Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
On The Importance of Tea
One day, in the process of excavating a Métis site in southern Saskatchewan, a team of archaeologists made a bewildering discovery.
They had done their homework, learning all they could about how the Métis who used the site would have been living when it was still in use. The site had been home to Métis who spent a significant part of the year hunting and processing bison, and included several cabins built to last for three to five winter hunting seasons. At that time there was no convenient access from the site to a trading post, so any goods the land couldn't provide the Métis had to bring with them. This meant that the cabins were built without using nails, and the Métis had to carry in supplies like ammunition, cookware, and the like. Accordingly, the archaeologists found very little by way of lost or broken objects, and what few they found had often been reused in several ways. One of the most striking examples was an old cartridge case one of the women had used as a bead container. All very spartan and practical, as expected.
So it caused real confusion when the archaeologists found pieces of broken china. There were too many fragments for the china to just be there coincidentally. A check against pattern catalogues showed the china really was from the time when the Métis were using these cabins.
This left the archaeologists with a real puzzler. What could have inspired Métis bison hunters, who travelled over huge distances in wooden carts with no suspension to speak of, to bring fragile, expensive, Victorian china out to a winter hunting camp?
As it turned out, it was all because of tea.
By the 1660s, tea drinking was spreading among the British upper classes, and by the time the East India Company was established, tea drinking was already growing beyond class boundaries. Within a century, tea was one of the most smuggled substances in Europe thanks to huge demand on one hand and exorbitant prices demanded by the East India Company monopoly on the other. Ultimately this lead to a crash in the East India Company's sales, and its directors asked permission to dump their now surplus tea stocks in the Americas. This meant that it was cheaper to drink tea in North America than in England, and laid the base for an eventual price correction that British expatriates along the eastern seaboard would take serious exception to. The cheapness of tea also meant that trading outfits like the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) would inevitably carry it with their other merchandise.
Inventing hot, steeped drinks seems to be a universal human trait. Wherever you go, you will find a local range of medicinal and regular drinks made by boiling or soaking shredded leaves, bark, blossoms, or wood in water. All the same, the tea the British brought grew into a hit in North America perhaps even more quickly than it had in England.
Tea's popularity in both places is tied to its role as a social drink. Indigenous trading practices were very different from anything Europeans were used to. First two groups who wanted to trade would meet somewhere, setting up camp close together. Then they would share a meal and socialize together for the first evening. Actual trading usually didn't start until the next morning. HBC traders soon got into the habit of providing tea as part of their contribution to the feasts (unfortunately they also got into the habit of giving out whiskey). First Nations members soon noticed that tea was inextricably tied to social events and breaks from work when people sat down together to rest and chat. That tie was probably tea's best advertisement. Today, tea is as traditional as bannock among First Nations, Inuit, and Métis.
The china fragments the archaeologists found were from relatives of cups and saucers like the one pictured.
But for the Métis, tea represented more than this. In the 1800s especially, tea along with the special china services it was served in was a marker of 'civilization.' For the Métis, tea became part of how they disproved euro-canadian claims that they were inferior 'savages.' Tea drinking was a show of how Métis could use a tea service correctly and follow european mores if they chose as much as a chance to socialize. Its social role ultimately became far more important. 'Visiting,' which always involved tea drinking and tobacco smoking, provided a way to level social inequality and bridge social distance. It even helped Métis withstand miserable times. Alexander Ross, himself Métis but highly europeanized, noted with great disapproval that a group of starving Métis bison hunters nevertheless sat together and drank a pot of tea using china they had brought in carefully packed boxes all the way from Red River. Starving though they were, they scandalized Ross further by singing songs and telling jokes.
Today, tea still represents more than a social drink for Indigenous communities in canada, although it no longer carries overtones of 'civilization' with it. It would be unthinkable not to offer an elder a cup of tea when visiting them, or not to have plenty of tea on hand at big social gatherings. In some cases, before discussions or negotiations begin it is still customary for First Nations and Métis groups to sit down with their discussion partners or fellow negotiators to share a meal and some tea.