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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's an Interesting Question

There are all manner of historical and social questions of longterm interest to Northwest Métis scholars just on the subject of our own nation, similar to any other community. The question of Northwest Métis genesis is not the grand fixation it is for many settler scholars, however. There is a level of mistrust of the motivation for persistently asking and speculating on it, because at times it sounds like settlers are trying to figure out how ethnogenesis happens because they want to stop it for good. This is not a feasible goal to strive towards, although it does make sad sense that the idea could appeal to people from backgrounds where cultural and social difference have so frequently been fanned into a pretext for war and colonialism. Today the study of ethnogenesis is not quite so hot as it was, in part because so much early work slipped into victim blaming and something directed apparently toward trying to deny the target group's existence or right to land and/or usufruct rights. On the other hand, for people who are part of Northwest Métis communities and families, ethnogenesis doesn't seem quite so interesting because from the example of ourselves and other newer peoples both in the americas and elsewhere, it's actually rather ordinary. If over time a group of people go to a new place, they have to learn to live there and develop new relationships to the land and their new neighbours. The people who succeed at this process in a good way will be changed in the way they live from their predecessors, that is, have a new culture and social awareness. Still, that doesn't mean there are no interesting ethnogenesis-adjacent questions, so to speak.

For example, why Northwest Métis are northwesters. This baffles and annoys the people who want to racialize us and therefore try to dilute away our communities by force teaming anyone who claims to be a "mixed blood" or is "mixed blood" by some colonial definition but is part of a First Nation or Inuit community. But if we refuse to go down that obnoxious blind alley, there is actually an interesting and honest question in there. What factors led to people with parents of mixed origins in and around the region of the edges of the french landfalls being predominantly absorbed into the existing local First Nations instead of making new cultures? Overall there is no evidence suggesting the kind of obsessive assimilation and cultural genocide structures that europeans had created in their homelands and then began importing to the americas. To be sure answers to the question are not simple. They nevertheless spoil some still treasured preconceptions among european elites then and now, as well as their descendants in the americas today. Many people sent overseas to the americas were impoverished and they learned very quickly that Indigenous ways of living were not at all like the filthy and brutalizing conditions they had left. At the first opportunity from the very start, anybody who was brought over to be the "new peasant class" took to their heels and assimilated into Indigenous communities in hopes of completely evading recapture. Many of them succeeded, to the point that in some colonies "fleeing to the Indians" was redefined as a capital offence and posses were arranged to hunt and drag back "offendors" for destruction.

Illustration from the 1873 J. Hetzel edition of Jules Verne's novel *Le Pays Des Fourrures.* Illustration from the 1873 J. Hetzel edition of Jules Verne's novel *Le Pays Des Fourrures.*
Illustration from the 1873 J. Hetzel edition of Jules Verne's novel Le Pays Des Fourrures.

To put a stop to this, colonial authorities tried everything they could think of, ultimately landing on the sadly effective technique of unremitting violence combined with propaganda. They used literal foot soldiers whose empathy and respect for others were already crippled by their service as either conscripts or mercenaries who mostly got paid and fed via what they had the opportunity to steal. They pursued cultural warfare via missionaries, and additional biological warfare by spreading poisoned liquor and doing all they could to encourage infectious disease to spread ahead of them, taking advantage of an originally accidental but convenient phenomenon. If they could minimize contact between incoming and naive "settlers" and healthy, intact Indigenous communities, it would be that much easier to keep them believing "the natives" were lawless and degraded by nature. The epicentre of this was the oldest colonies, which also took up significant lands from highly urbanized Indigenous peoples, including taking their houses and food stores whenever they could. Taking care to remain ignorant of Indigenous laws and insisting that anything they found didn't seem to belong to anyone and so "finders keepers, losers weepers," which funny enough only works in one direction – the regular european claims that Indigenous people stole anything not nailed down should raise our suspicion, not our credulity – it still took centuries to euroform the earliest colonies. Where this terrible warfare on all levels wasn't happening, other options remained open.

Beyond those grim regions, for people who had not been fully indoctrinated into the belief that Indigenous peoples couldn't be human, things were quite different. Those were people more likely to have built some knowledge of how to live with the land rather than living against it, and hence they could end up assimilating to First Nations. Or if they were originally peasants in europe, they could re-establish themselves in something more like their own original cultures on the land, remaining distinct and if their numbers were great enough, intermarrying among themselves. Still others contributed to the emergence of the Northwest Métis, who are different in the move towards an Indigenous way of living with the land here, not trying to import a way from living on land elsewhere, including learning and adapting Indigenous languages that come from this land. A community of people who insist on trying to live in ways that come from somewhere in europe will actually become new ethnic groups as well, no matter how hard they try to mimic their ancestors exactly. Hence they stay colonial even as they scandalize people back in the "old country" and people from the old country scandalize them due to genuine cultural differences they at first insist should not be possible. The old cliché "you can't go home again" does express a real phenomenon, in that a community you leave behind will keep changing and what you remember becomes a snapshot of its past if you do not somehow remain an active, in person part of it.

But, this still leaves euroforming technique that probably overrides all of these: slavery.

The role of slavery in canadian history is different and in some aspects independent of its united states counterpart. Slaving did link the european colonies in north america together, although in the case of the northernmost colonies more through trade in Indigenous peoples and in the earlier centuries of the french invasion. This doesn't reflect any sort of "nicer" approach to slavery by the french of course, it simply reflects that generally french colonists had far less money available to buy slaves, so they preferred cheaper Indigenous Americans to imported Africans. Children born of slave mothers were born slaves, including when it was the male slave owner who raped and impregnated them. Under french law, there were even instances of french men marrying enslaved Indigenous women in order to take possession of them and their children – it was cheaper than buying them. The average lifespan of an enslaved Indigenous person was on the order of eighteen years. Cultural creation and continuity was hardly possible under such conditions. It was also exceedingly difficult for enslaved Indigenous people and their children to flee, because they were kidnapped from First Nations far enough away from direct neighbours to isolate them by language and lack of knowledge of the land.

For the Northwest Métis, there were some practical factors that made us more likely to develop as we did unrelated to this terrible and self-defeating tactics brought in by europeans. We can ponder the impact of whether neighbouring First Nations manage land rights under a matrilineal or a patrilineal system, and whether young couples move to the husband's family's land or the wife's. Combining adoption into matrilineal clans with women remaining in their maternal homelands and the men maintaining access to their maternal homelands, they become part of that economic system. That is, an adopted person is accessing the homelands of their adoptive mother. This all works very well, so long as everyone involved is inclined towards the adoption of the outsider, including the outsider themselves. The evidence available suggests that outsiders could and did refuse to be adopted even if they otherwise remained living in the community. A famous example is E. Pauline Johnson's mother, Emily Susanna Howells. The converse arrangement, with patrilineal clans and patrilocal marriage seems to work quite similarly. It took the federal imposition of the Indian Act in an attempt to break up Indigenous communities to break the adoption systems of patrilineal clans. That legislation used patrilineage as a means to kick Indigenous people out of their communities. Nevertheless, we Northwest Métis thoroughly precede the imposition of the Indian Act and its invidious blood quantum rules disguised as "status."

At first european colonial powers simply could not extend their coercive power to the northwest far and fast enough to destroy opportunities for ethnogenesis by destroying opportunities to either maintain established Indigenous communities or build new ones. So it was possible for new Indigenous peoples with their own names and differentiated cultures in cohesive communities to develop and survive. Indeed this is a major reason why most post-contact Indigenous communities are in the northwest or areas left in analogous conditions. People can't get culturally creative where they are constantly under direct siege of one kind or another. Furthermore, if people were going to get culturally creative and build independent Indigenous communities from the First Peoples there, they had to weave themselves into that preexisting fabric to survive, not try to punch a hole in the fabric to plop a copy of some idealized peasant village into. This certainly selected for people with less commitment to or knowledge of the stranger ideas about euroforming and supposed lack of Indigenous humanity to number among those who could create new Indigenous ethnicities together. Settlers on average are not aware of this, which probably helps fuel those who resist changing their relationships to Indigenous peoples and the land here in the americas, together with the invidious claim that "ethnics" are just differentiated by the four weirds: weird clothes, weird food, weird music, and weird dance. Settlers are encouraged to view the four weirds as forms of entertainment and a veneer over the supposedly superior colonial culture. This encouragement used to be far less subtle too. Just look up the Gilbert and Sullivan musical The Mikado.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:43