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Aspects of Modern Cree Religious
Traditions in Alberta


P. Joseph Cahill

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 10, No. 4. (Autumn, 1976). © World Wisdom, Inc.

The Cree originally migrated from eastern and central Canada and are traditionally considered Indians of the plains. Little is known about their location before 1700. They are the subject of a modest amount of research. Lowie's classic Indians of the Plains contains about forty brief and fleeting references to the Cree. Modern studies of the Cree tend to be factual and one finds almost no investigation that stresses what Eliade has called the spiritual universes of these people. Those who do discuss the religion of the plains Indians, as, for example the eminent scholar, A. Hultkrantz, tend to confine their observations to the Blackfoot, Sarsi, Gros Ventre, Crow and other tribes found in significant numbers in the plains of the United States or who by 1870 had occupied the lower quarter of Alberta.

Most maps showing the location of Indian tribes tend to locate the Cree in the southern parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Actually in 1750 the Cree were located in and around the present city of Edmonton. By 1800 they were found in the middle of the Province, extending about one hundred and twenty miles north of Edmonton and by 1870 had continued moving north almost to the present-day Alberta border. To the west resided the Slave and Beaver (Athapascan), to the west and slightly south were the Stoneys (Siouan)—a branch of the Assiniboine who, about 1800, had moved into the foothills of Alberta—the Sarsi (Athapascan) and the Kutenai (Kootenayan) who, with the Snake tribe had been driven by the Blackfoot into the lower southwest mountains. The Indian occupation of the territory now called Alberta goes back about ten thousand years. In general, the Canadian government has been more tolerant of ethnic distinctions than has the United States government and has certainly paid more specific attention to the Meti than has been the case elsewhere. (This may well be because of the fact that Canada regards itself as a multi-cultural nation committed to the preservation of diversity).

To this day there are differences between the Cree and the Dakotas and Blackfoot against whom, starting about 1800 and with the help of the Assiniboine, the Cree fought. The Cree were among the first to come into contact with the men of the Hudson Bay Company and thus quite early submitted themselves to acculturation. By 1750, in fact, all the Indians of southern Alberta experienced the influence of the white civilization. It was the introduction of the horse by the Spaniards which had originally enabled the Cree to move from his eastern habitat. Currently in Canada there are between sixty-five and seventy thousand Cree speakers, people using one or other of the five dialects which are mutually intelligible.

Although the Cree is currently, like most Amerindians, suffering all the problems associated with a network of relationships to a dominant and symbolically different type of culture, there is, in significant instances, an attempt to recover the Cree religious traditions and to translate them into an idiom versatile enough to cope with the realities of the twentieth century. Such an effort is not primarily generated by nostalgia or by archaism but rather, in the opinions of many Cree spokesmen, by the desire for survival. The custodians of this oral religious tradition are the Elders. There are some forty-two Indian bands in Alberta, each with a Chief appointed for a two-year period. Correspondingly, one would expect a large number of Elders—especially since the native population has been increasing. But, by their own estimate, there are from five to eight Cree Elders in the province of Alberta. This, of course, does not mean that others do not claim the title. An Elder, however, is constituted not only by age and knowledge of his tradition, but more importantly, by whether or not he lives according to the demands of his tradition. Because of the residually tribal form of life, people immediately know whether the Elder practices what he is supposed to preserve and transmit. In many instances some of those who might be considered Elders have accepted into their tradition elements which, as a matter of fact, are contradictory to the true tradition. A rather complicated dialectic therefore is continually operative. The teaching and practice of the genuine Elders is the Cree tradition.

The tradition considered as process is transmitted explicitly in oral form after the child has reached about his seventh year. Before that the tradition urges that the religious and social ways be practiced within the family in which the child lives. Residential schools through-out Canada have made the transmission of the tradition virtually impossible. The child, at an early age, was transported far from his family to a school where he would reside. Most of these institutions were religious schools. Descriptions of conditions at such schools are uniformly bleak. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, in recent times the effort of the residential schools of old and later that of the public schools has been the opposite of what seems to have been intended. For many of those subjected to a different religious tradition and to the more secular model of the public school have been making efforts to return to their own religion and to their own cultural traditions. Naturally, over a period of time, aspects of both Christianity and of the secular cultures have been assimilated into seemingly dormant forms of native religion and into the traditional vehicles of trans-mission. Those nearer to the larger urban areas of Alberta and to the locations of northerly moving resource development are the ones most deeply affected by another culture. The extension of the communications media even to remote areas brings in another culture which may temporarily be at a distance.

It is in this continually evolving situation that the Elders are supposed to play their role in the education of the children. The early emphasis is on the activity of listening, listening as well to the sounds of the natural environment (where this is still possible) as to the sounds of the human word. Accompanying hearing is the stress on observation by vision. This instruction in seeing bears no relation at all to the other aspect of vision required to see and to understand letters on pages or in books, an activity more proper to those well into the stage of chirographic and typographic communication. The identification of vision with but one of its functions by the Canadian of European origin has been a contributing factor to the frustration experienced by both sides in what the government calls "native education."[1] The emphasis on ear and eye stands even today in marked contrast to the visual stress of the culture which derives from the development of the phonetic alphabet into increasingly more sophisticated modes of communication.

The principle vehicle of communicating the religious tradition is still the legend and the myth, though some Cree Elders note a diminishing power in the story. The validity of the legends and myths is traced back to an early period in which the principal character heard and saw. in a vision what are now the contents of the story. One rather omnipresent instance is the story of Wisakechak (there is no uniform spelling of the name in Cree).

Investigation on the oral level has portrayed Wisakechak in terms reminiscent of the trickster. He is an old man and frequently a magician. He is "not above the lie," but the lie is frequently enough a mistaken interpretation on the part of the listener. He is characterized as possessing and incarnating all folk wisdom. When he uses ruses, it is for a moral purpose. One Cree described this aspect of Wisakechak as trapping the questioner into a severe moral and ethical demand which was totally unanticipated by the questioner. Sometimes Wisakechak is Adam and in this role discloses knowledge about man and the beyond. In this usage he is almost reminiscent of the cosmic man. But he is likewise conversant with the ways of nature, particularly with the ways of the animals with whom he speaks and with whom he lives in easy familiarity. He is identified also with whatever it is that causes man to make foolish mistakes. In these instances he is generally invoked as the one who allowed the error so that the individual could learn from it. In some instances (recidivism) he is the explanation for the foolish man.

One form of the story used for paranetic purposes can be summarized as follows:

In a vision Wisakechak saw the coming of white brothers from across the sea. Wisakechak said these white brothers would come with a different form of life both to teach the Indian and to learn from the Indian. The Indian and the white man were to live in peace. But one thing the white man, who knew how to use it, would bring with him was fire-water. This was not made for the Indian and was never to be used by the Indian. A second thing the white man would bring was money, something unknown to the Indian. The white man was to teach the Indian how to use this (a visual diagram of another Elder portrayed the dollar sign, $, as an S but the S was out-lined as a serpent). But the Indian used the fire-water which led to a falling away from the traditions and to a disintegration of the native ways of life. Order will be restored only when the Indian drinks no more. And the integrity manifested in the vision will be achieved .when the white man teaches the Indian how to deal with this money that he brought. Wisakechak also said that with the use of alcohol would come ignoring the ways of the Elders, inattention to the teaching of Wisakechak,abuse of the ritual of the sun dance. If this continues there will soon be "no more Indian."

The story as outlined above, like, for example the Orpheus myth, seems to be primarily legend and secondarily myth. Other forms of the story make it primarily myth and secondarily a legend. Such classification in the second instance derives from the narrator's stress on the occurrence of the primordial activity of Wisakechak in an unknown place and period. When asked to explain a bit more who this Wisakechak of the second form is, the Elder replied, "He is our Jesus." As conclusions from the story, rather than as parts of the structure of the story, were the injunctions of the Elders to re-institute the traditions of the past, among which the most important were the sweet grass, the pipe, the sun dance and the sweat lodge.

This story is now told outside the Indian community and is likewise intended for the white man. The story is taken with great seriousness and is usually part of an occasion in which the Indian and white man are trying to achieve some understanding. The story creates an evident sacral atmosphere. It was assumed, on the occasions that I heard the stories and variations, that the Great Spirit would communicate with members of the small group either now or later. There was to be no writing or any other form of note taking, though the Elders would employ short non-verbal symbols on a large pad of paper. There was a great contrast in atmosphere between the occasions on which the stories about Wisakechak were narrated and other occasions when one asked questions about who this Wisakechak was or how he was understood. Only outside the sacred setting did Wisakechak assume all the characteristics we mentioned earlier.

For the Cree, the native habitat of the word is still primarily in time as sound. Even for those who can read and write quite well the word appears as efficacious only in time and not in the visual space of writing. In the Wisakechak narrative there were periods of spontaneous silence. The spoken word and its significance was achieved in alternating periods of narration and silence. The silences were assumed to be prayerful periods during which, hopefully the Great Spirit would bring enlightenment. There was the further assumption that the word, recapitulating primal beginnings, would here and now be effective. It is in this sense that the word is event as opposed to the written word which is a record.

The disequilibrium experienced by the Cree today, and the lack of appreciative comprehension of the Cree (and of course, other Indians) on the part of the white Canadian has many and complex causes of which I have written elsewhere. One of the more significant reasons for strained relations between the native and the immigrant is precisely an unawareness of the difference between a residually oral culture and a literate culture. The structuring of the psyche or, of what Ong calls the sensorium is not only different but at times contradictory.[2] These differences appear most clearly when one encounters the Elders and their mode of preserving and transmitting the Cree religious tradition. It is by no means clear that the religious tradition of the minority group, however it develops, can continue to survive contact with the linear and visually oriented dominant society and its religions. On the other hand, there are encouraging signs that a genuinely native religion, with its corresponding myths and rituals, may continue its existence among many Amerindians. The general capacity of the native to survive, as evidenced by past history, and his ability to absorb other religious and secular traditions into his legends and myths, cannot be underestimated. It was Faulkner, I believe, who claimed that the supreme virtue is endurance. A spiritual universe and a religious vision capable of giving identity to the Amerindian and of enriching others may well be the root of the Amerindian endurance.


[1] Report of the Task Force on Inter-cultural Education: Native Education in the Province of Alberta (Edmonton: Provincial Government, 1972).

[2] Walter J. Ong, In The Human Grain (London: Collier-Macmillan Ltd., 1957) and The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1967).

Original editorial inclusion that followed the essay in Studies:
People sleep, and when they die they wake.