Métis

While the first Native American-European fur trade exchange happened about the year 1000 with Norse (i.e. Viking) entrepreneurs from Greenland, the fur trade didn’t really have a major impact on Native cultures until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The fur trade not only brought new goods into Indian nations, but also resulted in the emergence of a distinct cultural group known as Métis in Canada.

The French approach to American Indians was very different from that of the English, Spanish, and Russian invaders. The French viewed Indians as trading partners and potential markets for their goods. Instead of requiring their Indian partners to learn European ways as a prerequisite for trade, the French learned Indian ways.

Trade between nations was nothing new to American Indians: they had been engaged in trade for thousands of years by the time the French arrived. In what is now Canada, Indian trade involved both ceremonies and kinship. French traders understood this and became participants in the pipe ceremonies and gift giving that preceded formal trading. Since the French traders, all of whom were men, did not belong to any Indian clans, they had to acquire kinship connections through adoption and/or marriage.

Thus an important part of the French-Indian fur trade involved the marriage of the French fur traders into the Indian tribes. The French fur traders adopted many aspects of Indian culture and became as Indian as they were French. William Eccles, in his chapter on French exploration in North American Exploration. Volume 2: A Continent Defined, writes:  “These marriage alliances were regarded favourably by the Indians, since they strengthened the bonds between the two races, but they were frowned on by the royal officials and the clergy, who maintained that the offspring of these marriages combined the worst features of both races.”

One of the consequences of marriage is often children. The children of these fur trade marriages grew up in bilingual, bicultural households and often became important players in the expanding fur trade. While the fathers were often French, there were also Scots and Irish traders who married Indian women. The mothers most frequently came from Algonquian-speaking tribes, most often Cree or Anishinaabe (Ojibwa). Historian Barry Gough, in his biography First Across the Continent: Sir Alexander Mackenzie, writes:  “The descendants of these families became a distinct and important people in Canadian history, the Métis.”

Dan Asfar and Tim Chodan, in their biography Louis Riel, write:  “The Métis were a French-speaking people living in western Canada who drew their ancestry from both whites and Natives. They were the offspring of French fur traders and Native women who married during traders’ sojourns in Rupert’s Land.”

Rupert’s Land refers to the area granted to Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Asfar and Chodan also report:  “Over time, the Métis (French for “half-caste”) formed a distinct population. They developed buffalo-hunting practices of their own and competed against bordering Natives for hunting grounds.”

From the Native American perspective there was no such thing as race, and thus the Métis were not viewed as an interracial group. Culturally and linguistically, the Métis blended European and Native American features into a new culture. As with other indigenous people, there were a number of different Métis cultural variations. Josephine Paterek, in her book Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume, reports:“The Southern Métis were the offspring of the French coureurs de bois and Ojibway or Cree women; they were typically Catholic and lived in and around the Red River Valley. The Northern Métis, in the vicinity of the Saskatchewan River, were the offspring of Scottish and English traders and Athapaskan women and usually followed the Anglican religion.”

One of the characteristics of Métis men was the wearing of a red, finger-woven sash which was usually about 60 inches in length.

During the nineteenth century there were a number of conflicts between the British and the Métis. In 1814, for example, a conflict known as the Pemmican War broke out in Saskatchewan when the governor attempted to stop the pemmican trade.

After Rupert’s Land became a part of the Canadian Federation and was opened to homesteading, the Métis system of land distribution—narrow, river front lots—did not mesh with the Canadian homesteading squares. The Métis during the 1880s repeatedly petitioned Ottawa for official recognition of their lands and their concerns were ignored.

By the twentieth century, Canada recognized the Métis as a distinct people. In 1901, for example, the Canadian government offered land script to Métis who had been born between certain dates. As a result, many Canadian-born Metis returned to Canada from the United States.

In Canada today, the Métis are recognized as an indigenous people. The United States, with its obsession for race expressed in the concept of blood quantum, does not recognize the Métis.

 

The Michif Language

The French, unlike the English and the Spanish, saw Indians as trading partners. The French saw that their best opportunity for economic gain was to be found in the fur trade in which their Native American trading partners would retain their autonomy and provide them with furs. The French explorers quickly established trading relations with the Native nations.

The best way for the French traders to establish trading relations was for the traders to marry into the Indian societies, as traditional trade relied heavily upon kinship relations. Having married an Indian woman, the trader would have a kinship network which could be utilized for trade.

One of the consequences of marriage is often children. The offspring of the French-Indian marriages grew up in multilingual households with a French-speaking father and an Indian-language-speaking mother. These children also grew up with two cultures: one European and one Aboriginal. The two cultures blended and created a new group of people known in Canada as Métis.

Out of the Métis culture also came a new language: Michif (also spelled Mitchif).  Catherine Callaghan and Geoffrey Gamble, in a chapter in the Handbook of North American Indians, write:  “Mitchif arose around 1800 in the central Canadian provinces as the result of intermarriage between French fur traders and Cree-speaking women who were often the daughters of their Indian trading partners.”

Michif is sometimes described as a mixture of Cree and French.  While there are some who confuse Michif with pidgin trade languages, such as the Chinook trade language spoken along the Columbia River, it is not a pidgin (a language with a reduced vocabulary and grammar), but a true language. Linguist John McWhorter, in his book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, writes:  “Michif is not a fallback strategy for people who could not really manage their ancestors’ languages, nor is it a jolly sort of pig Latin—it is a new language altogether.”

Michif utilizes French-origin noun phrases which retain lexical gender (something unusual in the Algonquian Indian languages) and adjective agreement. At the same time, Michif uses Cree-origin verbs with a polysynthetic structure. Polysynthetic structure simply means that instead of using a bunch of words to give additional nuance and meaning to a verb, this is done through a series of prefixes and suffixes. The result is some very long words: verbs can incorporate up to twenty morphemes (sounds which have specific meanings). Thus, Michif grammar tends to be Cree-based.

In general, most of the Michif nouns (an estimated 83-94%) are of French-origin, while most verbs (an estimated 88-99%) are Cree-origin. The language also uses Cree personal pronouns, question words, and demonstratives. In addition to French nouns, Michif uses French numerals, adjectives, and articles.

The study of language origins, particularly the study of creole languages, has strongly suggested that new languages tend to be formed by children. In the case of Michif, linguists generally feel that the children were fairly fluent in both French and Cree when they developed Michif. Until fairly recently, most Michif speakers were trilingual, speaking French, Cree, and Michif.

Linguists generally see a pidgin-creole continuum in which creoles evolve out of pidgins (second languages which often function as trade languages and are learned by adults). Michif, however, does not fit this model. Pidgins, such as they are learned by adults, have a reduced morphological complexity. Catherine Callaghan and Geoffrey Gamble write:  “Mitchif represents the opposite of a jargon or a pidgin-based creole, since the language underwent an increase rather than a reduction in morphological complexity during its formation.”

At the present time, Michif is classified as a moribund language, meaning that relatively few children are learning it. In the United States, there are probably fewer than 1,000 Michif speakers, most of whom are associated with the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. In Canada, where the Métis are legally and socially recognized as a distinct people, there are many more Michif speakers.

“Stands Like a Porcupine”

In Canada’s Northwest Territories, the mountain area in the South Nahanni River watershed known as Naats’ihch’oh (“Stands Like a Porcupine”) by the Dene-speaking people has become Canada’s 44th National Park. For aboriginal people this is not only an area of outstanding beauty, but also of special spiritual power. While the park was announced in 2008, it was not fully established until August 22, 2012 when the impact and benefit plan was completed with the local Dene and Métis people.  

The new park will be managed in cooperation with the Sahtu Dene and the Métis of the Tulita District. Traditional hunting, fishing, trapping, and spiritual activities are to be allowed in the park. Aboriginal people will contribute to park management and will educate visitors about the region’s natural history and aboriginal peoples.

The South Nahanni River watershed area is home to several endangered species, including woodland caribou and grizzly bears. The area is also known for its moose and Dall sheep. It is also an area which is rich in minerals, so the final boundaries of the park were selected so that most known mineral deposits are outside of the park. While the creation of the new park means that no new mines can be established within the boundaries of the 1,800 square-mile park, existing claims within the park will be respected.

According to Parks Canada:

The South Nahanni River watershed is an incredibly beautiful and ecologically important area in the Northwest Territories. The river starts its journey at its headwaters – the Moose Ponds, in the shadow of Nááts’ihcho’oh (Mount Wilson). The upper part of the watershed accounts for about 1/6th of the Greater Nahanni Ecosystem, and it is important as the source of the river and as habitat for grizzly bear, Dall’s sheep and woodland caribou.

It has long been the home to the Dene and Métis, and it is often the launching area for adventurous visitors to the wilderness. Visitors from the rest of Canada and the world will have the opportunity to see the spectacular landscapes and to hike, canoe, and climb in these new park areas.

The creation of the new park has been met with some criticism. Some people feel that the new park is more about protecting mining interests than in protecting and preserving the environment. Stephen Kakfwi, the former premier of the Northwest Territories says that Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

“has taken the heart right out of it. The middle of it carved out so that mining can happen. That is not a national park. That is a joke.”

Other comments about the park:

“So let me see if I understand this. You create a new arctic national park that leaves 70 per cent of the mineral content of the proposed park outside of the park boundaries and available for mining companies to explore. Sounds to me like you are creating an island refuge and not a viable ecosystem.”

“Exactly my first thought. This park land is protected, while everything surrounding it is scraped away. A weak attempt at trying to balance out the devastation that will occur when the rest of the north is mined. We don’t need this kind of insulting lip service.”

“Not sure what you call it but I call it the best of both worlds”

Dene Spirituality:

Since Naats’ihch’oh plays an important role in Dene spirituality, I thought I would provide some background about the nature of this spirituality.

Among the Dene, individual experience is important in spirituality. Religion is experiential in that a person with a religious experience is considered someone who “knows” rather than as a “believer.”

As with other aboriginal peoples, dreams are an important part of Dene spirituality. However, spiritual power may require more than a single dream. For a person to be considered a prophet or a spiritual leader, others must acknowledge and recognize the power of an individual’s dream. Spiritual leadership is determined by authenticity: the visions and messages must be deemed true.

As with other aboriginal peoples, the vision quest is an important way of gaining spiritual power. During the vision quest, the individual goes alone to a remote place and waits for the vision to come to them. This vision may include songs and rituals. Animals may appear in the vision and provide the seekers with spiritual aid. The animal may appear in its own form or in the guise of a human being.

Dene and Métis:

Dene is often translated as “people” in the Northern Athabascan languages. However, Dene can also be broken into de (“flow” ) and ne (“Mother Earth “). This encompasses the understanding that the Dene people flow from Mother Earth. They are distantly related to the Athabascan-speaking Navajo and Apache in the American Southwest.

The Dene live in the region which they call Denendeh which means “the Creator’s Spirit flows through this Land.” There is an emphasis on living in harmony with the land which is based on respect and knowledge of the land.

The Métis are recognized in Canada as a distinct aboriginal people and are historically the descendents of European fur traders (mostly French and Scots) and indigenous people.

The Michif Language

The French, unlike the English and the Spanish, saw Indians as trading partners. The French saw that their best opportunity for economic gain was to be found in the fur trade in which their Native American trading partners would retain their autonomy and provide them with furs. The French explorers quickly established trading relations with the Native nations. The best way for the French traders to establish trading relations was for the traders to marry into the Indian societies as traditional trade relied heavily upon kinship relations. Having married an Indian woman, the trader would have a kinship network which could be utilized for trade.  

One of the consequences of marriage is often children. The offspring of the French-Indian marriages grew up in multilingual households with a French-speaking father and an Indian speaking mother. These children also grew up with two cultures: one European and one Aboriginal. The two cultures blended and created a new group of people known in Canada as Métis.

Out of the Métis culture also came a new language: Michif.  Michif is sometimes described as a mixture of Cree and French.  While there are some who confuse Michif with pidgin trade languages, such as the Chinook trade language spoken along the Columbia River, it is not a pidgin (a language with a reduced vocabulary and grammar), but a true language. Linguist John McWhorter writes:

“Michif is not a fallback strategy for people who could not really manage their ancestors’ languages, nor is it a jolly sort of pig Latin-it is a new language altogether.”

Michif utilizes French-origin noun phrases which retain lexical gender (something unusual in the Algonquian Indian languages) and adjective agreement. At the same time, Michif uses Cree-origin verbs with a polysynthetic structure. Polysynthetic structure simply means that instead of using a bunch of words to give additional nuance and meaning to a verb, this is done through a series of prefixes and suffixes. The result is some very long words: verbs can incorporate up to twenty morphemes (sounds which have specific meanings). Thus, Michif grammar tends to be Cree-based.

In general, most of the Michif nouns (an estimated 83-94%) are of French-origin, while most verbs (an estimated 88-99%) are Cree-origin.

The study of language origins, particularly the study of creole languages, has strongly suggested that new languages tend to be formed by children. In the case of Michif, linguists generally feel that the children were fairly fluent in both French and Cree when they developed Michif.

At the present time, Michif is classified as a moribund language, meaning that relatively few children are learning it. In the United States, there are probably fewer than 1,000 Michif speakers, most of whom are associated with the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. In Canada, where the Métis are legally and socially recognized as a distinct people, there are many more Michif speakers.

The 19th Century Red River Rebellion

In 1670, Prince Rupert, a duke, three earls, and other nobles subscribed to the Company of Adventurers of England Trading Into Hudson’s Bay and were granted a royal charter from the English Crown. This was the birth of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). The grant consisted of all lands which drain into Hudson’s Bay and HBC was given all of the powers of a sovereign nation to govern this territory which was called Rupert’s Land.

The European fur traders-mostly French and Scots with a few Englishmen-quickly understood that trade with Indian nations depended upon relationships and that one of the best ways to establish relationships with the First Nations was to marry a native woman. One of the consequences of these marriages was children who were often raised in two cultures. By the nineteenth century the Métis were recognized as a distinct people. The Métis are generally seen as an ethnic group of mixed Cree, Ojibwa, Saulteaux, French Canadian, Scots, and English.  

In the nineteenth century the Métis established a community along the Red River in what is now Manitoba, Canada. Inspired by the seigneurial system of New France, the Métis used a riverlot system in which there were parallel lots along the river which were 6 to 12 chains in width (1 chain = 66 feet) and which then stretched back from the river as far as two miles. This provided each family with a variety of natural resources which they could use.

While the Métis were mainly French or Michif-speaking, there were also some Anglo-Métis (often the descendents of the Scots traders associated with the North West Company). Most of the Métis were Catholics.

In 1867 the Constitution Act officially proclaimed the Canadian Confederation which was initially made up of four provinces: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. The expansion of Canada was blocked by Rupert’s Land which was controlled by HBC. Two years later HBC relinquished Rupert’s Land to Canada. Canada appointed an English-speaking governor for the new territory, an appointment which was opposed by the French-speaking Métis.  The new governor was well-known for his anti-French sentiments.

Canada 1869

The transfer of jurisdiction from HBC to Canada was not seen as favorable by the Métis who feared that Canada would not recognize their land rights and their riverlot system. In 1869, the Métis established a regulatory council and seized the HBC’s Fort Garry without bloodshed. The Council, under the leadership of Louis Riel, drafted a List of Rights and established a provisional government. Their flag was a fleur-de-lys with a four-leaf clover and bison on a white background.

Metis government

The Métis provisional government is shown above.

The List of Rights was composed of fourteen points, which included a bilingual legislature and chief justice, and a recognition of Métis land claims. Most of the English-speaking people in the region viewed these rights as reasonable.

The Métis provisional government met with some opposition from a pro-Canadian faction. An Orangeman (i.e. Protestant) named Thomas Scott threatened to kill Louis Riel, was arrested, tried, and then executed.

Shooting Thomas Scott

An artist’s depiction of the shooting of Thomas Scott is shown above.

In 1870, the Métis provisional government, with Louis Riel as its president, negotiated with the Canadian government concerning the Manitoba Act which provided provincial status. The Act also gave the French language and Roman Catholic confessional schools official status. The Act recognized the Métis riverlot system, their hay privileges, and their common grazing rights.  Riel declared:

“no matter what happens now, the rights of the métis are assured by the Manitoba bill: it is what I wanted-my mission is finished.”

Louis Riel

Louis Riel is shown above.

Following the formation of the province of Manitoba, a military expedition known as the Wolseley Expedition composed of Canadian militia and British regular soldiers under the leadership of Colonel Garrnet Wolseley was sent to Manitoba to enforce federal authority. Easterners demanded that Wolseley’s expedition be used to arrest Louis Riel and end what they considered a Métis rebellion. The Canadian militia had expressed a desire to lynch Riel. Riel, fearing for his life, fled to the United States.

In 1875, Louis Riel was formally exiled from Canada for five years. In spite of being exiled, Riel is often called the “Father of Manitoba” and was elected to the Canadian House of Commons three times even though he never assumed his seat.

Riel Statue

A statue of Riel in Manitoba.

Canada tody

Present day Canada is shown above.

The Pemmican War

( – promoted by navajo)

When the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was organized in 1670, it was granted a charter by the British Crown giving it a trading monopoly over the watershed of all of the rivers flowing into Hudson’s Bay. This territory, encompassing 1.5 million square miles, was named Rupert’s Land in honor of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a nephew of King Charles I and the first governor of Hudson’s Bay Company. It included all of Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, southern Alberta, southern Nunavut, the northern parts of Ontario, and portions of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana.

Rupert's Land

The HBC fur traders often married into the Indian nations with whom they traded as this provided them access to the traditional trading system which was based on kinship. As a result of these marriages, a new group of people known as Métis emerged with a distinct culture that incorporated Native elements and European (mostly French and Scots) elements.

Metis

In 1811, Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk, set up a colonization project known as the Red River Colony (also called the Selkirk Settlement) on 120,000 square miles of land granted to him by HBC. Selkirk’s interest in establishing a colony in the area was inspired by Sir Alexander MacKenzie’s book Travels from Montreal which glowingly described the economic potential of the region.  

Red River Colony

Selkirk, who had a controlling interest in HBC, also wanted the colony to block the fur trade from HBC’s arch rival, the North West Company (for whom MacKenzie had worked). With the colony in place, the Métis who had been supplying the Nor’westers would be displaced, thus cutting the rival fur company off from the fur and hide supply.

In 1814, the Governor of the Red River Colony issued a proclamation intended to limit the number of buffalo killed by the Métis. The proclamation inflamed the Met Métis is who in response called for a new sovereign nation in the Red River Valley for their people. The proclamation was ignored and the Métis purposefully killed more buffalo than they needed.

The buffalo meat was not exported, but was made into pemmican. It was consumed locally or sold to traders passing through the valley.

The following year, the governor of the Red River Colony forbade the export of staples.  He then confiscated four hundred bags of pemmican belonging to the North West Company. Finally, he ordered the North West Company to close its trading posts. The Nor’Westers and their Métis allies vowed to wage war on the colony. Cuthbert Grant became captain-general of the Métis militia groups and a Métis flag was designed.

Soon there were only 13 colonial families who had not been driven out and the governor surrendered. Bands of Métis razed farms and burned buildings in the colony.  

The Métis asked the Hudson’s Bay Company to remove the Red River Colony and to allow them the freedom to hunt buffalo. In addition, they asked that they not be subject to any local laws and that they share equally in the annuities given to the tribes. They made it clear that the Red River Métis identified themselves as having a distinctive lifestyle with values emphasizing the freedom to claim the benefits and privileges of both their maternal and fraternal heritage, whichever they wanted to choose.

The war escalated the following year when HBC captured and burned the North West Company’s Fort Gibraltar. Under the leadership of Cuthbert Grant, the Métis went to war against HBC by attacking and plundering Brandon House, a HBC trading post.

The Hudson’s Bay Company governor met with the Métis and read them a stern proclamation forbidding them to commit acts of violence against the Red River Colony. In response Cuthbert Grant shot the governor and started a short battle that ended in a Métis victory. The Pemmican War was no longer a commercial struggle between two rival fur companies, but it now became a guerrilla war.

In retaliation, the Earl of Selkirk led a mercenary army against the Nor’Westers and the Métis. He captured Fort William and arrested 15 senior North West Company partners, charging them with treason, conspiracy, and accessory to murder.  This ended the war, but the Red River Colony was never successful as an agricultural enterprise. In 1821, the Crown forced the merger of HBC and the Nor’westers.