Wednesday, June 15, 2005

An Invisible Nation: Metis

Plenty of people can tell you that “Metis” means mixed. Also, “mitchif” (Archaic French), “mestizo” (Spanish) and “creole” (Louisiana French). I even knew a woman whose husband always told her she was “moskeeto” (husband-talk) because he knew she was mestizo but never got the word right. Once the Europeans got into their ships and began invading everyone else, there were plenty of mixed people who were really “white-and -”

Close by the Blackft hunting grounds, on the Canadian side, there were enough mixed people that they began to cohere into their own nation. Most people think of them as French/Cree but they might also be other combinations of Euro and tribe. Still, the “marks” of them, the fiddle playing and sashes and creaky tumbrils they used for carts, were mostly French. The wild, wonderful and profane Gabriel Dupree, who features as the hero of Peter Bowen’s mystery tales, is Metis. In fact, “Stay Away Joe” is more Metis than Indian. Charlie Russell’s sash is Metis.

The formal history book to read is called “Strange Empire: A Narrative of the Northwest” by Joseph Kinsey Howard. (Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. (First copyright 1952. ISBN 0-87351-298-7) Howard was himself a descendent of Metis and, as a journalist and writer, he made this book a work of his heart. As well, he had a cabin in one of the deep valleys along the east front of the Rockies where he could just about live their life, not so far from the cemetary of early Metis refugees where forty ancestors lie at rest.

(Partly because of Howard, a kind of writers’ colony developed there which included A.B. Guthrie, Mildred Walker, and Walker’s daughter Ripley Schemm who later married Richard Hugo.)

Why were they refugees? Because the forces of economics, human relationships, and governmental vacuum (the same neglect of the territory labeled “Assiniboia” that allowed the whiskey trade) thrust them together in early southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba with enough in common to create a nation of people in sympathy, who wished to live their own way. Though the men tended to be white and the women tended to be Indian, after a generation or two the community as a whole was soon inextricably melded into new generations who combined the best of both worlds. In 1800 there were 30,000 Metis living on the prairie. By the second Riel Rebellion in 1885 (one was put down, then regathered.) there was a settlement of twenty-five cabins sheltering a hundred people up the South Fork of the Teton Canyon, still nearly inaccessible today.

When Canada realized what had happened, and since the mounties were already there, they set about dismantling this new Red River nation that threatened to challenge their authority. But the Red River people persisted with such dedication, mostly because of the visionary leadership of Louis Riel, that only a group hanging of rebels would shut down the Rebellion. And so it came to pass. Riel, who seems to been visionary to the point of madness (possibly bipolar disorder or maybe schizophrenia) finally did not try to escape. He is one of those extraordinary figures, like Crazy Horse, who served as the focus for a movement that was both heartfelt and realistic, but ultimately not successful.

Howard points out that in 1870, the time of the first rebellion, the US had its eye on Western Canada but Canada itself was intending to become a continental nation clear to the Pacific. If the Red River Community had won the right to be its own country, it could have united Cree and Blackfeet and created a three-part coalition of enormous power which would have changed history, especially if they worked through the Fenian movement to ally with Ireland.

Many Metis fled to the territory and reservations of Montana and their names are still in the phone book: “saint” this and “mac” that and names like Augare, Baudry, Billedeaux, Cadotte, DeBoo and DeRouche... so on through the phone book, the half-French melded with the Blackfeet. Louis Riel, an educated man, taught at the Sun River mission school for a year or so. St. Mary’s valley, which opens north into Alberta, was one place Metis settled. At Heart Butte on major occasions, jigging to the music of fiddles will alternate with pow-wow style Indian dancing.

In Choteau there is an old log Metis cabin built in 1902. It is sixteen feet by twenty-four feet with a half-story loft and a lean-to for the kitchen. The corners are dove-tailed. Nine children were raised there, the current baby sleeping in a hammock over the parental bed. I love visiting it since it is furnished as it would have been a hundred years ago, so it is easy to imagine oneself back in those days. I could move in tomorrow and live there happily -- if the tourists weren’t constantly coming through!

The introduction to my 1994 paperback of “Strange Empire” was written by Nicholas C.P. Vrooman, director of the Institute for Metis Studies at the College of Great Falls in Montana. Other places to look for materials might be Pemmican Publications in Winnipeg, the Gabriel Dumont Institute of Metis Studies and Applied Research in Regina, the Turtle Mountain Tribal College in Belcourt, or the Metis Cultural Recovery Trust based in Choteau which is the group that restored that cabin.

Maybe it’s not surprising that a tightly woven group, ethnically based and often victims of prejudice from outsiders (Metis were the original half-breeds), should try to maintain their existence. Two hundred years later, the Metis community still exists. In fact, the Little Shell Band of Indians (which is largely Metis) is still petitioning for legal status as a tribe.

1 comment:

Patia said...

Fascinating ... I had a friend who was Metis and I've always been curious. Thanks!