Title graphic of the Moonspeaker website. Small title graphic of the Moonspeaker website.

Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
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 began turning up what they considered astonishing amounts of ceramic fragments. At the time of these excavations, the late 1980s to early 1990s, Métis, according to most non-Indigenous commentators, were first of all, basically extinct. Second of all, their culture consisted solely of bison hunting on the open prairies in the summer and from small winter cabins in the valleys and foothills during the bitter winters. Since practically speaking this demands household goods and tools that are easy to repair, good for more than one purpose, and portable, the likelihood that a former Métis site would include ceramics of any sort seemed simple enough to estimate. Zero. Yet this was far from the case. Perhaps this would have been less surprising if the consensus outsider view of Métis culture had not been oversimplified, and if they had considered Indigenous criteria, Métis criteria preferably, for what makes a given object worth carrying.

This is not to say that the archaeologists had not done their homework, because for the time, they certainly had. They learned all they could about how the Métis who used the site would have been living when it was still in use. In particular, they knew that these Métis had indeed spent a significant part of the year hunting and processing bison, and that they had built several cabins meant to last for three to five winter hunting seasons on the site. 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. As long as the debris came from activities that seemed to be just practical, everything made sense.

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, which left the archaeologists with a puzzle to solve. 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? Since it never occurred to them that they could try asking Métis Elders about this, the archaeologists had no choice but to work this out the hard way, although in the end this particular team didn't manage it.

As it turned out, it was all because of tea, as a different team of scholars worked out by a comparison between how southwestern Alaskan Eskimos, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Métis all adapted and used imported china. This is still the hard way to work out a plausible answer to the question, but at least it comes up with the right answer.

By the 1660s, the british upper classes were taking up tea drinking as the latest expensive fad, now that it was no longer considered a medicinal drink. By the end of the existence of the east india company in all its infamy, the price of tea had fallen so far as to allow tea drinking to cross class boundaries. The east india company charged exorbitant proces for a product in ever greater demand, comfortable in its total monopoly in supply even as tea leaves became one of the most smuggled substances in europe. Nowadays this would be considered a perfect way for a corporation to print money, so long as the dependence on demand is ignored. And indeed that dependence was ignored by the east india company, until demand crashed and the company had surplus tea stocks it couldn't sell in england. So the company directors asked permission to dump the surplus in the americas, making it cheaper to drink tea in north america than in england. It also laid the base for an eventual price correction that british expatriates along the eastern north american seaboard would use as a pretext for rebelling against british rule. (Being a rebel had much more to do with land speculation than tea, as it turned out.) The cheapness of tea also meant that trading outfits like the hudson's bay company (HBC) would inevitably carry it with their other merchandise.

All this drama aside, by the 19th century a vigorous trade in adulterated and resold used tea leaves provided something tea-like and hopefully not poisonous to some of the very poorest in large cities like london and busy liverpool. And tea remained a well-established and accessible trade good to Indigenous communities in north america, numbered among the staple trade items in any outfit alongside cloth, beads, sugar, and flour. Contrary to popular belief, guns and ammunition were relatively minor in comparison in terms of volume traded and long term adaptation and use.

Tea's popularity in both Indigenous north america and england 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, although many of them soon took to providing adulterated cheap alcohol instead to facilitate short changing and fraud. Those with longer term trading ambitions, or who had developed genuine social ties with Indigenous communities were at least less likely to shortchange if not to refrain from providing alcohol. 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. Furthermore, tea drinking did not carry a risk of alcohol-related violence. The social tie and lack of an association with violence were probably tea's best advertisements. Today, tea is as traditional as bannock among First Nations, Inuit, and Métis.

Photograph of a Victorian era teacup and saucer.

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. Of course, what Métis meant by 'civilization' or the commentary they were making about it via their particular use of china is something that is not recorded, but is also not necessarily what europeans meant at all. In any case, it is the social role of tea that 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.


  1. There are two main sources pertaining to this Métis site by members of the excavation team.
    • Burley, D.V. 1989 "Function, Meaning, and Context: Ambiguities in Ceramic Use by the Hivernant Metis of the Northwestern Plains," Historical Archaeology, 23(1): 97-106.
    • Burley, D.V.; Horsfall, G.A.; and Brandon, J.D. 1992 Structural Considerations of Metis Ethnicity. Vermillion: University of South Dakota Press.
  2. See Yvonne Marshall and Alexandra Maas, "Dashing Dishes," in World Archaeology, 1997, 28(3): 275-290.
  3. I am quite serious on this point. The alcohol traded to Indigenous peoples was not the sort of thing available from a liquor store or even a brewery today. Instead, it started out as a distilled and concentrated liquid in a small cask or barrel. Then it was diluted with water to make it go as far as possible, flavoured with pepper and whatever else might provide the burning sensation that so shocks most people when they taste hard liquor for the first time, and one or more handfuls of tobacco at least for colour. It is true that alcohol is a toxin itself, but the nicotine from the tobacco is even nastier. Non-Indigenous writers commented on how different the experience of being drunk on this trade liquor was from what they were accustomed, such as Charles M. Russell, an artist taking part in canadian cattle round ups who wrote:

    "I never knowed what made an Indian crazy when he drunk till I tried this booze... With a few drinks... the Missouri looked like a creek and we (ride) off in to it with no fear... if a man had enough of this booze you couldn’t drown him. You could even shoot a man through the brain or heart and he wouldn't die until he sobered up.

    When Indians got their hides full of this they were bad and dangerous. I used to think this was because an Indian was a wild man, but at this place... where we crossed the herds there (was about ten families of Indians) and we all got drunk together. The (Indian women)... got mighty busy (hiding) guns and knives. In an hour we're all... so (mean) that a dog... couldn't have got along with us.

    Some wise cowpunchers had (talked) all the cowpunchers (into leaving) their guns in camp. Without guns... cowpunchers and Indians are harmless... they can't do nothing but pull hair... we were so disagreeable that the Indians had to move camp."

  4. There is a strikingly similar account from a jesuit missionary who complained when his Wendat hosts laughed and joked together during a difficult winter when starvation stalked the village. He drew neither solace nor learning from his hosts, who pointed out that it was better to distract one another by joking and laughing together, than to sit and mope over their empty stomachs.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2023
Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:54:20