Identification. The Cree are a Subarctic group whose name is derived from the name of specific bands in the region between Lake Superior and Hudson Bay, known to the French, from Ojibwa, as "Kiristino," later shortened to "Cree." The meaning is unknown. The regional designations are those by which they know themselves.
Location. Aboriginally the Western Woods Cree occupied the subarctic or boreal forest from Hudson and James bays westward to the Peace River in what is now Canada. This is the Precambrian or Canadian Shield, except for westernmost northern Alberta, with a mixed-wood boreal forest. The Subarctic has long cold winters, during which temperatures may fall to —60° F or lower, and short moderately warm summers. "Freeze-up," the period during which the lakes, rivers, and streams freeze over, is a time of limited travel, and "break-up," or spring thaw, is the harbinger of summer. The severity of the subarctic climate makes its mark on the cultures, which are closely tied to the environment. In only a few favored areas is horticulture even marginally possible.
Demography. Reliable population estimates are for recent times only, and these figures include only those having legal status under the provisions of the Indian Act. Cree were Seriously affected by great smallpox epidemics in 1781 and later and other European-introduced diseases to which they had no immunity. After World War I, influenza epidemics struck at various times and places across the subarctic. In 1970, there were approximately forty thousand Western Woods Cree with legal status and an unknown number of people of mixed Cree and European ancestry who were not legally classified as Indian.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Cree language or dialect group is the northern variant of Central Algonkian, extending from the Montagnais-Naskapi of the Labrador Peninsula to the Rocky Mountains. Swampy Cree is the /n/dialect, Rocky Cree the /δ/ dialect, and Bush and Plains Cree speak /y/ dialects. An /r/ dialect was spoken south of Lake Athabasca until the late eighteenth century.