Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Getting Up to Michif
Ever since Section 35 of the Constitution Act came into law in Canada, many Canadians have become familiar with one of its definitions, which defines the "Aboriginal people of Canada as First Nations, Inuit, and Métis." The definition is only fifteen words long, but it carries great meaning for Métis, because it constitutes a formal acknowledgement by the Canadian government of reality: Métis are a distinct people with a distinct culture. Despite the acknowledged existence of Métis as a distinct people from almost the beginning of Canada's short history, there is still a tendency for people to argue that 'Métis' just means mixed, and anyway the folks mentioned in the Canadian Constitution are simply the descendants of marriages between Europeans and Indians, especially the French and Cree. Not only is this an incredibly insulting claim, it's only about half accurate. Half is a start, but considering it's a regression from what was commonly known a bare hundred fifty years ago, a pretty sad one.
It is true that a significant proportion of Métis are descendants of marriages between French fur traders and Indigenous women in what was formerly called 'New France' by Europeans. That term refers to what was ultimately a huge region that includes what is now called Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, parts of Québec, Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, and much of the United States stretching from the east coast across the Mississippi River which it followed down to the Gulf of Mexico. French fur traders were active throughout this region, including well after France was officially 'pushed off the continent' by England. Rest assured, there are more Indigenous Nations in that huge area than just the Cree! In the early days, most Métis with European family ties were born of mothers from Anishinabe communities. As time went on, Métis family ties began to follow their cousins on the Indigenous side more than the European side, resulting in interrelationships with Cree families as well. Being Métis, or as we were called then, Canadien, had to do with culture, not what 'race' your parents may have been.
There were and are certainly important Métis populations who have ties to distant English parents, esecially around Hudson's Bay. More recently Canada has been getting a crash course in Métis groups not necesarily tied to the Métis Nation of the Plains, including the Labrador Métis, the Gwich'in and Sahtu Métis of the Northwest Territories, and the unexpectedly old Métis communities of the lower mainland of British Columbia. While all of these Métis communities have ties of some sort with the Plains Métis Nation, by trade if not by marriages, they are distinct communities with distinct cultures. What all Métis have in common, culturally speaking, is the role of information carrier. As Barbara Alice Mann says of the Shawnee, Métis were 'the mass media of the plains.' In fact, considering the Shawnee are close relatives of the Anishinabe, it is quite likely that this similarity is far from coincidental.
Métis were born in what would eventually be called Canada and the United States, lived with First Nations people as equals rather than colonists, and wove together aspects of their Indigenous heritage with their European heritage. Métis were important translators and bridge builders between First Nations and the incoming Europeans, not east because they tended to run afoul of local laws less often and so got run out of town or killed rarely compared to Europeans who attempted to fill this role. We sometimes forget that translators never 'just' translate; they also help smooth over misunderstandings and help people of different cultural backgrounds to avoid embarrassing if not outright serious errors. It's a delicate job.
Among the most famous Métis hallmarks is the sash, derived from the fingerwoven burden sashes used by haudenosaunee and Anishinabe women, and the fiddle, which Métis rapidly learned to make for themselves as imports were expensive. Possibly *the* most famous Métis invention is the Red River cart, made totally of wood and literally tied together with rawhide. These were quite infamous as the nature of the land they travelled over meant that greasing the wheels of the carts was a recipe for jammed wheels or outright destruction. Dust and grit would get caught up in the grease and eat away at the wood, or else collect until the wheels could no longer turn on the axle. The price of a working cart was a lot of noise, which every European writer made sure to mention, without necessariy acknowledging that those carts were the major mode of land transportation for trade goods throughout what the north-central parts of former New France. Most of the Métis cart trails were in fact long established paths used before a Métis was a twinkle in anybody's eye, and today they have been paved over and constitute practically every major highway on the Plains and northeastern North America.
The least known Métis invention seems to be Michif, a language that is all too close to extnction and all too often mischaracterized as a creole or patois. These characterizations come from linguistics of course, and it all seemed very simple. Since Métis are ostensibly a people created by 'contact' between two different cultures (no pun intended), they would have a contact language. Contact languages have simplified grammars and restricted vocabulary, at least at first. But when people went and checked Michif against this definition of a creole, they discovered a problem. Michif doesn't fit the definition of a creole at all. It is a combination of the Plains Cree verb system with the French noun system. So far, no other language like has been identified, and linguists seem to be quite baffled as to how anyone could have come up with it, since its inventors would have to be fluent in both languages originally. For my part, I think the linguists are confused because they assume only adults invent languages.
It may be true in European cultures that children can invent all the languages they like, their inventions don't get taken up by adults because adults simply don't expect to learn from children. In fact, it seems to be a European teaching passed on to descendants of European people in North America that adults absolutely do not learn from children, they only teach them. But in Métis culture, as in many other cultures Indigenous to North America, it is traditionally expected that adults are as likely to be taught by children as children by adults. Since children are especially good at learning languages quickly and well, and children living in circumstances like those in early Métis history would have considerable motivation and opportunity to help their parents speak together successfully. That sounds like a recipe for the invention of Michif to me!
Currently, like many other Indigenous languages, Michif is in trouble. Most speakers are over the age of fifty, and people are still working to overcome the legacy of residential schools. At residential school, speaking any Indigenous language was forbidden, and the ban was enforced by corporal and other forms of punishment. The end result for many Indigenous people in Canada is an agonizing situation where they can actually understand their own language when they listen to it, but find it extraordinarily difficult to actually speak it. Children of residential school survivors were often deliberately not taught their languages with a view to sparing them similar suffering. Those children also learn that it is okay to hear the language, but not to speak it, even if it is never literally explained to them that way. Those are pretty formidable obstacles, yet people are finding ways through and around them all the time. In the case of Michif, dictionaries and language courses are now available, and Métis who are fluent are busy teaching others.
Marsé, pe'itotekek ména!
(Thank you, come again!)