We Know Where We Are
One Christmas when I was still in high school in Cold Lake, my Gramma gave me a seed beading frame. This tool was a great puzzle to me, and not just because the directions on the box didn't make any sense to me. I couldn't understand why Gramma had selected this gift. There were no beaded things that I carried around or wore. I couldn't remember ever expressing interest in beading. The only beaded thing I had seen around the house was a cigarette lighter my Uncle Leonard left behind one day.
In the mid to late 1980s, something extraordinary happened to the Métis Nation. Mainstream scholars rediscovered it as Métis began to emerge from a long period of misery and hiatus, helped along by certain changes to the Canadian constitution. There could be no doubt: the end of the fur trade and the bison herds hadn't been the end of the Métis – or any other Indigenous people in Canada, for that matter. Not only were there still Red River Métis and Métis communities with kinship connections to it, mainstream scholars were discovering other Métis communities of independent origins apparently hidden in plain sight. The rush began to fill in the hiatus in time and space, and the anthropologists headed out in force, hunting for ethnic markers and material culture practices. Oddly enough, the ethnographers seem to have been absent. I haven't found any Métis ethnographies from this period at all; the closest one dates from 1975, and it was written by a white man.
Something even more extraordinary started happening to the Métis Nation in the early 1980s. Métis scholars themselves began to write and publish books on Métis history and culture for the first time, as opposed to works written up by non-Métis on their behalf like Hold High Your Heads. Métis writers worked on materials for use in schools, wrote up their memoirs, and helped Elders record what they felt needed recording. By the early 2000s, young Métis scholars were pursuing active participant research over much of western Canada, and the Gabriel Dumont Institute had set up the Métis Virtual Museum. From now on, it is going to be a lot harder to render Métis invisible. Initially, many of the Métis engaged in this work were "bush Métis," meaning those living in rural areas or Métis settlements (official or not) at the time of writing, or those who had at least grown up in such communities. What about the many Métis who live in cities, those who grew up cut off from even the language of Métis identity?
What about Métis like me?
I have a Métis acquaintance who would assure you, as she has me, that there is no question of Métis identity in an urban setting. In her view, Métis who have grown up in cities like myself have at best a once removed relationship to the land through people like her. An at best twice removed relationship to Métisness. We are on the fast track to assimilation, us young Métis. Well, we seem to agree about the importance of a relationship with the land at least!
Wrong though my acquaintance is, it is understandable that she feels skeptical of the ultimate Métisness of those who did not grow up with formative experience "in the bush." We are all encouraged by mainstream culture to believe that an Indigenous person is assimilating as soon as they do something inconsistent with an idealized, "classic" version of their culture, a version which is less than classic and more like caricature. It's far from the first time we were encouraged to believe in something that wasn't real by mainstream culture, after all, by some estimates we see over 1 200 advertisements a day. Based on my own life so far and the writings of other Métis I have read, our Métisness has its origins just where we would expect, in our families. Even in cases like my own, where the spoken vocabulary of overt Métisness was silenced, I not only grew up Métis, I picked up enough to seek more information and begin to actively develop a relationship with the land I live on, and the land where my ancestors have been.
One day I was cheerfully talking the ears off of my best writing buddy, Sharron with two R's. We had been talking about storytelling, as Native writers are wont to do, and somehow I had gotten to talking about my personal absolute favourite story. It's the first one I ever heard, or read, I'm not sure which, that I remember. The story of Sky Woman, who comes here and makes the Earth and then all of us people. "You know," I had gotten to saying, "I notice that not just Iroquois folks have this story either, so do the Cree and Ojibwe, at least so far as I can tell. That must be such a cool feeling, to hear that story knowing for a fact Sky Woman is your ultimate Gramma." Sharron smiled. "Of course, and of course you love that story. She's your ultimate Gramma too."
In 2004, an extraordinary event happened in the Métis Nation. One day in late summer, the president of the Métis Nation of Ontario took part in a ceremony to receive a Sundance song from Ojibwe relatives in North Dakota. Métis politics being as fraught as anyone else's, no doubt some felt this was little more than a sort of publicity stunt by the president, Tony Belcourt. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. It said some important things whatever it was meant to be in the politics of the Métis Nation of Ontario. It said clearly that Métis can't be presumed "vanilla Roman Catholic", and that more and more Métis are comfortable with the reality that First Nations are our relatives now, not just back when a French or English man married a Native woman three hundred or four hundred years ago.
Over the years since I began researching my own heritage, I have learned that it is not a given that Métis will feel themselves "of a piece" with First Nations, as I tend to do myself. This draws directly from my family experience. We may not have called ourselves Métis out loud in my childhood, yet we knew that many of our relatives were "Indians." This didn't mean there was a sharp boundary between whatever we were and them. Instead it was a gradient, we had more or less in common in what we did, more or fewer relatives and friends who made up our immediate community. The preponderance of Indians or whatever we were determined whether it was a whatever we were community, or an Indian one. Yes, it really was that awkward to talk about, so officially we didn't.
This is a foundation piece in how I understand myself. So it is always a shock to me to read comments from Métis that both declare Métis non-whiteness and non-Indianness. The very vocabulary of the comments mark their time period, typically from the late 1800s and early 1900s. For example, Métis individuals widely separated in education and experience like Louis Riel and Louis Goulet make them. Then there are the comments I have heard from day to day by Métis who are arguably wrestling with internalized racism and don't even realize what they just said. It reminds me that in my teenage years, nothing about those comments would have shocked me.
What a relief to have learnt differently since then!
"Okay, so I have a quick question for you," one of my colleagues at work, his expression terribly serious and sincere. The questions heralded by that question make me feel tired before they are said, even though they are genuine "I'm working on fixing my head on this topic" type questions. "So, Métis, do they have traditional lands similar to First Nations?" Of course, I answered. "Similar" is a good description. After all, Métis haven't had as long to develop the relationships that create traditional lands yet, relationships with other people as well as the land itself.
An extraordinary thing happened to the Métis Nation, the one descended from people whose parents were French, Ojibwa, and Wendat, possibly as early as the early 1600s. Well, this isn't quite the right way to put it, because before that time, there were no Métis of that sort to have things happen to. The better way to say it is this: possibly as early as the 1600s, the part of the Métis Nation descended from people whose parents were French, Ojibwa, and Wendat did something extraordinary: it happened!
Which ever part of the Métis Nation they come from, whichever history a given community of Métis may have – and make no mistake, we're not Métis when we aren't part of a community – I believe the land looks quite different to Métis in comparison to other Indigenous people in Canada and much of the United States. The difference in perspective comes from the fact that we had to learn to live in places already full of people and spirits and all their ancestors. We typically lacked the numbers to try to force these circumstances to change, and when the numbers were there the likelihood of Métis trying was reduced by family, trading, and military ties to the First Nations. When Métis look at the land, we are not seeing a blank page, a once-written page, or even a twice-written one. What we see are multiple layers all together, a palimpsest.
Four Times Song | Travel Layer | Place Layer | Métis Trail Layer | Story Layer | Four Times Identity
A Métis Palimpsest by Carla A. Osborne is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.