Epochs utilitarian integrity

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Cree Economies












In this period (1790 - 1870) the Cree people became a nation of the plains amid other tribal nations identifying their interests and employing the tools of trade, diplomacy and war to serve them. Their history is in fact distinguished by this national development, by epochs of defined economic interests and by utilitarian trade and military systems. Far from being the romantic and wild raiders of the plains, the Cree and other natives of the plains were engaged in a set of well-structured, inter-tribal relationships which were designed to ensure their security, to assist them in meeting the challenges of plains existence and to facilitate the acquisition of the good things of their world. Acquisition was a mainspring of their existence, and thus plains tribes were aggressive and fiercely competitive in inter-communal and inter-personal relations. Their history has a hard shell of war and sharp bargaining. But it also has a softer interior. To have was to share. Sharing, an economic necessity in the Woodland Cree environment was a well-rewarded virtue in the Plains Cree world of buffalo plenty. Within the circle of tents that marked a band at rest was a system of redistribution which blunted the material consequences of an individual’s failure in trade or the hunt, the inescapable consequence of war and old age.

By 1870 the Cree had been on the plains for nearly one hundred years; a hundred years before that they had their first contact with Europeans. If these two centuries disclose anything about the Cree, it is that they were able to maintain an independence and integrity in the face of influence by European and also Indian rivals. Certainly, after contact the Cree changed; they became musket-carrying trappers and traders, and they moved from the woodland to the plains. This change in environment caused them to abandon the canoe in favour of the horse, the bark-covered lodge for the leather tent, and the family beaver hunt in favour of the cooperative buffalo hunt. Yet these changes did not destroy the core of the Cree nation; the ability to make and execute decisions about their interests was not, and could not have been, destroyed by new European tools or by environment-induced changes in material culture.

These Cree, both in their woodland phase and in the plains existence, participated in self-interested economic and political alliances, some of which had begun prior to contact. These alliances established the military and trade patterns which in turn determined the inland flow of European goods. Initially, the Cree and their Assiniboine allies in the southeastern and northwestern plains occupied a powerful middleman position. The coming fur traders and the intrusion of European goods into native trade systems could not easily obliterate this pattern. The Mandan-Hidatsa trade empire admirably displayed the resilience of native value systems within which eagle feathers were valued as highly as guns were. There is little doubt that firearms secured great military victories for the armed over the unarmed. Nonetheless, as was demonstrated by the results of the Blackfoot-Cree alliance against the Snake, Flathead and Kootenay or by the Mandan-Hidatsa-Cree alliance against the Sioux, the new weapons were used in traditional patterns rather than creating new ones. When the distribution of firearms became universal, however, their effects were limited simply to determining the length of casualty lists. The new military power that the gun traditionally represents was used by the Cree to support their trade alliances rather than to score military victories for their own sake. Cree tribal war, which became a marked trait in their plains life and which had, always, an economic purpose, continued throughout their history.

The Plains Cree were living in a world where native people predominated. The traditional institutions of the Cree were not undermined by their relations with Europeans. Cree leaders displayed a well-developed ability to analyze their current economic and military problems and to mobilize their forces, whether they were military, economic or diplomatic, to solve these problems in a manner they hoped would be beneficial to their people. In this framework the European trader became an important, although not always determining, variable within plains politics. The horse wars most precisely demonstrate this, since the motive for war, the underlying purpose of military and trade patterns between 1810 and 1850, was a commodity not controlled, nor even highly valued, by the European trader. Likewise, Cree participation in the most sophisticated Indian trade system, the Mandan-Hidatsa empire, was not directed solely toward improving their position in the fur trade but toward acquiring horses. The Plains Cree lived for themselves, not as European-organized appendages of an alien trade system.

By 1870 the Plains Cree had experienced a succession of military and trade crises, the breakdown of the Blackfoot and Mandan-Hidatsa alliances being the most important. Each time, the Cree reorganized their system of alliances, as in their bargain with the Crow and with the Flathead-Kootenay forces, in an attempt to recapture lost military and trade advantages. They developed a solid diplomatic tradition, and in their long warfare with the Blackfoot, they also developed a fine military record. Their flexible band system and the status system, with its focus on generosity and valour, produced an inner strength which allowed for the absorption of the shocks of epidemics and defeats and guaranteed the much-needed martial and entrepreneurial spirit.

(Milloy, John S., 1988, pp. xiv, 119-120. Reprinted with permission from The University of Manitoba Press.)

Guiding Questions:

  • How does this reading provide evidence of Aboriginal economic independence?

  • Why does the author describe the history of the Cree as having a "soft interior"? What are your views of this assessment?

  • What does two centuries of history disclose about the Cree?

  • How did the Cree use guns and warfare? How does this differ from the way weaponry is used today?

  • What did Cree leaders demonstrate despite European influences? How has this served the Cree people today?

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