Sharing the Land: Who We Are


Waachiye (Hello)! Welcome to our Treaty Awareness Initiative

We invite you to explore it and gain a deeper understanding of our treaty relationship with the people of Ontario and Canada.

To understand our treaty, you must first understand who we are.

We call ourselves Illiliwuk or Inniniwuk (the people), depending on the dialect. We are also known as Omushkegowuk (the people of the muskeg).

People everywhere have an origin story. Ours is rooted in ancient times, when animals and people could easily talk to one another. You can listen to our origin story Here. For a comprehensive understanding of our stories, see Cree elder Louis Bird’s

This kind of story is an aatalohkaan or aatanohkan (legend), depending on the dialect. We consider these stories to be sacred. (A story of more recent times is a tepaachimowin.)

According to our origin story, these are the awiyaashiishuk (animals) that our ancestors saw when they first came to this land:

maskwa (the black bear), atihk (the caribou), amisk (the beaver), nikik (the otter), ochek (the fisher), shaakweshiw (the mink), kiihkwahaakew (the wolverine), pishiw (the lynx), waapistaan (the marten)

The bear and the wolverine were the first to befriend our ancestors. The bear, in particular, guided them and taught them everything they needed to know, in order to live in this land. Detailed knowledge of our homeland, the skills necessary for survival, together with the values of hospitality, respect and sharing – all these things were passed down to each new generation.

Chief Misabi at Feast (1886)

Chief Misabi at Feast (1886)

So we were the first people to inhabit these lands and waters, the vast region that we call our homeland.

It is comprised of askiy (land, earth), nipiy (water), siibiyuk (rivers), saakahikanuk (lakes). It also includes those who lived here before us, the many pilesiwuck (birds) and animals we depend upon – who give their lives to us, if we respect them, so that we may survive. We ate the wiiyaas (meat), wore the (fur) and made tools from (bone) and (sinew) – or from asinii (rock) or piiyonik (flint) or mistik (wood). Clothing, shelter, fuel, tools, traps, weapons, food, cooking vessels, medicine, canoes, snowshoes, toboggans, baby cradles, diapers – everything we needed came from the land.

We don’t own the land, and we never did.

We were placed here to look after it. It is our to look after and use. It is ours to bequeath to future generations. We were always willing to share, as long as our survival and wellbeing were not threatened.

Each family had its hunting territory, where it spent the winter, often two or three related peyakotenawuk (families) together. When game was really scarce, however, the families would separate and spread out, or scattered about, to maximize the opportunities for finding game. (Today, or child and family service agency is called Payukotayno, recognizing the family unit as the backbone of our nation.)

The hardest season was pipon (winter). In Cree, we still describe a person’s age by the number of winters lived.

In siikwan (early spring, before open water) we welcomed a new food source when the succulent Canada geese returned from their migration in huge flocks. We set out decoys, concealed ourselves, called them down in their language, and harvested according to our need. Early spring was followed by miloskamin or minoskamin (open water), niipin (summer), takwaakin (autumn), kashkatinisiw (freeze-up), and then the six seasons repeated.

We showed respect to the animals who provided for us. We drummed and sang to them. We danced and celebrated, as we still do today. We had, and still have, spiritual relationships with all living things. Our language classifies things as animate or inanimate. Women were always respected for their life-giving power. Men could acquire spiritual power, and could use it to overcome sorcery.

The Cree calendar didn’t start in January, a word we didn’t know. The new year began in the spring. We named the months (or moons) according to the annual cycle of life:

  • Mikisiwi-piisim (eagle moon)
  • Niski-piisim (Canada goose moon)
  • Aliiki-piisim or Aniiki-piisim (frog moon)
  • Saakipakaawi-piisim (budding moon)
  • Opaskowi-piisim (moulting moon)
  • Ohpahowi-piisim (flying up moon)
  • Wehwewi-piisim (blue goose moon)
  • Opimahaamowi-piisim (migrating moon)
  • Kashkatinisiw-piisim (freeze-up moon)
  • Paapiiwaachakinishiish-piisim (little scattering moon)
  • Kishe-paapiiwaatakini-piisim (great scattered about moon)
  • Kishe-piisim (great moon)

Living together in such small kin-based groups, we respected one another, helped one another, trusted one another. This was our law. It was an ideal way to raise a child, who learned in an intimate, personal multi-generational extended family. It was experiential learning. It was learning through observation and story-telling. Sometimes there were challenges, but most of the time we experienced milopimaatisiiwin or mino-pimaatisiiwin (a good or satisfying life).

We lived this way for thousands of years, speaking our ancestral language and easily communicating with our neighbours, the Anishinaabeg to the south, the Eeyouch to the east. We had treaty relationships with our neighbours. Our word for treaty is naskumituwin (an oral agreement). A person’s word, or promise, was considered sacred. We were part of a vast North American trading network, with certain goods being exchanged from neighbour to neighbour to neighbour.

That’s how we acquired small amounts of (tobacco) for our ospwaakanuk (pipes), cutting it with red willow bark to make it last longer. That’s how we acquired clay pots, and then there were people looking for furs.