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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...

Travelling With More Than We Can Carry

For good or ill, the Métis Nation is often represented by and conflated with the development and use of the red river cart. It isn't difficult to find a range of articles in which various scholars argue whether they were really invented by europeans after all because they are still labouring under the belief that Indigenous peoples in the americas didn't know or understand the use of the wheel. This is blatantly not true, what differed was the different combination of environmental, social, and climatological interactions in the course of Indigenous histories on Turtle Island. Jack Weatherford and Charles Mann have discussed this in memorable fashion in their books. Still, it is true that the Northwest Métis approach to transportation had and has its own shape, and for many people the red river cart seems to catch a part of it in an impressionistic way. Other transportation modes more associated with the Northwest Métis include york boats and dog sleds, which is actually a bit strange. York boats had their start from the hudson's bay company carpenters, many from scotland and the orkneys, who were tasked with coming up with a freight boat design that would work successfully where canoes couldn't. Sleds pulled by dog teams were and to some degree still are Indigenous standards in the subarctic and arctic. So what is supposed to make these modes of travel such that they are "traditional" for Northwest Métis, how are they used that is not identical in practice to that of neighbouring and related Indigenous kin? There are all manner of arguments that can be made, but for the purposes of this essay, let's try thinking through one of them.

Northwest Métis traditional travel remarkable distances over a lifetime, in a practice that goes right back to when cohesive, endogamous communities become visible in european records. Endogamy not within a single small town equivalent, but endogamy within a diverse population of people with similar cultures and traditions who understand themselves as positively, not negatively distinct from First Nations and europeans. They are not "rejects" making the best of it, in other words. They travel widely for work yes, because the first logical place where a new people can make a living with the land is via trade and diplomatic activities, which provide opportunities to build social connections with the people who are already in relationship with the land. Northwest Métis also travelled widely to access specific desirable services, ranging from education to spiritual ceremonies. This meant that Northwest Métis families were and to this stay still are often stretched across three to five provinces and territories. All of this makes for plenty of reasons to travel. More often than not, a long trip is a big commitment even if it is based on a regular seasonal round or can piggyback on fur trade infrastructure. If at all possible, Northwest Métis travellers would likely want to maximize the utility of the trip, so it could combine a number of personal and professional tasks. The closest analogy today for the travel based on york boats, red river carts, and sleds is probably long distance shipping by truck. Truck drivers and their employers don't make money when their trucks are empty or their rigs have no trailers attached. Therefore every effort goes into avoiding that whenever possible.

A Métis family with one of their red river carts in the manitoba area circa 1890-1910. Item number R 190-158-5-E in library and archives canada, released to the public domain. A Métis family with one of their red river carts in the manitoba area circa 1890-1910. Item number R 190-158-5-E in library and archives canada, released to the public domain.
A Métis family with one of their red river carts in the manitoba area circa 1890-1910. Item number R 190-158-5-E in library and archives canada, released to the public domain.

With all this in mind, we could try to summarize this by describing Northwest Métis as being distinctive right through to the early twentieth century for needing means of transportation that helped us move more than we could individually carry. Unlike in the earliest fur trade era, which developed first in regions where canoes were the premiere means of travelling along the extensive river and lake systems of the great lakes and canadian shield regions, Northwest Métis were coping with lands further west, where the land was on one hand flatter, but on the other hand not nearly so amenable to canoes. There is an old and classic paper by historian Norman Henderson, "The Canoe as Failure on the Canadian Plains." He details in deadpan style such difficulties as meandering rivers that could lead canoeists down slow moving waters in great loops almost back to their starting point, major shallows, difficult fords, wild spring run off, and lengthy winters that freezes most rivers over. These were and are the most common conditions across much of the Northwest Métis homelands, although yes, climate change is wreaking havoc on this today. On top of all that, appropriate materials to build and maintain canoes got harder and harder to come by the further onto the plains and parklands people moved.

Of course, the plains First Nations didn't spend too much time trying to get canoes to work. Instead, they developed the travois, originally drawn by person and by dogs, later also by horses. This made practical dual use of old tipi poles, an important consideration in places where wood of the right length and thickness could be difficult to find. In the parkland area, where the combination of muskeg and scrubby bushland made trying to use a travois an exercise in madness, First Nations had expertly modified sleds for their conditions. Northwest Métis knew better than to ignore what their friends and relatives were doing, and also knew they had to solve their transportation challenges in ways that did not depend on parts from european suppliers. A vehicle wholly dependent on say, nails or early fuel oils were untenable as soon as their owners had to face inevitable loss of contact with fur trade forts or traders carrying such goods their way by happenstance. Plus, such stuff tended to be expensive. So the Northwest Métis set about developing the red river cart on the basis of local materials, which means no metal and no fancy greases like those adapted to european-style carts used in cities. Famously, such carts when built properly are also designed to allow the removal of their wheels so they can be made into impromptu rafts to cross rivers. They were also narrow enough that they could use the long, doglegged crossings established by travois, such as the famous one in what is now called edmonton between the high level and low level bridges.

In the end what probably added most to the fame of the red river cart was how they were owned and driven on the land, because they were formed into the original transport trains of the plains and parkland edges. Both women and men owned their own carts, and they were driven in linked groups of ten or so, moving side by side. This prevented the development of deep and dangerous ruts, ruts that would damage the plant cover so necessary to bison and so many other animals, but also provide critical places for carts to get stuck, suffer wheel breakages, or overturns. All that, and quite apart from the remarkable racket they made with their by necessity ungreased wheels, they were also in part canvases for a certain amount of the Northwest Métis artwork that from early days was developed into a trade good by its makers.

But what about in the parklands, up in the bush where fur trapping was still viable for so long? In that case, we are back typically to dog sleds and where the land was open enough and people wealthy enough, horse drawn sleds. There is some irony in the wider travel season actually being in the winter in this region, because it was once the muskeg had frozen over and there was a good snowpack that sleds and snowshoes came into their own and made it possible to move more goods per person than they could carry on their own. In the summer for those Northwest Métis who stayed in the parklands and subarctic, if they weren't gardening and gathering berries and other plants on the land, they were fishing. That tended to keep people more in one place as they also took care of food preservation and laid in various supplies for winter. Of course there was plenty of ice fishing in winter, in Indigenous contexts often to keep the sled dogs fed, in european contexts almost as often to keep the europeans fed. This was another factor in the infamous negative european attitude to fish that features in so many trade records.

In the full bore subarctic and the parkland-subarctic areas with deep, swift, and often heavy sediment bearing rivers as the main travel arteries, this is where the york boats came into their own. Northwest Métis made up the majority of many of the york boat crews, and it takes only a few minutes to look up photographs of them from the early twentieth century at the Métis Virtual Museum. These crews had at least three major tasks: loading and unloading the boats, rowing and steering them, and guiding them through rough or extremely shallow waters by literally dragging them with ropes in a procedure called "lining." Obviously these were physically tough tasks, and they required more than just brute strength. The crews needed to work together in close coordination for speed and to minimize accidents. Specialists like pilots had to deal with avoiding sand bars and other hazards while the boats were loaded as well as taking part in taking emptied york boats through rapids. Some of the most vivid accounts we can read are actually of the much less dramatic looking task of lining. The crews are busy hauling the boats along, often walking in river water up to their knees, knowing that their moccasins are being worn away by the need to walk along not just on a rocky and rough surface underfoot, but in what amounts to a waterborne sandblast in many areas. At first thought it might seem strange on examining the photographs to see the crews working in pants. No one held out for leggings, even though they seem a wise idea, as they are easy to take off and so avoid the weight of wet cloth or leather. But this makes sense after all due to the waterborne sediment issue.

With all this in mind, let's think back to the original summary premise: Northwest Métis were distinctive right through to the early twentieth century for needing means of transportation that helped us move more than we could individually carry. Otherwise, no reason to develop expertise in managing, loading, and very quickly building and repairing york boats. No reason to develop the red river cart and its associated driving techniques, after all, with an upgrade to using horses or oxen as draught animals, travois were adequate for standard travel on the plains and much of the more southern parkland. No reason to push sleds harder and eke out the range of canoes as far as possible in the northern parklands and up into the southern subarctic, which Northwest Métis did do where feasible, but that was mostly in northern manitoba. This premise isn't intended to be the singular answer to what led Northwest Métis to develop particular modes of traditional transportation, but it certainly captures something!

Copyright © C. Osborne 2021
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 22, 2020 1:52:03