4 documentaries about Cree life in Canada

In honour of National Indigenous History Month, we’re sharing four documentaries that feature Cree people from across Canada. Watch them for free on CBC Gem.

Learn more about Nehinaw (Cree) culture with these 4 films

In honour of National Indigenous History Month, we’re sharing four documentaries that feature Cree people from across Canada. From Indigenous puppets to a coming-of-age ceremony, these films show a glimpse of Cree life. (CBC Docs)

😄🤣😡 The Cree make up the largest First Nations group in Canada, with a traditional territory that stretches from Alberta to Quebec.

😄🤣😡 More than 350,000 people in Canada identified as having Cree ancestry, according to the 2016 census. Spoken by more than 96,000 people, Cree is the most widely spoken Indigenous language in the country.

😄🤣😡 In honour of National Indigenous History Month, we're sharing four documentaries that feature Cree people from across Canada.

😄🤣😡 Watch them for free on CBC Gem

Keeping language alive with laughter 

😄🤣😡 Born with the gift of humour, the Bighetty brothers, who are Cree from Pukatawagan, Man., started off entertaining friends and family with short skits. But before long, their shows were attracting attention online — a lot of attention. 

😄🤣😡 What's so special about them? The four main characters — puppets Marcel, Baptiste, Michel and the Chief — might remind you of ones you've seen on The Muppet Show or Sesame Street, but there's one big difference: the puppets are clearly Indigenous. 

The Bighetty brothers, who host a show featuring four Cree-speaking puppets, are the focus of the documentary Bighetty & Bighetty. (CBC Docs/Bighetty & Bighetty)

😄🤣😡 Their antics revolve around everyday events in their community, and the Bighetty brothers realized that having them speak Cree would be a fun way to help children learn the language.

😄🤣😡 "It's about laughter; it's about having a good time," Daniel Bighetty said in the documentary Bighetty & Bighetty (2019). "The language and the laughter is there, so it's part of the teaching."

😄🤣😡 When the puppets aren't hamming it up in front of a cellphone camera, they're making kids smile at school performances. When the Bighetty brothers take their show on the road, they're treated like rock stars: the puppets are mobbed by children and elders alike. 

😄🤣😡 Bighetty & Bighetty is a joyful Indigenous story that shows how laughter can change lives. 

Protecting culture and the environment through protest 

😄🤣😡 In the short documentary Life in the City of Dirty Water (2019),Clayton Thomas-Müller recalled visiting a sweat lodge where an Anishinaabe woman gave him a wood carving of a bear and told him about two baby bears that would help him in his life. On that trip, he found out his wife was pregnant, and they now have two children. 

😄🤣😡 Thomas-Müller is a member of the Treaty 6-based Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, also known as Pukatawagan, in northern Manitoba. He's a prominent climate change activist and has campaigned with groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network, Idle No More and But the film goes beyond his activism to explore his whole life: his journey from addiction and incarceration to healing and forgiveness. 

Clayton Thomas-Müller, a prominent Cree climate change activist, stands between his two young sons. (Clayton Thomas-Müller)

😄🤣😡 Now, having survived an abusive childhood and violent youth, the sun dancer, father and husband has been fighting the assault on Indigenous land so he can pass on his culture to his sons and future generations.

😄🤣😡 "It's our responsibility as pipe carriers to pass on the knowledge we have to our children, to the young people, to remember the stories, the songs," he said in the documentary. "Life in the City of Dirty Water is my story. It's the story of many Indigenous people who find themselves in the inner city with questions. It's the story of how we became dispossessed and how we rise."

Young twins honour tradition 

😄🤣😡 For documentary filmmaker Jules Koostachin, it's important her children understand the importance of ceremony. She is Cree from the  Attawapiskat First Nation and her mother, Rita, is a residential school survivor. So when Koostachin became a parent, she wanted to make sure her kids had a strong sense of identity and culture and knew their customs. 

Identical twin brothers Tapwewin and Pawaken take part in a sacred ceremony — their first haircut — as they turn 12. Their mother, Jules Koostachin, organized the event to connect them with their culture. (CBC Docs/OshKiKiShiKaw)

😄🤣😡 The documentary OshKiKiShiKaw: A New Day (2019) follows her and her twin sons, Tapwewin and Pawaken, as they approach their 12th birthday. The family travels by boat to Twin Islands, between Vancouver Island and B.C.'s mainland, to take part in a sacred ceremony: the boys' first haircut. It's a rite of passage meant to support and uplift them as they reach puberty and transition into the next phase of their lives.

😄🤣😡 In Cree culture, and in many Indigenous communities across Turtle Island, hair represents a sacred connection to askiy, the earth. Growing one's hair represents the growth of one's spirit. 

😄🤣😡 In the twins' ceremony, they cut one of each other's braids and one of their own.

😄🤣😡 "The more we give them roots and the more we put them out on the land, they're going to have a stronger sense of self,"  Koostachin said in the documentary. "I just want them to be proud."

Celebrating cultural symbols 

Each feather on a headdress represents a huge accomplishment in Cree culture and is usually only worn by a male chief. The documentary Headdress follows director JJ Neepin as she recreates her great-grandfather's portrait. (CBC Docs/Headdress)

😄🤣😡 The headdress is a powerful symbol in First Nations communities. While its meaning and the protocol around it are different across nations and bands, it always carries weight. 

😄🤣😡 "To me, the headdress is a symbol of leadership; it's something earned," said JJ Neepin, a member of the Fox Lake Cree Nation, in her documentary Headdress (2017).

😄🤣😡 "When non-indigenous people put on a headdress, they don't quite understand the weight that those symbols have. And then just to wear it like a prop is very disrespectful."

😄🤣😡 The 2017 film is about Neepin's process of recreating a portrait of her great-grandfather wearing a headdress, with Anishinaabe photographer Nadya Kwandibens. By doing so, she's aiming to start a conversation about tradition and cultural appropriation.

😄🤣😡 Watch these documentaries for free on CBC Gem


Samantha Moya is an associate producer at CBC based in Toronto. She has worked in the local newsroom and with the CBC Docs digital team. She’s a graduate of the Toronto Metropolitan University and Sheridan College where she specialized in journalism and video production.