Tuesday, August 07, 2018


Less directly connected to the story of water is that of the Métis people, mostly but not entirely in Canada.  A syncretic culture, that is, one made of two melded together, everyone agrees that in the old days the most obvious way to identify them was that you could hear them coming.  Emerging mostly from alliances with trappers coming up the Mississippi complex from Louisiana or inland from Quebec   -- both footprints left by the French -- and their wives from local tribes, they founded a wagon culture, living in homes they could take with them.  They were an early "RV" people, like Gypsies, "Travelers".  Because they had no access to metal, the giant-wheeled wagons traversed the rough prairie with much squealing noise.

Since the people had both First Nations relatives and white relatives, they gradually distributed themselves along a continuum from those who lived as the tribes did to those who settled in small towns.  Some ended up not quite either and were left out when the reservations were defined because they were not sedentary liked reservations.  Eventually, their distress caused them to be placed on the Blackfeet rez, American side, introducing competition for limited resources.  Then Fort Belknap was dedicated to a reservation for them, but some had mixed with Blackfeet and stayed there.

Métis became stronger and better defined until they began to seem like a country of their own, called Red River Nation.  The leaders, Louis Riel, and his cousin, Dumont, were charismatic, esp. Riel who had visions.

The earliest defined conflict between the Métis, who were simply there, and the English who had the paper law on their side, was in 1812 and involved Lord Selkirk, who had been given a land grant for the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers by the Hudson's Bay company, owners of "Rupert's Land," the whole Western half of Canada.  The grief climaxed in the Seven Oaks Massacre in 1816.  This time it was 21 settlers killed.

In 1869, the Hudson's Bay Company agreed to sell its territory to the new Dominion of Canada, which had been formed in 1867 by the uniting of four British colonies: Canada East (Quebec), Canada West (Ontario), New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.


Louis David Riel (1844-85) was a Canadian politician, a founder of the province of Manitoba, and a political leader of the Métis people of the Canadian Prairies.  He was an educated man and taught in Montana at the St. Peter's Mission School near Great Falls.  He is said to have had one-eighth Indian blood, his paternal grandmother being a Franco-Chipewyan Métisse.  (The variations of the word Metis all mean "mixed".  Mestizo, Michif.)

As the group became more tightly organized and intense, they were facing the army of Canada.  In 1883 Riel became a citizen of Montana.  Returning to Canada, after a long dramatic struggle marked by battle, Riel became unstable and was hung with others.  The British have always ended dissent this way.


The consequences of a violent end to a proposed country were in part that the Métis took refuge in Montana on the East slope, going up the valleys produced by snowmelt rivers.  Their descendants remain.  Some intermarried with Blackfeet and can be distinguished by the many French last names, though they are enrolled in the tribe.  Their families are strong because of religious connections and that helps to hold the web together, along with the preservation of what were originally Euro elements like fiddle tunes and clog dancing, which made them lots of friends at dances and fairs.

in the Seventies a Métis grandfather who had grown up with Bob Scriver was trusted to "babysit" Bob's studio/home with its valuable contents when Scriver was gone.  The conviction in the Scriver family was that Métis (whom they called "Cree") were more hard-working and reliable than Blackfeet.  This man told me he was troubled that he didn't know what tribe he was and at that point I didn't know either.  Métis had gone underground.  The next time I was in Lethbridge I went to the used book store but only found a small book in French with a lot of pictures.  I brought it to the man so I could say, "This is who you are.  Maybe someone here knows French."

I didn't see this man after that, but then I found out that Joseph Kinsey Howard (1906-1951), "newspaper man, historian and Métis -- born in Iowa and raised in Lethbridge -- had already written about Montana.  Aided by the support of Guggenheim Fellowships in 1947 and 1948, he devoted considerable effort to the writing of a history of Métis leader Louis Riel and his resistance movements against the Canadian government. The result of this project was the book Strange Empire: A Narrative of the Northwest, published posthumously in 1952."  (Wikipedia)  I mailed a copy to the man who wondered.  Until his death, Howard and a small cluster of writers and professionals occupied summer cabins with Métis origins up Blackleaf Canyon.  The local Métis presence persists in the area, including a cemetery and a demonstration cabin, made like an historical home with a loft and a baby cradle hammock over the adult bed, so dozing parents could reach up and set it rocking.

In Canada in 1982 the Métis were defined as an aboriginal people just like First Nations ("Indians") and Inuit ("Eskimos").  This gives them certain entitlements and protections, though not necessarily reservation-based functions.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Métis_in_Canada  This entry is exhaustive in terms of both nature and place.

The Métis are fascinating because they are a dynamic recent enough in history and documented enough for us to think about how the organic, natural definitions of a people smash into the legal laws and treaties of a Euro-based culture.  Accommodations have to be made but also some people will be hurt, left out, or even possibly lifted up by the confusion.  They persist. 

Certainly the individual people are vivid and their stories are full of drama.  Peter Bowen in Montana is one of the best known among the novelists and benefits from their drama.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aiRkx-wTwnc

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