Nehiyawak (ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐊᐧᐠ) is a common ethnonym for the people known as the Cree, meaning “those who speak the same language”. The term “Cree” comes from the Ojibwe word “Kirištino”, which was used by the Ojibwe to describe the people living around Hudson Bay; the French pronounced the word as “Cristinaux”, later shortening it to “Cris”.
The Cree are the largest First Nations group in the Lac La Biche region. In Alberta, there are two major sub-groups of Cree: the Woods Cree (in northern regions) and the Plains Cree (primarily in southern regions). They were not the first to this area, pushing other First Nations groups from the region (the Dene-zaa, Sekani, Sarcee, and Blackfoot); however, pottery found on Black Fox Island confirms Cree ties to the region by the 1500s at the latest.
The fur trade in Canada could not have operated without the Cree, who were initially known to the Europeans as the “Homeguard”, firmly established as middlemen between the fur companies and those who would come to trade with them. Cree women would often marry European fur traders à la façon du pays (“in the custom of the country”), which came with advantages and disadvantages. The greatest advantages for marriage involved the fur trade itself: Cree women knew trading customs, spoke multiple languages (at least her own and her husband’s), made moccasins and snowshoes, secured food, and were excellent guides. Essentially, a “country wife” often guaranteed survival for fur traders. In return, the connection would allow her to influence trade relationships, guarantee European goods through trade for her kinship network, and grant her a slightly easier life through her own access to European goods. However, life married to a European could also be difficult or hazardous due to cultural differences and greater exposure to European diseases. The Métis were the eventual product of these marriages.
After Confederation, the Numbered Treaties were created to extract resources and give land to the Canadian government. The Beaver Lake Cree Nation and Heart Lake First Nation signed Treaty 6 on September 9, 1876, at Fort Pitt. At the time, many across Saskatchewan and Alberta were facing starvation and smallpox due to the encroachment of European settlers. It was felt by many that the treaty would be the only assistance they could receive. Signing Treaty 6 seemed helpful, especially with the inclusion of a medicine chest clause and the right to traditional land use; however, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation (Amiskosâkahikanihk) has been taking legal action to uphold their treaty rights in the face of industrial development.
The Cree are highly spiritual. This spiritualism can be seen in their language, dances, cultural arts, and more. Despite facing genocide, assimilation, and colonialism, Cree culture has persevered. The Cree “y” dialect, Nêhiyawêwin (ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐁᐧᐃᐧᐣ), emphasises interconnectedness and kinship (wahkohtowin, ᐊᐧᐦᑯᐦᑐᐃᐧᐣ) between all beings. Cree language and native arts programs are offered at both the local public schools and Portage College, allowing people to reconnect to their rich culture.
The Medicine Wheel is an important symbol—it encompasses the four seasons, cardinal directions, elements, stages of life, and aspects of the individual: mental physical, emotional, and spiritual. The metaphor of the Medicine Wheel is used in many ways to teach several things, including interdependence and balance.
The culture hero and trickster Wesakechak is one of the most famous Cree heroes, with endless stories told about him. His story cycles always have a moral. They link humans to creation and teach children about life in a humorous manner through a relatable character. These stories are only supposed to be told during the winter. Other seasons have traditional activities as well, such as making canoes in the spring.
Originally only among the Plains Nations, Pow Wows draw people together to celebrate life through songs, dances, ceremonies, and displays of unity. It is a living tradition, as dances evolve with each generation. The Pow Wows in Lac La Biche and Beaver Lake are usually competition Pow Wows, where dancers compete for prizes. Several dances are performed, with most portraying parts of nature; for example, during a grass dance, dancers attempt to imitate the swaying of grass on a windy day, and women’s fancy shawl dances imitate the life cycle of a butterfly.
Round dances, originally healing ceremonies using hand drums and singing, typically take place at night. Before the dancing begins, an elder offers food from a feast to the spirits present. Dancers join hands to form a circle, symbolizing unity and equality; their left hand is held open with the palm upwards because it is on their heart side and their right clasps the hand of the dancer next to them. The round dance continues as long as someone Is drumming and singing.
Cree decoration are intricate and often used on clothing, bags, and belts (among other things). Geometric beadwork, intricate quillwork, and fish scale art are among the many intricate crafts created by the Cree. Moose hair tufting, first used primarily in the north, was once a primary method of decoration clothing and is slowly reviving after almost disappearing. Portage College offers Native Arts & Culture programs in Lac La Biche, including classes on beading, hide tanning, moose/caribou hair tufting, dyeing natural materials, and carving wood and stone.