Great Canadian RIVERS 


A Cree from Lac Les Isles is typical in physiognomy. [Lac les Isles is in
west-central Saskatchewan near the Alberta border] PA-039702

The Golden Age of the Plains Cree

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the North Saskatchewan River served as the backdrop for a dramatic shift in aboriginal territory and cultural dominance, as the deer-hunting, forest-dwelling Woodland Cree of the East followed the fur trade west and adopted a buffalo-hunting, plains-dwelling lifestyle. The waterway became the artery along which this cultural phenomenon took place; its upper reaches, near modern-day Edmonton, marked the westernmost penetration of the one of Canadian history's greatest cultural expansions.

Visit Edmonton's Syncrude Gallery of Aboriginal Culture
Marvel at the spectacular headdress that once belonged to Fine Day, a 19th century ceremonial leader of the Plains Cree. Witness a re-creation of explorer Anthony Henday's first meeting with Cree and Blackfoot leaders in 1754, a 9,000 year-old encounter between 2 hunters and an ancient form of bison, and a 1,000 year-old fishing camp. See stone, bone, antler and shell tools, a 9,500 year-old spear point, rock paintings, medicine wheels, vision quest sites, buffalo jumps and antelope pits. Meet Saukamappee, a Cree living among the Blackfoot in the time of David Thompson, and experience the energy of a Blackfoot Giveaway ceremony, as a young boy receives special gifts during an 1880 Sundance Ceremony. Hear the sound of the land as it changes through the seasons, the songs and stories of northern trappers as they gather to celebrate New Year's Eve under the Northern Lights, and the voices of contemporary aboriginal people from throughout the West. In the Learning Circle of a massive tipi, find out more about traditional Cree, Blackfoot, Dene, Métis and Nakoda spiritual practices, and the painful years of government residential schools. The Syncrude Gallery of Aboriginal Culture in Edmonton, Alberta, one of Canada's newest and most comprehensive exhibits of Canadian aboriginal life, portrays 11,000 years of aboriginal culture and 500 generations of history. The permanent display occupies a quarter of the Provincial Museum of Alberta and features 3,000 artifacts within a dramatic, innovative multi-media framework.

Cultural Displacement: Before the advent of the fur trade, and the consequent westward movement of the Cree, the geographic distribution of First Nations in the North Saskatchewan watershed placed the Athapaskan tribes - the Chippewan, Beaver - to the north of the river, the Gros Ventre and the Assiniboine to the south, and the members of the Blackfoot Confederacy - the Blackfoot, Blood and Peigan - at its western end. A nomadic lifestyle meant that territories often overlapped and shifted, but no shift was as great as the rapid takeover of western lands by the Cree during the period of 1740 - 1820. Armed with guns and skilled in trade - all the result of a 100-year head start provided by European contact - the eastern Cree pushed ever westward in search of fresh fur territory and new trading partners. As they advanced into the Qu'Appelle Valley, along the lower South Saskatchewan and Battle Rivers, and finally, up the North Saskatchewan, they forced the Athapaskans further to the north, the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine further to the south, and the Blackfoot further to the west. As they penetrated the territory of the west, the Cree quickly adapted to its lifestyle; by the mid-1800's, the former forest dwellers had become bona fide horse-riding, buffalo-hunting people of the Plains.

Detailed historical and ethnographic studies of the Plains Cree, carried out by Yale ethnographer David G. Mandelbaum in the 1930's, concluded that by the late 1600's, the eastern Cree had acquired several advantages that enabled them to expand rapidly to the west. They were among the first native tribes to establish a fur trading relationship with the Europeans, first at York Factory on Hudson Bay in the 17th century, and then further inland, with the French, on Lake Winnipeg and the lower Saskatchewan in the mid 1700's. They were the first to acquire guns, and, as people of the woodlands, they were adept at building canoes, and using them to travel long distances on an intricate network of inland waterways. Unlike the traditional Plains tribes, with a highly specialized dependence on the buffalo, they used a wide variety of natural tools and materials, and were accustomed to a diverse diet that included not only meat, but fish. As the Cree trapped and traded their way to the west, they operated from a favoured position of economic power and technological superiority.

The Luxton Museum of the Plains Indian

Learn more about the First Nations of the Northern Plains and Canadian Rockies at Luxton Museum of the Plains Indian, located in Banff, Alberta, just south of the Saskatchewan Glacier source of the North Saskatchewan River. The museum, inspired by the collections of Banff businessman, journalist and adventurer Norman Luxton, is now operated by the Buffalo Nations Cultural Society, with representation from members of the Cree, Siksika, Pegian, Blood, Tsuu T'ina and Stoney Nations. Visitors to the museum can see displays and life-size exhibits that portray the life of the buffalo hunters, and the effects of contact with Europeans. Demonstrations of pemmican-making, tipi construction, ceremonial songs and dances, legends of the spirit world, musical instruments, beadwork and quillwork demonstrate the rich culture of the people of the Plains.

Westward March: As the western Cree made their transition from Woodland to Plains, several distinct geographical groupings, or bands, developed in north-central and central Saskatchewan and Alberta. In 1690, when Henry Kelsey made his historically precocious journey through the west, he noted the beginnings of the Cree's westward drift. The journals of La Vérendrye, the great French trader-explorer of the 1730's and 1740's, suggest that the Cree had already reached the lower stretches of the Saskatchewan River, and by the time Anthony Henday reached the vicinity of modern-day Edmonton in 1772, the Cree had begun to infiltrate the western territories of the Blackfoot. According to information gathered by Dr. David Mandelbaum, there were 3 distinct groups of Cree on the North Saskatchewan River by the early 19th century:

• The "House People," named for their tendency to cluster around the fur trading posts of the Hudson's Bay Company, congregated in the area of Fort Carlton, near modern-day Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
• The "River People" lived between the North Saskatchewan and Battle Rivers, but hunted as far north and west as Edmonton, and travelled as far south and east as the Forks of the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers.
• The "Upstream People" were the westernmost band of the Plains Cree, living along the north side of the North Saskatchewan near Edmonton, and extending into the Beaver Hills. This tribe experienced the most conflict with the western-dwelling Blackfoot.

Cree Art at the Allen Sapp Gallery of North Battleford, Saskatchewan
The work of one of Canada's most eminent aboriginal artists is displayed in the Gonor Collection of the Allen Sapp Gallery in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, on the North Saskatchewan River southwest of Prince Albert. The Gallery, which opened in 1989, contains the private collection of Allen Sapp's long-time friend and patron, Dr. Allan Gonor. Sapp, whose paintings of Northern Plains Cree culture have been exhibited throughout North America, including the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, the Winnipeg Art Gallery in Winnipeg and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, has been the recipient of many professional honours, including membership in the Royal Canadian Academy of Art and the Order of Canada, and recognition as one of the Senior Native Artists of Canada. Sapp was born in 1928 on the Red Pheasant Reserve in north central Saskatchewan, and survived a difficult childhood to become a celebrated and highly respected painter. The Allen Sapp Gallery in North Battleford has been expanded to include the works of other Canadian First Nations artists.

The century between the years of 1770 and 1870, marking the first appearance of the Cree on the Saskatchewan River, the end of the buffalo hunt, and the beginning of the era of treaties and reserves, is sometimes referred to as the "Golden Age" of the Plains Cree. Although the economic monopoly of the Cree as fur traders and middlemen disappeared as other First Nations came in direct contact with Europeans, the buffalo hunt - and the pemmican provisioning trade that accompanied it - was enough to sustain their prosperity. Despite frequent clashes with many of the tribes that they displaced, the Cree succeeded in forming several native alliances; co-operation and inter-marriage with the Assiniboine, to the south, was not uncommon, and cultural blending with both Athapaskan and Blackfoot tribes sometimes occurred. Disease - notably smallpox and tuberculosis - was the greatest scourge of the Plains Cree during the 1800's, reducing the population by almost half.

In just 1 generation, the ancient lifestyle of an entire people was dramatically altered, and the cultural profile of a vast western area was forever changed. But anthropologists have observed that despite adaptations to the horse-riding, buffalo-hunting ways of the west, and an increased emphasis on group activities (made possible by a reliable source of food and other supplies), the essential culture of the Plains Cree remained the same as that of the Woodland Cree. Although they had severed themselves from the life of the forest, the Plains Cree did not abandon the social and religious organization of their eastern heritage.

Today, the Plains Cree of the North Saskatchewan area are part of the Treaty Six and Treaty Seven First Nations of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Edmonton Heritage Festival: The World's Largest Celebration of Cultural Diversity
From Croatian to Chilean, Ecuadorian to Ethiopian, and Nepalese to Nigerian, the food, art, music, dance and theatre of more than half of the worlds' cultures are presented at the Edmonton Heritage Festival, the city of Edmonton's annual celebration of cultural diversity and harmony. Join more than 350,000 people in celebrating the Festival's "multiculturalism in action" mandate, each year in early August. The family-oriented event features more than 50 ethnic pavilions, and represents more than 80 Edmonton cultural groups.

Multicultural Edmonton

A quick glance through the list of more than 60 ethno-cultural associations in Edmonton, Alberta, the largest metropolis on the North Saskatchewan River, will confirm the international origins of the city's population of almost 1 million people. The Borneo Cultural Association of Alberta, Ghana Friendship Association, Nicaraguan Cultural Association, Alberta Thai Association, Council of Edmonton Filipino Association and the Sikh Federation of Edmonton are just some of the city's organized cultural groups joining native and European-origin organizations such as the Dutch Canadian Club, the German Canadian Association of Alberta, the Irish Sports and Social Society, the Canadian Polish Congress, The Edmonton Métis Cultural Dance Society, the Canadian Native Friendship Centre and the Scandinavian Heritage Society of Edmonton. Each year in August, the city is the site of the Cariwest Caribbean Arts Festival, a Mardi-Gras style street celebration of music, dance and spectacular costumes.

Uniquely Ukrainian: In the 1890's and early 1900's, Edmonton and its surrounding rural areas became a focus of Ukrainian immigration to western Canada. By 1909, 4% of the city's population was of Ukrainian background, and by 1912, the Ukrainian Bookstore, Edmonton's first bookstore, had been established. A re-creation of the Ukrainian Bookstore, circa 1919, can be seen at Fort Edmonton Park, the city's theme-style living history complex. Today, Edmonton's Ukrainian population numbers about 70,000; at least 15 Ukrainian cultural groups, including the Alberta Council for the Ukrainian Arts, Alberta Ukraine Dance Association, Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies, Ukrainian Male Chorus of Edmonton, and the Volya Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, are part of the city's vibrant cultural profile.