Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 1982


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 3, Summer 1982, pp. 186-87.


Copyright 1982 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


The Canadian Plains Research Center has provj.ded a new and amended version of the Plains Cree, a classic of plains anthropology first published more than forty years ago. The earlier volume, available under the imprint of the American Museum of Natural History (Anthropological Papers 37, Part II, 1940), is a portion of a much more extensive work completed by Mandelbaum as a Ph.D. dissertation at Yale University during 1936. The complete document is published here for the first time.

The earlier version is essentially a description of the "buffalo-hunting way of life ... of the Plains Cree" (xiii). It was significant because it tapped a remnant of a cultural type even then only a memory, and presented it with clarity, understanding, and objectivity. More important, however, because the Cree were not indigenous to the plains, Mandelbaum explored their metamorphosis from woodland hunters to equestrian plainsmen-entrepeneurs and warriors. The newly published sections (2 and 3) elaborate the theme of change and add ethnohistoric and comparative data in abundance. The ethnohistoric context and ecological emphases are remarkably current and focus upon "why and how Cree culture changed when some of the Cree changed their habitat, economy, and general environment" (xiii). This is particularly crucial in the plains because so many of the historic Native Americans customarily identified as "Plains peoples" came from elsewhere, and quite recently. Indeed, much of the regional history and prehistory can be cast as a process whereby peoples choose or are forced to alter a preexisting cultural set or direction. It has been suggested that much of the plains had no indigenous population and was thus strictly a recipient of peoples and ideas. While such a notion cannot be entertained seriously, many of the typical tribes, such as the Cheyenne, Comanche, Cree, and Dakota, are recent immigrants from the woodlands and mountains fringing the borders of the plains.

For the Cree, the process of cultural, economic, and political change is clear. First came the establishment of European trading posts in the historic Cree homeland west of James Bay. Responding to the attractiveness of the novel European wares, the Cree intensified their fur trapping because peltry was the sole currency that would satisfy their new-found desires. These in turn created new dependence on the traders and thus new pressures on furbearing creatures, and ultimately led to the exhaustion of the resource. As European goods such as firearms became necessities and the supply of furs needed to procure them diminished, some Cree moved toward fresh resources, in this case westward and southwestward toward and gradually into the prairies. Mandelbaum describes the process: "From 1740 to 1820 the Cree were expanding to their widest limits. Although some bands were out on The Plains, they had not completely severed themselves from the forest. Toward the end of the period, the Cree on the prairies had largely ceased to waver between the two environments and were abandoning excursions into the woodlands" (p. 46). Thus the Plains Cree became a distinctive, identifiable unit, separate but retaining strong ties with their Woodland kinsmen who remained at home. They became plainsmen, dependent to a degree upon European- based trade but relying also upon the abundant bison of the grasslands.