Tuesday, August 08, 2017


Metis Nation British Columbia Board of Directors

Years ago an older man in Browning (the Blackfeet Rez) was talking about himself and his grandson.  Bob had hired him to stay in his studio-house to keep it safe while Bob went back East on sculpture business. (Bob and I were divorced.)  Bob was Anglophone Quebecois by parentage, which is a category that doesn’t exist in the USA.  It means English speaking people living in Quebec, which implies colonialism that labels French speakers, who are often partly indigenous, as “lesser,” pushed into categories as discussed in an earlier post.  Actually, Bob was culturally “rez white”, meaning he had absorbed a lot of tribal culture but was genomically white.

In Browning being Blackfeet in the context of colonialism means being stigmatized, or did in the past.  But then they passed it along.  Several times the government had tried to push other people onto the Blackfeet, forcing them to share payments and commodities.  This was highly resented and -- following the Euro-pattern -- the Blackfeet who were tribally enrolled and assigned to the rez spoke with stigma about the “Cree,” esp. the groups who had ended up with no land.  Many of them were actually Métis.  That’s what this grandfather was.  Among whites “Crees” were considered trustworthy “because they have to work for a living — they don’t get handouts.”  

So Bob trusted this grandfather to housesit because he was “Cree” but the grandfather lamented to me that he didn’t know what that was or any of the history.  Everything was dominated by being Blackfeet.  I got him a copy of “Strange Empire,” by Joseph Kinsey Howard who was himself Métis, a journalist in Great Falls.  The book is an account of the Red River Rebellion, which was an attempt by the Métis to form their own country just north of here across the line.  Canada repressed the rebellion violently.  Many of those people ended up taking refuge close by.  

Actually, the people we called “Cree” (I never heard the word “Métis" until we were dealing with Alberta) were often half or more white.  An interesting aspect of “Cree” or “Métis" is that they formed a spectrum from an end preferring to emphasize “white” to an end preferring the old tribal ways.  I suspect the indigenous (well, they were born HERE, right?) who resulted from marriages with tough old Hudson Bay factors from the Orkney Islands were quite different from those who mixed with French voyageurs, partly because of the many-centuries-old competitive animosity between England and France.  (Vrooman tells me not to give these complications too much weight.)  

But it often struck me how my mother-in-law unconsciously saw Cree as French Quebecois.  When I see unconscious stigma, I try to make it conscious.  The results are not usually happy.  But IMHO I think the more we talk about such things, the better chance we have to change for the better.

For me, this history is in the background of James Boyden’s writing.  While searching my shelves for my copy of “The Orenda,” I found Boyden’s little book about Louis Riel (on the Euro end of the scale) and Gabriel Dumont (on the indigenous end), the main Red River leaders.  When the HB factors had a chance to return to Britain, they often dumped their indigenous wives along with the children.  The voyageurs stayed and helped their offspring.  When the roamers and hunters fell on hard times, the more assimilated townspeople helped them.  And vice versa.  It's a rare occasion when differences create a synergy.  Through the generations, these differences translated into degrees of prosperity, which always complicates prejudice.

I have almost no knowledge of Cajun, Creole, Arcadian, Michif and so on, but each offered the opportunity to blend two streams both genetic and cultural.  I’m sure it played out in different ways depending on the times, ecology and settlement of the place.  I’m impressed with how often the fiddle went along for the dance.  Great material for novels as Peter Bowen knows.  (His mysteries feature Métis people from Choteau.  Peterbowenmt.com)

Bob Scriver (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Scriver was born in Browning, but his parents were born in rural Clarenceville where the hired help was usually French-speakers.  So the corny joke — to English speakers — was that Bob’s strait-laced grandmother noticed her hired man was leaving for his home to get lunch and wanted to offer him lunch on the farm.  She called from the porch,Voulez vous coucher avec moi?”  The joke, of course, is that instead saying “would you like to eat with me?” she had said “would you like to sleep with me?”

So, guided by “Dr.Fish Philosopher” on Twitter (websites:  https://zoesctodd.wordpress.com  and her personal blog https://zoestodd.com), I go to Wikipedia for a definition of polity:  A polity is any kind of political entity. It is a group of people who are collectively united by a self-reflected cohesive force such as identity, who have a capacity to mobilize resources, and are organized by some form of institutionalized hierarchy.”  

As I understand her, she is saying that if you define Métis as a genetic, ethnic, racial sort of category, it psychologically removes the moral obligation to treat them as equal fellow human beings deserving protection and valued in spite of their difference -- even if they challenge one’s own worldview.   Defining any group as uniquely different clears the way to struggle over class and power, almost saying that some group is not human, only subspecies.  ("Half-breeds.")  But this makes them very angry and can lead to violence.  To say nothing of corrupting one’s values.

If they are seen as self-identified political bodies, then we can negotiate and find new ways.  Anyhow, inevitably, as the generations turn over and the economics shift, the “new” Métis — or whatever they will end up being called — will be very different from the earlier peoples.   Now that cyber-identities are worldwide and it’s no longer necessary to deal so much with neighbors, some people cling harder to old polities and other people want to create new ones, like “Green” people united by care for the natural world. 

I’m so delighted to discover Prof. Todd’s body of work.  I see she self-identifies as Michif (also Mitchif, Mechif, Michif-Cree, Métif, Métchif, French Cree) which is the language of the Métis people of Canada and the United States, who are the descendants of First Nations women (mainly Cree, Nakota and Ojibwe) and fur trade workers of European ancestry (mainly French and Scottish Canadians).” 

I used to wish for an American indigenous ancestor and Vrooman tells me that my mostly Scots grandmother, who was from Canada and whose maiden name was “Swan,” might easily have been Métis because "Swan" is a Métis family name.  Her closest friend from prairie days was Georgia Coleman, who looked "Indian".  "Coleman" could easily be an English conversion of some other kind of "man."  It was always a mystery where MISTER Coleman went to.

There is more stigma attached to an aunt from Brandon whose mother was brought to Manitoba as a street orphan from London on one of those population-shifting acts of colonial Britain.  The researchers who found this information said to be careful how we shared it.  Class, status, entitlement are passionate and dangerous issues.

Yes.  Care full.  Caring.  Real People.  All kinds.

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