The Knisteneaux or Cree and Chippewa

The Knisteneaux, or Cree, are a nation materially different from the Esquimaux. They have a much nearer resemblance than that people to the other North American tribes, and, from close analogies in language, are considered as a branch of the great Algonquin stock, which, centering in the Canadas, spread over such an extent of the North American continent.

The country formerly occupied by the Knisteneaux for the ravages of the small-pox have in late years miserably reduced their numbers is of vast extent; lying between the United States and the Esquimaux region, and extending westward to the Rocky Mountains. The line of their occupation is thus given by Mackenzie: commencing with the coast of Labrador, it extends along the north bank of the St. Lawrence, to Montreal. “The line then follows the Utawas River to its source; and continues from thence nearly west along the high lands which divide the waters that fall into Lake Superior and Hudson s Bay. It then proceeds till it strikes the middle part of the river Winipic, following that water through the Lake Winipic, to the discharge of the Saskatchewan into it; from thence it accompanies the latter to Fort George, when the line striking by the head of the Beaver River, to the Elk River, runs along its banks to its discharge in the Lake of the Hills; from which it may be carried back east to the Isle a la Crosse, and so on to Churchill by the Mississippi. The whole of the tract between this line and Hudson’s Bay and Straits, (except that of the Esquimaux in the latter,) may be said to be exclusively the country of the Knisteneaux.” They were also to be found upon Red River, (which, after uniting with the Assinaboin, empties into Lake Winipic,) and upon the south branch of the Saskatchewan.

These people possess all the ordinary characteristics of the American Indian; the copper complexion, black flowing hair, well-proportioned limbs, and keen black eyes. Travelers speak of the women as being far more attractive in personal appearance than the generality of squaws. Upon them devolves all the drudgery of domestic life, while the men devote their exclusive attention to hunting or war.

We notice no very material variation, except so far as climate and the nature of their country have affected their habits, between the dress, habitations, luxuries, ceremonies, and general usages of the Knisteneaux, and the great body of our western Indians. They are spoken of as of a friendly and hospitable disposition, and no more dishonest in their dealings than other savages, although some have given them the reputation of being arrant thieves.

Little of distinctive character attaches to the various minor tribes of the north, until we reach the Esquimaux, with whom little or no commerce is held by these nations, and with whom, from time immemorial, they have waged a desultory warfare. Mackenzie describes individuals and villages of the Red-Knives, Beavers Indians, Dog-Ribs, Hares, Slaves, Duguthee Dines (quarrelers), and many others; but they have no history, and few noticeable peculiarities.

Those farthest north are of rather a lighter complexion than the inhabitants of more temperate climes, and exhibit the deteriorating influence of a life in a cold and desolate country.

Some interesting details of the habits and character of the Dog-Ribs, are given in the account of Sir John Richardson’s Arctic Searching Expedition. They are rather a low order of the race, and have held sufficient intercourse with the whites to be aware of their own deficiencies and wants. They are nevertheless cheerful, and even hilarious, and exhibit little or none of that proud and stoical spirit which marks the more celebrated Indian nations.

They are grossly improvident, although warned by repeated and terrible experience of famine and suffering. When game is plenty, a scene of general waste and repletion is presented, to be followed by the utmost misery and want. In a country where the animals upon which the natives depend for subsistence are migratory and uncertain in their habits, such changes of condition must be of frequent occurrence.

When accounts are brought of success on the part of the hunting parties, the whole population of a village put themselves at once en route to share the spoil. If the deer should have shifted their quarters before the arrival of the troop, and the place of rendezvous be far from home, the return is accompanied with the greatest danger and distress. Many of the aged and infirm are frequently left to perish under such circumstances.

Of several families of this nation, with whom Mackenzie held some intercourse, he says: “They are a meagre, ugly, ill-made people, particularly about the legs, which are very clumsy, and covered with scabs. The latter circumstance proceeds, probably, from their habitually roasting them be fore the fire. Many of them appeared to be in a very unhealthy state, which is owing, as I imagine, to their natural filthiness.”

The Chippewa are spread over a vast region at the north, the limits of which it would, perhaps, be impossible accurately to define. Mackenzie, writing about the year 1790, lays down the tract occupied by tribes who speak substantially the same language, as follows: “It begins at Churchill, and runs along the lines of separation between them and the Knisteneaux, up the Mississippi, to the Isle a la Crosse, passing on through the Buffalo Lake, River Lake, and Portage la Loche: from thence it proceeds by the Elk River, to the Lake of the Hills, and goes directly west to the Peace River; and up that river to its source and tributary waters; from whence it proceeds to the waters of the River Columbia; and follows that river to latitude fifty-two degrees twenty-four minutes north, and longitude one hundred and twenty-two degrees fifty-four minutes west, where the Chepewyans have the Atnah or Chin nation for their neighbors. It then takes a due line west to the sea-coast.”

The coast Indians, on the Pacific, differ from those of whom we are now treating. In the vicinity of Behring’s Straits, they are Esquimaux, but as we proceed southward, we find distinct and separate races.

The Chippewa, according to the writer above-quoted, are a quiet peaceable race, of a timorous disposition and wandering habits. They take great pains to prepare their dress so as to resist the extreme cold, and so well are they protected in this respect, that when arrayed in the warm furs and skins which form the winter attire, one of the tribe ” will lay himself down on the ice in the middle of a lake, and repose in comfort; though he will sometimes find a difficulty in the morning to disencumber himself of the snow drifted on him during the night.” The women are not bad looking, but the hard service of drawing loaded sledges, and the continued necessity of wearing the bulky and ponderous snow-shoe, give them a shuffling and awkward gait

Great ingenuity and skill are displayed by the Chippewa, particularly by those dwelling upon the head-waters of the Mississippi, in the construction of their birch-bark canoes. Probably in no other part of the world are boats to be found so light and portable, and yet capable of carrying an equal burden. They are commonly made of a single roll of the bark, neatly and strongly sewed, and so shaped, by the adaptation of light thwarts or braces, as to be both graceful and swift. It requires, however, no little adroitness to manage one of these light crafts, as the weight of the canoe is so trifling as to aid very little in the preservation of equilibrium. Sketches of Chippewa canoes are given by Mr. Catlin, and contrasted with the awkward tubs of the Mandan.

Mackenzie says that these people are not like the Knisteneaux and most other North American Indians, reserved and distant in their communications with strangers or with each other after a long separation; and that they do not exhibit those extremes of alternate energy and indolence so noticeable in other races.

In such a country as they inhabit their food must, of course, be almost entirely animal. They are more skilled in fishing, and in snaring deer, beaver, &c., than in the more active methods of securing game. Like the Esquimaux, although they prefer their meat cooked, they can well make a shift to eat it without any preparation, when unable to procure fuel. On their journeys they are sup ported by the nutritious and portable preparation called pemmican, which we have before mentioned as in use among the Esquimaux. It is made in the following manner: thin slices of lean meat are dried over a fire, or by alternate exposure to sun and frost, and then pounded between stones. A quantity of boiling fat, equal to the mass of meat, is then poured upon it, and the whole is closely packed in bags or basket. No salt or other condiment is used in the operation, but, in some instances, the pemmican is made savory by the addition of marrow and dried berries.

Some of the men are observed to be furnished with a thick bushy beard; but, generally speaking, the custom of eradicating this appendage is common to the Chippewa, as to most other of the Indian nations. Tattooing is common among both sexes, and serves as a distinguishing mark of the different tribes.


Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864.

Search Military Records - Fold3

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Scroll to Top