Canada has a founding people who once traversed North America’s interior in Red River carts, hunted bison with military precision, danced and jigged to spirited fiddle rhythms, wore brightly adorned embroidered clothing as well as sashes or shawls, spoke their own unique language, prayed to the Bon Dieu/Kitchi-Manitou and to their patron saint, St. Joseph, and even had their own werewolf. These people were the Métis. “Métis” or méstis , as the word was known at the time of contact, means mixed in French. From méstis evolved méchif and mitchif or Michif , the name of a language, a culture and a people within the Métis nation. The epistemological roots of the word “Métis” are very important because the word presently denotes a distinct Indigenous nation with a talent for adopting other cultural traditions and making them their own. Indeed, the Métis have always practiced a culture which has fused First Nations (Cree, Saulteaux, Dene and Dakota), Euro-Canadian (Canadien), and European (Scots/Orkney) parent cultures into a unique synthesis.
Language is perhaps the most notable example of this talent for cultural transformation. The Métis were undoubtedly the most multilingual people in the history of Canada. Besides being well versed in a wide range of First Nations and European languages, they also invented Michif-Cree, a mixed-language based on Cree (and Saulteaux) verb structures and French nouns/noun phrases; Michif-French, a dialect of Canadian French which uses Algonquian syntax; and Bunjee, a Cree/Scots-Gaelic Creole. However, the Métis are best known for speaking Michif-Cree, which has long been studied by linguists since it has woven two unrelated languages into a coherent whole with a standardized syntax, verb structure, and noun phrases. Michif-Cree is currently spoken around Lebret, Yorkton, Debden, the Battlefords and Ile-à-la-Crosse.
Métis Elders or “Old People” have always transmitted cultural knowledge to younger generations through oral tradition. From this oral tradition emerged a rich storytelling culture that blended various First Nations motifs, such as the tricksters Wisahkecahk and Nanbush, with French-Canadian ones, such as Chi-Jean (from Ti-Jean), le diable (the Devil as a dog or handsome stranger), and le rou garou (from loup garou, a werewolf), a person who fell out of the Creator’s favour. However, le rou garou was not just a werewolf since it had the attributes of the Cree trickster and could change into a variety of forms; rou garou stories were told to ensure that youth behaved themselves, particularly during Lent. From this storytelling tradition emerged a talent for creating nicknames, many of which often began with chi or “little,” from a dialectal pronunciation of French petit.
Traditionally, the Métis were very spiritual: most practiced a folk Catholicism that was rooted in veneration of the Virgin and based on pilgrimages such as those to St. Laurent de Grandin (near present-day Duck Lake). It involved holding wakes for departed loved ones, sprinkling holy water during menacing thunderstorms, providing thanks to the Creator by offering tobacco, and ensuring that Christmas and Lent were strictly periods of spiritual reflection devoid of celebration or materialism.
Métis culture has always been festive and celebrated with great joie de vivre. The Métis style of dancing to fiddle tunes was very similar to their Celtic and French-Canadian antecedents, but seamlessly weaved in faster-paced First Nations footwork and rhythms such as in traditional drumming. These traditions vary among families and communities: for instance, the “Red River Jig,” the signature fiddle tune and dance of the Métis, has many different versions and step patterns. House parties, focusing on jigging, dancing and fiddle playing, were a constant feature throughout Métis history, the climax of revelry being the réveillon (New Years’ Eve). During such times of celebration, Métis women prepared a feast that included les beignes (fried bread), la galette (bannock), les boulettes (meatballs), le rababou (stew), and molasses cakes.
The Métis are also heirs of a vibrant material culture which emphasized the floral motif in bead, quill work and embroidery. After adapting the design from the Grey Nuns in the 1810s, generations of Métis women produced countless objets d’art for their loved ones, for decoration, and for sale to non-Aboriginal collectors. Unfortunately, much of the legacy of the “Flower Beadwork People,” as the Métis were once known, has been lost due to institutional mislabeling that called many of these pieces “Plains Cree” or “Ojibwa.” Finding the proper provenance and restoring the voice of their Métis creators has been a concern for academics and the Métis community.
Darren R. Préfontaine