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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

That Infinity Sign

In the place currently known as canada at least, most of us would be hard pressed to avoid a passing familiarity with the Métis infinity flag. There are two widely reproduced versions, both with a white, horizontal infinity sign, with either a blue or a red background. According to canadian popular history, one of these flags was provided by the north west company, the other by the hudson;s bay company, because supposedly Métis couldn't come up with their own flags. Early canadian historians who viewed Métis as degraded mongrels who must go extinct along with the First Nations and Inuit people whom they were equally contemptuous of were quite certain that of course no Indigenous people can create anything new. They especially sure about the Métis on this point, and spent considerable effort trying to explain why two rival fur trade companies would deliberately cultivate a new political and cultural entity in fur trade country when that would cause problems to other non-Indigenous interests in future. This wasted effort finally petered out in the late 1980s, but that left a blank in explaining just where the Métis infinity flags of any combination of colours came from. The symbol had to have had Métis-specific meanings that were widely shared before the development of the flag.

More recent interpretations have claimed that the selection of the infinity symbol is about representing the joining of two cultures, or even two "races." Yet this does not seem wholly satisfactory. Certainly it can have those sorts of resonances, and does today. But the evidence for this meaning being active in the past is pretty slim, and may primarily extrapolate from certain comments by Louis Riel in his early writing. He had a lot going on, including a much higher level of formal european style education, and greater involvement in teaching and related work than the more common work activities of Métis in Red River or related communities further west and north. That doesn't make Riel wrong, but it does make how much his perspective can tell us on this issue an important limit. On top of that, he, and Métis more generally then as now were well aware that we have kinship with numerous First Nations and more than one European-origin group. The concept of "race" as we know it know was developing into the pernicious thing we know today in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it did not become common parlance until later in those two hundred years or so. The Métis flag precedes that. The better off portions of the Red River Métis community and Riel himself tried a range of flag designs bringing together religious symbols, yet these were all new at the time and intended to respond to the specifics of the time. Perhaps it would help if we took a step back and remembered that while people can and often do pour remarkable levels of meaning into flags, they start out as ordinary tools.

Blue Métis flag image courtesy of the Gabriel Dumont Institute of Native Studies and Applied Research, 2020. Blue Métis flag image courtesy of the Gabriel Dumont Institute of Native Studies and Applied Research, 2020.
Blue Métis flag image courtesy of the Gabriel Dumont Institute of Native Studies and Applied Research, 2020.

Among the tools used by Métis every day during much of our early history is some version of what in english is called a "burden strap." Pictures of voyageurs on portage, especially those from the early photographic era usually show at least one seasoned man with one across his forehead, the top of one of three or four hefty fur packages on his back. Poor man was probably wanting the photographer to get on with it already so he could finish hauling his packs and get the weight off his back. The straps are useful for more than just this of course, and have many variations. Often finger-woven from yarn by the fur trade period, they were made in a range of sizes to do things like fit up leggings, tie back hair, serve as reins, and at times were sewn onto bags as permanent straps and handles. Most famously, in their largest size they became the sash, now firmly ensconced as part of traditional Métis dress, but like the straps themselves, not exclusive to Métis among Indigenous peoples at all. The straps and how they were made came from eastern First Nations in the first place after all. One particularly striking design for those straps is based on a broad dark colour, usually blue, with a row of flattened diamonds. The diamonds may be arranged so they just touch, or to be more widely separated. This pattern stands out in part because it readily lends itself to beading, and happens to provide a quite reasonable template for the Métis infinity flag.

Then again, flags in themselves were used for signalling purposes, perhaps most famously on the bison hunts that are at once over-emphasized and misunderstood in studies of Métis culture and history. On the hunt, flags played an important role in helping keep the brigade together, as they were used to indicate changes of direction, whether the march was continuing, and so on. Métis hunting brigades were often predominantly catholic in terms of european-derived religious practice, but religious diversity was a real phenomenon, catholic and protestant Métis did hunt together. Quite apart from that, I have never found anything to suggest that anyone at the time thought bison hunt flags should have any symbols on them, let alone religious ones. They weren't necessarily blank, but if nothing else not having religious symbols as such would avoid suggesting that anyone's religion or spirituality was better, and that would avoid encouraging dissension in camp. Still, for the time being at least the documentation of what the flags might have had on them if anything is not available. Yet, as it happens, there is something that might also explain the selection of the infinity sign that happened to be described in the context of a description of the bison hunt.

In 2020, Stephanie Cram interviewed retired history professor Fred Shore for her podcast series Muddied Water. Shore has written and ublished a range of papers and books on Métis culture and history, and so he is well equipped to speak vividly about the bison hunt. He doesn't disappoint, and he also provides an intriguing snippet of information that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was probably common knowledge. Here is a transcription of the snippet, which falls between roughly minutes 10 and 11.

There is a group of people in the hunt, who will be keeping an eye out on the distance, watching to see if there's any signals coming in from the scouts. And what'll happen, one of the riders of this scout [group] would be out there maybe 5, 6, 7 miles away and he would start riding his horse in a figure eight, say about a hundred, two hundred feet across, and he rides the figure eight because, and I don't know whether you've ever ridden a horse, you know that if you ride them in a circle, like people, they tend to get a little dizzy and they can fall down, you don't want to fall off a horse. Then he'd stop, ride from the left to the right instead of the right to left and that would tell them what direction the herd is going and he'd stoop again and ride a couple more times from right to left and that would tell them how fast.

Well, well, well. Now this sounds far more plausible as an origin of the infinity sign on the Métis flag. Many Métis were voyageurs, but nobody including Métis takes a canoe as a symbol of Métis as a people. Instead, we are especially associated with the Red River cart, and the horse. We could argue the horse connection is a metonymy for Métis as post-contact Indigenous peoples, and certainly the horse became far more central to early Métis cultures in the parklands and on the plains than canoes. This makes practical sense, because canoes are at their very best in the sort of lake-rich lands characteristic of the canadian shield, great lakes region, and the mississippi river systems, to pick a few examples. In those areas rivers are often of a fair size and depth, fast moving, and associated with a system of lakes that can be used to travel back upstream again. But on moving into the parkland and plains, water bodies are more likely to be seasonal, and the rivers may be large and even deep, but in many regions they are also slow and meandering except for high water in the early spring. Under such conditions, dog teams drawing travois and sleds predominated until the reintroduction of the horse. It also stands to reason that for the purposes of a flag, the infinity sign would be selected over the Red River cart or a horse because it is much simpler to draw and shows up well at a distance.

To be sure, this can't be taken as the answer to the question of the origins of the infinity sign as preferred Métis symbol. It is definitely a more plausible starting point, because it starts from simple, daily needs and tasks and ideas that were widely held in the Métis communities of the time, especially those with ties to the plains and parklands where horses played such an important symbolic and practical role. It has held up and gone on to wider adoption because the starting point allows creativity in interpretation so that it can be made relevant even where nobody has any horses. I'm sure there is a wonderful Ti-Jean story out there somewhere, about how she accidentally invented the Métis flag while learning the hard way how to stop making her horse dizzy.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2020
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:42:55 MDT