As hunter-gatherers, the basic unit of organization for Cree peoples was the lodge, a group of perhaps eight or a dozen people, usually the families of two separate but related married couples, who lived together in the same wigwam (domed tent) or tipi (conical tent), and the band, a group of lodges who moved and hunted together. In the case of disagreement, lodges could leave bands and bands could be formed and dissolved with relative ease. However, as there is safety in numbers, all families would want to be part of some band, and banishment was considered a very serious punishment. Bands would usually have strong ties to their neighbours through intermarriage and would assemble together at different parts of the year to hunt and socialize together. Besides these regional gatherings, there was no higher-level formal structure, and decisions of war and peace were made by consensus with allied bands meeting together in a council. People could be identified by their clan, which is a group of people claiming descent from the same common ancestor; each clan would have a representative and a vote in all important councils held by the band (compare: Anishinaabe clan system).
Each band remained independent of each other. However, Cree-speaking bands tended to work together and with their neighbours against outside enemies. Those Cree who moved onto the Great Plains and adopted bison hunting, called the Plains Cree, were allied with the Assiniboine, the Metis Nation, and the Saulteaux in what was known as the "Iron Confederacy", which was a major force in the North American fur trade from the 1730s to the 1870s. The Cree and the Assiniboine were important intermediaries in the Indian trading networks on the northern plains.
When a band went to war, they would nominate a temporary military commander, called a okimahkan. loosely translated as "war chief". This office was different from that of the "peace chief", a leader who had a role more like that of the diplomat. In the run-up to the 1885 North-West Rebellion, Big Bear was the leader of his band, but once the fighting started Wandering Spirit became war leader.