had been deprived of its tongue and hump only by the careless, thriftless Cree. On the high banks of the valley the remains of ancient encampments in the form of rings of stones to hold down the skin tents are everywhere visible, and testify to the former numbers of the Plain Cree. The largest ancient encampment we saw lies near a shallow lake in the prairie about a mile from the Qu’appelle valley. It is surrounded by a few low sandy and gravelly hills, and is quite screened from observation. It may have been a camping ground for centuries, as some circles of stones are partially covered with grass and embedded in the soil.” 7
This is a simple explanation of the origin of small circles of stones now encountered in different parts of the country, but in other localities, where stones were not obtainable, masses of sod were used for the same purpose, and these in turn may have caused the small earth circles which are now discovered in the lower Mississippi Valley and elsewhere.
- Hayden, F. V., Contributions to the Ethnography and Philology of the Indian Tribes of the Missouri Valley. In Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. XII. Philadelphia, 1862, p. 235.
- Hayden, F. V., Contributions to the Ethnography and Philology of the Indian Tribes of the Missouri Valley. In Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. XII. Philadelphia, 1862, p. 237.
- Hayden, F. V., Contributions to the Ethnography and Philology of the Indian Tribes of the Missouri Valley. In Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. XII. Philadelphia, 1862, p. 238
- Harmon, D. W., A Journal of Voyages and Travels in the Interiour of North America. Andover, 1820, p. 362.
- Maximilian, Prince Of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America. London, 1843, pp. 199-200.
- Winship, George P., The Coronado Expedition, 1540-1542. In Fourteenth Annual Report Bureau of Ethnology. Pt. 1. Washington, 1896, pp. 570-571.
- Hind, Henry, Narrative of the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857 and of the Assinniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition of 1858. London, 1860. 2 vols., I, pp. 338-341.