The Métis nation and the making of Canada (part I)



Colonial societies don’t always follow the boundaries and pathways laid out by imperial motherlands overseas. If anything can be said about the similarities between colonial systems across the American continent or even beyond, it is exactly the dichotomy between the legal system as designed in the European capitals and the colonial regimes themselves that stands out. This is a constant element throughout the history of both North and South America and has been studied amply by historians. Research however does remain necessary with regard to the relationship between colonial administrators in the colonies and their subjects in these colonies. Nowhere does the tension between colonial capitals and the ”boundaries” of their influence become more clear than in the interior parts of the American continent. From a legal or constitutional perspective the remotest territories remained often undefined, yet settlements did take place in some extent, long before legal structures by means of charters, land sale contracts or public documents such as treaties or constitutions even appeared.

In the interior parts of both continents social interactions between native and immigrant populations occurred often on the basis of trade and mutual benefit, at least in the early days of the Colonial Era,  yet alliances could easily shift. In this strange diplomatic game European powers more often than not ignored previous alliances and loyalties easily as it suited them and often deliberately used a divide and rule approach. Yet individual colonists and settlements developed their own dynamics at the fringe of the colonial spaces. Europeans intermarrying with natives did take place at a large scale in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Stories or Spanish men married native Mexican or Inca women abound. In Atlantic North America however populations mixed to a lesser extent than in the Spanish colonies. Albeit colonial Canada does – at first glance-  not really evoke images of creolization of or of mixing populations, mixed marriages and concubinage in the French, Dutch and English did occur. Not only in the case of the famous Pocahontas, but more significantly and more substantially also in the interior of present day Canada where a whole ”halfblood” people developed, the Métis. In this article an attempt is made at determining in which way the Métis people played a role in the making of Canada from a historical point of view.

The word ”Métis” is derived from the French word for exactly that: ‘Mestizo’, i.e. a person born of mixed Indian-European origin. The native element of the Métis heritage was Cree and Ojibwa, the European element was mostly French Canadian and to a lesser extent Scottish (Scots by the way were also the ones who intermarried with other Indian tribes such as de Cherokees in the American Southwest). The Métis originated with the fur trade and French trappers or ”voyageurs” intermarried with Indians from the north Central part of the continent, centered on the Red River in modern South Manitoba. Thus a bi-cultural people came into being of mixed descent. They were mostly hunters and trappers. In the middle of  the 19th century they adopted the Catholic faith and had a share language ‘Mitchif” which consisted of a mixture of French and Cree language.

The Métis traded in the interface between the woodlands in the north and the Great Plains to the south. An important mean of living was the buffalo hunt, which took place at the end of the summer. The Métis were excellent businessmen and traded intensively with the Americans at Fort Union and later St. Paul, exporting buffalo skins. The Métis combined skills used by different peoples around them: they were avid horsemen comparable to the Plain Indians, yet just as easily shifted to trapping as their French and Cree ancestor did, going in and out of the forests. The Sioux or Dakota were their rivals on the plains, which led to a conflict resulting in the Battle of Grand Couteau in 1851. Miraculously this battle agains the feared Dakota was won by the Métis who were afterwards respected by the Dakota leaders as a tribe to be reckoned with. By the 1860-ids the Métis thereafter controlled much of the trade in the central part of North America and trading with the Americans who were settling into the area west of the Mississippi in ever larger quantities and whose industries needed buffalo skins for their machines. the Métis filled a vacuum that had existed in an area that had not yet been settled by immigrants of European origin, yet close enough to enable trade and commerce. Yet aound the time of the American Civil War their lifestyle was about to become seriously endangered.

To be continued in part II.

Source i.a.: J.C.H. King, First Peoples, First Contacts, Native Peoples of North America, British Museum Press, 1999.

Picture above: a Métis huntsman, around 1870 (source: Wikipedia)

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