Get to know the Indigenous Peoples of Manitoba

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Manitoba is located in the traditional territories of the Cree, Dakota, Dene, Ojibway and Oji-Cree First Nations, as well as the Metis nation. Also, Winnipeg is located in Treaty 1 territory. It is no wonder then that Manitoba’s capital has the biggest Indigenous population of any city in Canada (Indigenous Peoples of Manitoba, a guide for newcomers).

According to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, there are 63 First Nations in Manitoba, including six of the 20 largest bands in Canada. There are also five First Nations linguistic groups: Cree, Ojibway, Dakota, Ojibway-Cree and Dene.

First Nations, Indigenous, Aboriginal?

These terms can be confusing, especially to newcomers. Many of us lump all these words together whenever we refer to persons we identify as Indigenous. First off, when we talk about the First peoples of this land, we are referring to more than one group. In Canada, there are three distinct groups of Indigenous peoples: First Nations, Inuit, and Metis. Each group has its own distinct language (or languages), culture and beliefs.

Collectively, we may call them Indigenous Peoples. You may read or hear some use the term “Aboriginal Peoples.” This was the collective noun used in the Constitution Act of 1982 and may be acceptable to some groups. However, it would be good to note never to use the terms “Aboriginal or Aboriginals.” Also, there is a growing preference for the term “Indigenous Peoples” rather than “Aboriginal Peoples.”

First Nations

First Nations people include both status and non-status. Generally, Indigenous peoples in Canada who are neither Metis nor Inuit belong to First Nations. If referring to a single First Nation band, the best term to use is “First Nation community”. In Manitoba we have the following First Nations communities:

  1. Cree – There are four groups of Cree:
    • Plains Cree (Central Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta)
    • Woods Cree (Northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan)
    • Swampy Cree (Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec)
    • Rocky Cree (Manitoba)

    Cree communities were based on communal principles of cooperation and respect for the land. They believe that everything (living and non-living) is dependent on each other and therefore must be respected. The Cree language is the most widely spoken Indigenous language in Canada. In fact, the name “Winnipeg” came from the Cree word for muddy water (in reference to Red River). Today, there are 23 Cree communities dispersed across Northern Manitoba.

  2. Denesuline (Dene) – They are one of the groups that make up the Dene Nation. The Dene people are one of the largest First Nations groups living in the subarctic region. Their territory covers the western part of the Northwest Territories, and the Northern part of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Dene people have great respect for nature. They believe that the land is alive and everything is sacred. One of their most sacred traditions is playing Drum Songs. They are used for praying, healing and seeing into the future.
  3. Ojibway – The Ojibway have communities in the southern part of Manitoba. They have two main groups: The Plains Ojibway who traditionally depended on bison hunting, and the Woodland Ojibway who survived by hunting, fishing and gathering. Just like the Denes, they have a sacred connection to their land. They regard it as a gift from the Great Spirit and it belongs to everyone in their tribe. The Ojibway live by the Seven Sacred Teachings: love, respect, courage, honesty, wisdom, humility, and truth. They are known for their traditional rites such as the sweat lodge ceremony (done in order to purify, heal and pray), and pow-wow celebrations (hundreds gather to sing, drum, dance, eat and celebrate). They used to live in traditional homes called wigwams, which are dome-shaped structures made of wooden poles, rush mats and birch barks.
  4. Oji-Cree – This group is a unique mix of Ojibway and Cree culture, language and tradition. There are four Oji-Cree communities located in the Island Lake region in the Northeast part of Manitoba. Each community has a different blend of Ojibway and Cree culture. They refer to their language as the Island Lakes Dialect.
  5. Dakota – There are five Dakota communities living in Southern Manitoba. Traditionally, they subsisted in hunting but when they reached Manitoba, they adapted by gardening and raising animals. Their spiritual beliefs centered on the “wakan” which is a spiritual force, power and sacredness. They have a great bond with nature which they regard with utmost respect. The Dakota people are also known for their ceremonies such as the sweat lodge, vision quest, and the sun dance. They used to live in large traditional tents called teepees which were made out of buffalo hide.


There is a growing Inuit population in Winnipeg. Traditionally, they lived in the Arctic for thousands of years. The largest population of Inuits are found in Nunavut, followed by Northern Quebec, the Northwest Territories and Yukon. In the past, they were called Eskimos. It is no longer respectful to call them as such. The Inuits (an Inuit person is known as an Inuk) believe that all things have a spirit that must be respected. Like most Indigenous peoples, the Inuit have a strong connection with nature. They have many celebrations that revolve around nature and the seasons. They are known for their art forms such as drumming, throat singing and carving. Today, many Inuits practice Christianity.


The word Métis is derived from the French term meaning “mixed.” Métis people have European and Indigenous parentage. The most well-known Métis population live in Winnipeg (the Red River region). In fact, the founder of Manitoba, Louis Riel, was a Métis. They developed their own language called Michif, a mix of French and Indigenous languages. They also developed a distinct culture that combined Indigenous and European qualities. They are known for fine beadwork, fiddling and jigging (a dance). Although many of them practiced Indigenous spiritual beliefs, many also practiced Christian religions (Catholic, Anglican, Methodist and Protestant). Many settlements had churches.

Source: Indigenous Peoples of Manitoba (a guide for newcomers), a resource guide compiled by Anika Reynar and Zoe Maties for the Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba; Aboriginal demography, University of Manitoba; First Nations in Manitoba, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada; Working effectively with Indigenous peoples blog. Accessed May 11, 2017.

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Community Resources

Know more about our Indigenous brothers and sisters, their colourful history and traditions by reading Facts about Indigenous culture and history you should know.

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