The Cree Indians

Back in the 1980s and 1990s Autotrail named several models of their coach-built motorhomes after native American tribes, one of which was the Cree Indians.

Other RVs were named after the Apache, Arapaho, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chickasaw, Commanche, Dakota, Kiowa and Navajo tribes.

Since our motorhome is a Cree, we were intrigued to find out more about the tribe that inspired the name. But why were these RVs named after people who roamed the earth on foot or by horse?

Let’s find out more about the Cree Indians…

Picture Source: Traditional Music Channel

Who are the Cree Indians?

Tribal peoples the world over are perceived to live a simple life, hitting the trail of freedom, travel, spirituality and connectedness with nature, none more so than the romanticised American Indian.

Motorhomes, campervans and RVs provide us modern folk with similar blessings – whilst ignoring the many hardships that Native Americans faced. We are still horrified by the way the Indians were pushed aside in the race to colonise and ‘civilise’ North America back in the 1800s.

The Cree tribe refer to themselves as the ‘Kenistenoag’. The French changed the name to Kristineaux, and this was subsequently shortened to Cree. They previously used the Algonquian language, although most Cree today speak English or French instead. 

Originally from the sub-arctic regions of the American continent, the Cree gradually migrated south from the mid 1600s and today some 400,000 Cree live mostly in Canada and Northern USA.

The Woodland Cree

On the southward migration, some of the tribe stopped at James Bay, Canada. Subsequently they became known as the Woodland Cree, dividing into southern and northern groups. Both branches traded furs and meat with Europeans at James Bay and Hudson Bay from the 17th century, adopting some European style clothing and culture.  Moreover, intermarriage or alliances between Cree women and fur traders were common.

Life was harsh for the Woodland Cree, especially during winter when game was in short supply.

The genders had designated tasks; men made weapons, tools and canoes. They would also hunt and fish. The women snared smaller animals, made fishing nets and snowshoes, as well as looking after the home. They prepared animal meat for immediate food or for storage, using the skins for intricately beaded clothing and blankets.

The Southern Woodland Cree are also known as the Swampy Cree or Maskegon Tribe, ‘Nihithaw’ in their own dialect. They lived in birch bark covered wigwams; semi-permanent domed huts as pictured below. 

The Northern Woodland Cree were a sub-branch who lived in conical structures covered in pine boughs or caribou hide. Family groups dwelled together, gathering as a community for hunting or war. 

Cree Indian wigwam
Pic Source: wiktionary

The Plains Cree

The Cree who migrated further south onto the Great Plains acquired horses from Europeans in the 1700s. The horse revolutionised life for those tribes who had them. Those Indians suddenly had speed and range to travel further. The horses could carry and pull all that was required of them.

The Plains tribes rose to dominance over the area. They roamed the plains, following the buffalo and warring with enemies. Indians here lived in tipis (wooden poles secured at the top and covered with buffalo hides). Tipis are portable dwellings, ideal for the Plains.

The entire tribe could pack up camp very quickly, either to find food or to defend the women and children. It was the women who erected the tipi in most, if not all, tribes.

Note the difference between the Plains tipi and the wigwam of the Woodland Cree. A common mistake is to confuse the two. A wigwam is a domed semi-permanent dwelling, a tipi is transportable conical “tent”.

Black and white photograph of tipis. Tipis are used by Plains Indians as they are easily transported
Pic Source: Britannica

The Plains Cree developed into a more militant band than the Woodland Cree. They further subdivided into groups where each division had its own chief, although warriors from all groups came together to form a fighting unit. They traded with other tribes, forming alliances with some and warring with others.

The Cree and the buffalo

The Cree were part of the powerful Iron Confederacy, an alliance formed between Plains tribes to fight their enemies or for huge hunting expeditions. They mainly sought buffalo, the primary food source for most Plains Indians.

The meat was either eaten fresh or dried for storage, with tools made from bones. Sinews made strong bow strings or thread. Horns and hooves made drinking vessels. The fat was also used as soap. Even dried buffalo dung was used as an excellent fuel for winter fires. 

The importance of the buffalo was such that its decline from over-hunting by settlers and tourists led to famine. For instance, railroads carried trains filled with armed men taking pot shots at the massive buffalo herds! With famine, many Indian tribes faced extinction.

This was a deliberate act in order to subdue the Indians’ opposition of settlers. Moreover, it was an act of genocide! Starving people cannot fight for their way of life. Do not forget that this was not so long ago!

Once the huge herds had gone from the Plains, the Indians had no way of sustaining their lifestyle. Consequently, they had to quickly adapt to the world that the settlers brought into their homeland. Much of their culture was lost beneath the concrete and tarmac of a growing modern nation.

Spiritual practices of the Cree Indians

Like most American Indians, the Cree were a spiritual people, practising Animism.

To clarify, this is about respecting the spirit of all life and features of nature, both animate and inanimate. This is akin to our own spiritual beliefs – that everything has its place within the cosmos with its own spirit (or consciousness) and vibrational resonance.

Most Indian tribes recognised and worshipped a greater deity too, usually translated now as The Great Spirit.

The Woodland Cree in particular were afraid of evil spirits; they had many rituals to prevent misfortune affecting the tribe. The Plains Cree used ceremony and ritual to guarantee success in hunting and war.

Cree Indian proverb: only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money

Cree myths and legends

The Cree’s history, culture, and wisdom has passed down the generations via stories. The Cree language was not written until the 1880s, therefore oral traditions were vital for the preservation of their myths and legends. It is the storytellers that keep their culture and history alive.

One story told by the Cree tells of a bleak future…

Mankind has ruined the world, causing death and destruction. The storytellers – keepers of legends and tribal customs – will help to restore the world to health. Those who survive the destruction will receive the Cree wisdom from the “Rainbow Warriors”.

People of all races will learn how to return to the old ways of love and respect for all creation and The Great Spirit. They will once again know how to live in harmony with nature and listen to its voice.

Is this old Cree story being played out right now in the Coronavirus situation? Or in the ecological crisis we seem to be facing?

As a world – and as a species – we need to return to older ways.

The pandemic has forced us to care more for each other. We’ve all cut back on the amount of travelling we do. Also, we are considering the impact our habits have locally and globally and how we can emerge from this with greater knowledge, respect, and compassion. Coincidentally, the rainbow symbolises hope and peace.

Rainbow Warriors in an Autotrail Cree

Modern neo-Rainbow Warriors encourage mindful consideration of other beings and the environment. This is especially evident in our views about wild camping in a motorhome. Our aim is to draw upon ancient wisdom of all cultures and apply it to the crazy hectic existence most people live now.

Perhaps this is one of the things fuelling the vanlife phenomenon and why Autotrail chose Native American tribal names, as if there is a need to return to a more natural and connected way of living, free from the abyss of stress and overwhelm.

Reflecting on this whilst driving our old Cree motorhome reminds us that ancient tribal teachings are prevalent to this day. We are proud to have a link with such people – even if only in name.

It is our hope that the world can stand back and respectfully allow the tribes to rebuild themselves without imposing our vision of who we think they should be.

Our Autotrail Cree motorhome
The rainbow bunting made by Hobo Trudi for our van, Cree

If you’re interested in the more spiritual aspects of van life and travelling, remember to check out these other pages…

Ancient Wisdom and Sacred Places in the UK

Celtic Spirituality in the British Isles

Ley Lines, Labyrinths, and Stone Circles

Suggested Reading 

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