The Cree are the largest group of First Nations in Canada, with 220,000 members and 135 registered bands (Canadian Geographic, 2006). The name “Cree” derives from the Algonkian exonym Kiristino, which the Ojibwe used for tribes around Hudson Bay. French colonists used the term for numerous tribes who speak similar dialects of Algonkian, whom they encountered north of Lake Superior, in Manitoba and west of there.

Because of their many dialects, the Cree lack an autonym and simply refer to themselves as Cree (Fr. Cri). The Cree are divided into two groups known as the Plains Cree and Woodland or Swampy Cree (Borrows, 2006, p. 49).

Over 350,000 Cree people or people with Cree ancestry live in Canada. Most of them live north and west of Lake Superior in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories. About 27,000 live in Quebec.

In the United States, Cree people historically lived west of Lake Superior. Today, they mostly live in Montana.

The westward migration of the Cree over time is associated with their role as hunters and traders in the North American fur trade.


The Cree language is the most widely spoken indigenous language in Canada with approximately 117,000 speakers across Canada. It has official status in the Northwest Territories with eight other indigenous languages. Like the Anishinabek and the Mi’kmaq, the Cree are Algonkian-speaking.

The Cree language consists of a dialect continuum. This means speakers from one community can easily understand their neighbours. However, more distant communities will find it harder to understand one another. For instance, a Plains Cree speaker from Alberta would find it difficult to speak with a Quebec Cree speaker. Golla (2007) lists Cree as one of 55 languages with more than 1,000 speakers and that children are actively learning.

Plains Cree text


The map below charts the territories of the Cree today.

Cree territories

Legal Organization


The Cree people are hunter-gatherers. Their basic unit of social organize is the lodge, which consists of a group of 8-12 people, usually the families of married couples, who live together in the same wigwam (domed tent) or tipi (conical tent).


The band is a group of lodges who move and hunt together. Bands can form and dissolve with relative ease. When lodges disagree, they can leave the band. Being part of a band is advantageous and banishment is considered a serious punishment. Bands developed ties with their neighbours through intermarriage and joined during different times the year to hunt or socialize.

There is no higher-level structure than the band. Allied bands made decisions of war and peace together in council.

A Nehiyon band near Vermilion, Alberta, in 1871


Individuals are identified by their clan, which is a group of people who claim descent from the same common ancestor. Each clan has a representative and a vote in councils held by the band.

Bands are independent from each other. However, Cree-speaking bands tend to work together and with their neighbours against outside enemies. For instance, from the 1730s to the 1870s the Plains Cree were allied with the Saulteaux and Assiniboine and in what was known as the “Iron Confederacy,” which acted as the middle man in the trade of furs and pemmican between Europeans and other indigenous peoples.

Law Keepers (Onisinweuk)

The Cree have law keepers called onisinweuk. Key concepts in Cree law, which are discussed under separate headings in the following section, include:

    • relationships (wahkohtowin)
    • harmony (miyowicehtowin)
    • violation (pastahowin)
    • consequences (ohcinewin)
    • respect (kwayaskitotamowin)

War and Peace Chiefs

When a band went to war, they would nominate a temporary war chief called okimahkan. This is different from the “peace chief” who plays the role of a diplomat. For instance, before the 1885 Northwest Rebellion, Big Bear was the chief of his band, but once the fighting started Wandering Spirit became the war chief.

History and Philosophy


During time immemorial the spirits of the first man and woman walked on the clouds. Every then and now they could see an opening through the clouds, which revealed the lush greenery below. They longed to go to the world below, but there was no way down, so they kept on wandering in the sky. Eventually they saw a black spot in the distance, which grew larger as they walked toward it. It was a great spider, much larger than them.

They looked up at the great spider and asked if it could help them go down to the lower world. The great spider said it could and spun its web into a bowl. The great spider told them to go in the bowl, which it would lower. However, they must not look over the edge of this bowl. As the great spider lowered them down, they became excited at the sight of the world. Overcome by excitement, one of them tried to look over the edge, which caused the bowl to rock violently and terrified them.

The bowl finally came to rest on a tall tree. They could not go down because the tree had no branches. As animals went by they asked them to help them. The first animal to go by was the caribou. They asked the caribou to help them down, but he said he couldn’t climb a tree. Other animals went by to the same effect. It was not until the fisher came by that he agreed to climb up the tree and bring them down. The could finally made it to the ground, where they befriended the bear, who taught them everything they need to know. That is why the Cree people call the bear their brother.

Norm Wesley, who tells the story, says this story teaches the Cree people who they are, where they come from and carries them forward in the future. The story clearly establishes the primacy of the spirit over the body in Cree cosmology, since the first humans come down from heaven to earth. It also shows the Cree people’s deep love for and connection to nature and animals, as the first human beings long to live on earth and the animals help them achieve their desire. Even dangerous or terrifying animals such as spiders and bears are portrayed as wise and benevolent, suggesting the Cree people do not traditionally see evil in nature, but against it. For instance, the human beings’ first instinct is to seek the counsel of the great spider; that is, to see what wisdom or help it can offer, rather than run away from it, confront it or ignore it, among other things they could have done.

In short, the Cree people’s identity is spiritual, good-natured and attached to nature and animals, from whom it seeks wisdom and help to survive.

Cree creation story

The Interrelatedness of All Things (Wahkotowin)

Wahuhtowin refers to the interrelatedness of all things, which forms the basis of Cree law. Humans have laws just as spirits do and the laws which affect the human world affect the spirit world and vice versa, as the body affects the spirit and the spirit affects the body.

The law of relations flows from the Creator to all life on earth. Humans are part of this circle of life and are wise to observe other living things to learn this law and its proper application. A body of stories describes what the Cree have learned from nature. The sun, moon, winds, clouds, rocks, fish, insects and animals all provide illustrations of wahkohtowin, which the Cree interpret as law.

Wahkohtowin has implications for individuals, families, governments and nations. For example, wahkohtowin requires different types of conduct in a family:

    • parents must care for their child
    • brothers and sisters are to live close together but separately
    • cousins and other relatives must be treated respectfully

Within larger governmental relationships, unrelated people must apply wahkohtowin according to the principles of miyowicehtowin, pastahowin, ohcinewin and kwayaskitotamowin (see the following subsections).

The Natural Order

The natural order may be represented as follows:

The natural order

The spiralling band is a continuum where the individual relates to the family, which relates to the clan, which relates to the nation, which relates to the environment, which relates to the cosmos. All of these relationships are sacred gifts and must be maintained in order to live in harmony (The Sacred Relationship, 2013).

Living Together (Witaskewin) in Harmony (Miyo-wicehtowin)

Witaskewin and miyo-wicehtowin mean to live together in harmony. This principle flows from the Cree people’s relationship to the Creator. Living in harmony requires people to foster good relations (wahuhtowin) with everyone and everything around them. The root wiceht means to support. Miyo-wicehtowin thus requires people to support others and their environment, which support them. This is often represented by a circle, which is sacred in Cree symbology. The circle represents bringing people together, among others. It also represents the cycle of life from earth to infancy to childhood to adulthood to old age and back to the earth. Cree legal gatherings are conducted in circles, such as talking, healing and reconciliation circles.

Good Relations (Wahuhtowin)

Wahuhtowin expresses the need to maintain good relations. For instance, in his documentary, The Sacred Relationship (2013), Greg Miller explores how reconciling the relationship between indigenous people and the rest of Canada can lead to healthier water. Indigenous people traditionally offer Tabacco to the spirit of the water, so it can stay pure and clean. An Elder explains that these small gestures are meant to show respect for the water. As an indigenous hunter explains:

The water is something that is part of me. I need to respect the water. It brings food to my table. I got to respect the water because if the water changes, my life is going to change with it.

As Elder Mowega Wawatie says:

We have to learn to respect [the creatures]. We cannot live without them, but they can live without us. Without the creatures we don’t exist. Without us, life will continue. So it’s our choice to extinguish ourselves.

Or as another Elder puts it:

Anything that gave us life was considered holy, sacred. The air that I breathe, the water that we drink, and the food that we eat. All of that gives us life, and we treat it with respect.

An old indigenous hunter in the documentary explains the whole concept very simply:

If you respect the water, it will respect you. If you don’t respect that water, that water will take you.

Violation (Pastahowin) and its Consequences (Ohcinewin)

Pastahowin refers to an act or omission that violates the natural law. Ohcinewin refers to the negative consequences that are bound to follow. The Creator will take action against violations of natural law, through humans or otherwise, and restore the balance of nature. Cree law has many retributive aspects, such as:

    • redress (meskotsehowin)
    • reproof (kakweskasowehk)
    • revenge (apehowin)
    • reprisal (naskwawin)
    • retribution (pasastehokowisowin)
    • vengeance (naskwastamasowin apo apehowin)
    • vindication (pasihiwewin)
    • blame (atameyimew)
    • obligation (sihkiskakewin)
    • indebtedness (masinahikepayowin)
    • compensation (tipahikewin)

Examples of pastahowin and ohcinewin are found in relationships between the Cree and animals, who are regarded as persons in their own right. The same legal considerations that govern human relationships apply to animals. The Cree speak of animals as possessing their own itatisiwin (nature). For instance, it is the nature or itatisiwak of caribou to migrate and beavers to build lodges. In the shaking lodge and in dreams, animals share human itatisiwin and manifest like humans. If animals are not treated properly, ohcinewin can result, meaning something bad will happen. Many stories interpret the law relating to animals in these terms.

Respect for All Things (Kwayaskitotamowin) and Truthfulness (Tapwewin)

Kwayaskitotamowin means respect for all things, including animals, Mother Earth and Elders. This includes the duty to take care of everyone and everything and to ensure that no harm comes to anyone or anything (minatsowin). It also includes tapwewin, which combines the notions of truthfulness, honesty and fairness.


“Cree” (14 April 2006) online: Canadian Geographic <> (accessed 27 April 2019)

“Indigenous Law: An Introduction” (14 September 2015), online: YouTube <>.

John Borrows, Indigenous Legal Traditions in Canada: Report for the Law Commission of Canada (Law Commission of Canada, 2006).

Leeroy Little Bear, “Naturalizing Indigenous Knowledge” (Paper delivered at the University of Saskatchewan, Aboriginal Education Research Centre, Saskatoon, SK, and the First Nations and Adult Higher Education Consortium, Calgary, AB, 2009).

Victor Golla, “North America” in Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages, ed. Christopher Moseley (NY: Routledge, 2007).

The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission, “The Justice System and Aboriginal People,” online: <> ch. 2.

The Faith Project: A Classroom Discussion on Beliefs, documentary film, directed by Christopher Romeike (Canada: National Film Board of Canada, 2015), online: <>

The Sacred Relationship, documentary film, directed by Greg Miller (Canada: National Film Board of Canada, 2013).