La Vase River Journey Image © Aboriginal Artist Annette Sullivan, Maaskowishiiw fleur (The Art of Annette Sullivan), 2013.
Not long ago I was reading an online conversation about recent developments surrounding Métis identity in Canada. I was more of an observer to the exchange, adding a minor comment to the discussion. But something from that conversation has been gnawing at me for a month. When I went to find the thread today, it was gone, either deleted or lost in the endless feed of Facebook. But I can recount the general theme here albeit without exact quotes.
The conversation centered on the contemporary use of the term Métis especially by people who live in the Great Lakes region. There is an orthodoxy of thought, found both in activist and academic circles (which often significantly overlap) that declares the word Métis as a description exclusive to a particular culture that arose at a particular place and time (the Red River area of Manitoba where Métis leader Louis Riel lived.) On the other side of the argument is the belief that Métis is name that can be legitimately used to refer to a wide array of communities across Canada and US border states.
There are scholars today researching the multitude of names that Métis people (generally speaking the descendants of French-Canadian or Scottish fur traders and Indigenous women) in New France, Canada, and the United States were called, particularly during the era of the fur trade. One such scholar suggested that it was an error to deny the word Métis to people (such as myself) who grew up in the American Great Lakes region in a family that was French Canadian, self-identified as ‘part Indian,’ and descended from the fur trade — a family who knew and passed this family history down from generation to generation.
Louis Riel himself had an expansive notion of métissage, the blending of values, traditions, and lifestyles through trade and marriage between Indigenous and European peoples that resulted in the growth of Métis culture. His writings indicate that the form of cultural métissage that was found in Red River could not and should not be an exclusive definition. The experience of métissage was found in many areas, such as the Windsor/Detroit region, and developed in ways that were similar but not identical to Red River. And why would they be identical? It is as if to say the Scots should be just like the Welsh. They’re both Celtic peoples, so they should have an identical culture, right? Are the Sioux the same as the Ojibwe? It’s a strange way to understand the world: that peoples must develop culturally in uniform ways in order to be identified as part of a broader phenomenon.
In response another scholar called into question the whole idea of ‘naming.’ The argument was that it is all well and good for people today to have contemporary Métis communities in the Great Lakes region but that they should not try to hitch their wagon to the ‘real’ Métis who only came from Red River. This argument assumes that there was no Métis culture in the Great Lakes region during or after the fur trade, and what Métis people were there were not integral to the wider community. This scholar went on to say that such communities shouldn’t call themselves Métis and perhaps it was better to not call themselves anything at all. It was a shocking suggestion: that it was better for these people to remain nameless as a community.
This is what has been gnawing at me: the view that a cultural community should silence itself by being nameless. This is in reference to communities that can not only trace ‘genealogically’ members’ Indigenous and French-Canadian fur trade roots, but just as importantly can identify oral tradition, lifestyles, and folkways that differentiated their communities from others around them, a differentiation that can be traced through historical literature and explained as a culture that developed though the métissage of French-Canadians and Indigenous Peoples from the 17th century onward.
Perhaps the fiercest criticism toward non-Red River Métis communities, because it is meant to shatter any sense of identity, is the argument that many so-called Métis outside of Red River can only claim one distant First Nations ancestor to place their whole identity on. Such a criticism, although rarely true, sees Métis identity, culture, and lineage through the privileged prism of modernity when debates about identity are finely parsed, well-researched, and passionate. Two or three generations back, my Métis ancestors in the Detroit River region were probably unaware of Red River, but they were aware of the nature of their roots which they passed down to my generation. They knew themselves and lived with a connectedness to the land, which many of us envy. Through them, we experience the continuity of Métis identity – not through the continual ‘fast-forward’ of modern discourse or via the pens of cultural negociants
As Susan Sleeper-Smith articulated in her seminal Indian Women, French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes, the coping mechanism of ‘hiding in plain sight’ allowed our recent Métis ancestors to rest, however uneasily, in communities of their choosing. From this experience, some scholars extrapolate that they simply assimilated and no discernable culture outside of the French or Indian milieus was practiced among the descendants of those early fur-trade marriages. According to some, they stopped intermarrying and forgot their roots, forced to become part of either an undifferentiated French settlement or an Indian tribe. In other words, there was no “middle ground” for my ancestors. That this is untrue is demonstrable in as many ways as there are ways to say “Métis.”
That brings me to otipemisiwak. I have read several meanings for the Cree word otipemisiwak: the people who command themselves; the people who own themselves; the free people. To be free, to command oneself, to own yourself are powerful concepts that have in common the necessity first and foremost to know oneself.
To apply this word to yourself or to your community is the act of striking a blow to hegemony. But for scholars and activists in the Métis context to reserve such words as otipemisiwak or Métis to themselves or the communities they acknowledge as genuine is to create a new hegemony. The Métis peoples of the Great Lakes region, including those whose ancestors formed the maligned and marginalized Muskrat French of the Detroit River, also own themselves.
The Métis of the Detroit River Region are free people who have, despite generations of hiding in plain site, despite an international border, despite genealogists and well-regarded scholars who claim otherwise, retained their traditions which are rooted in an era that preceded Red River as a Métis point of cultural genesis. That some of us are now owning ourselves, and naming ourselves with an appropriate and accurate moniker, is unsettling to some.
This development resists scholarship that has reinforced the Red River narrative to the exclusion of all others; it undermines careers built on that foundation and so resistance to it will likely be ongoing. This is unfortunate because it could be seen instead as an opportunity: to cease the ugly narrative of ‘dirty, unkempt half-breeds’ described by British officials and Anglo-American settlers in the Detroit River region that continues to reverberate today in areas of education, health, and social mobility.
Some people deny that the culture that developed through the experiences of my French-Canadian Métis ancestors exists today, or that it ever existed. Both the historical record and oral tradition prove otherwise. This culture continues to exist today and despite pressure from people who are not connected to our community, we will not be a nameless people. We too own ourselves, and while scholars will debate and partisans may take a stand against us, nothing will suffice to make us forget who we are.