Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
The Métis Sash
When a parish in the town of L'Assomption, Québec took up the production of the arrow belt (ceinture fléchée) around 1780, it is likely that no one anticipated they would eventually become one of the main symbols of the Métis Nation in Canada. Even today a better quality ceinture fléchée is made by hand using a technique known as fingerweaving. The ceinture fléchée you may see in a museum gift shop or even the modern day version of the Hudson's Bay Company are modern day examples of the mass produced, machine made wares that ultimately threw the fingerweavers of L'Assomption out of work. (Although by then, Métis had long been making their own.) As it happens, fingerweaving is a craft shared by Iroquois and Scandinavian peoples, so the French Canadians who took it up may not have realized they were not introducing something new to the suite of trade goods available at any well-equipped fur trading post. In any case, they were bringing in a trade good they thought looked similar to what their Iroquois acquaintances already had.
In fact, the First Nations living in much of northeastern North America made garters, straps, and tump lines by fingerweaving dyed or plain plant fibres. In the early 19th century, Iroquois and the Pottawatomi craftspeople began to produce the earliest sashes, which were worn as part of formal regalia and as badges of office. Having noticed the popularity and symbolism of the new sashes, North West Company and later Hudson's Bay Company employees were soon adding them to their trade paraphernalia. The sashes were certainly popular with First Nations, and they were also a hit among French Canadians today the giant Bonhomme de Neige at Winter Carnival still wears a ceinture fléchée.
But look carefully; the French Canadian ceinture fléchée is made with a different suite of colours and in a different style than the Métis version, or that of any First Nation for that matter. Métis sashes were and are worn differently than French Canadian ones. French Canadians took to using their sashes to hold their winter coats shut. For their part, Métis typically wore their sashes in part to hold their pants up, so they rarely used them only to hold their winter coats closed. In winter it is quite possible that Métis wore two of them, a smaller or more worn one under their coat with their trousers, the other on the outside to hold their coats shut. Having acknowledged that, Métis usually wore more appropriate winter coats that slipped over the head down into the late 1800s.
The people for whom the ceinture fléchée became especially emblematic was the Métis, beginning with the same people who were carrying trade goods all over much of North America, who are usually referred to as voyageurs in history books. They customarily wore sashes that were up to two metres long and 30 centimetres wide, folded over once to create a place to stow various useful things after the sash had been tied off. Today we tend to use our pockets to keep things like keys and loose change in, but voyageurs originally didn't wear Western-style trousers. And even then, they still might not have had pockets; pants pockets didn't really take off until men stopped wearing waistcoats or indoor jackets regularly, so that they needed someplace else to stick their pocket watches. Instead, voyageurs wore loincloths and leather leggings. Accordingly, the ceinture fléchée provided pocket-space, an impromptu towel, a burden strap, and even thread for quick repairs to torn clothing. Waxed, tight woven Métis sashes could be used as canoe bailers or even water containers.
Métis communities were well established near Sault Ste. Marie and the Great Lakes in Ontario, parts of rural Québec, New Brunswick, and Manitoba before 1867. The ceinture fléchée continued to be a popular and widely used item in daily life even as they began to fade out of use in Euro-Canadian communities. By now Métis themselves already considered the ceinture fléchée particularly their own, although it was more often referred to as a L'Assomption sash for the place that for a time had been the centre of their production.
The sashes traditionally used five colours, blue, white, yellow, green, and especially red. The original reasons the L'Assomption fingerweavers used these colours isn't clear, but today the blue, red, and white are associated with Métis Nation flags, while green symbolizes growth and success. The Métis National Council (MNC) has advocated that the colour yellow be replaced with black for regular sashes, black symbolizing the bad times following 1870 when Canada's new government began to take control of Rupert's Land. Yellow would be used in weaving sashes presented by a Métis community as an honour for a particular individual. In fact, Nelson Mandela was presented with just such a sash by Métis senator John B. Boucher during his 1998 visit to Canada. There's a certain irony in having a federally funded organization suggest this, and so far the idea hasn't taken much outside of it.
Since the early 1990's, the L'Assomption Sash has become better known as the Métis sash, and is often worn as part of formal Métis regalia at special events and ceremonies, including last year's National Aboriginal Achievement Awards.
Most Métis sashes are still handmade within communities, and at least before the 1870s each family would have its own special combination of colours and patterns, a bit like a tartan. The idea may be gaining currency again, and while modern sashes are typically at best a metre or so long and 20 centimetres wide, it won't be long before fullsize sashes make a come back though admitedly, they may have to start out as scarves.