Published on September 17, 2010 by Alice
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Métis means “mixed-blood” in French. When it is used with a lowercase m, the word refers to all peoples with mixed racial ancestry. When the word is capitalized, it refers to a particular group of economically and politically uniﬁed people with a special place in Canadian history. It is pronounced may-TEE and usually appears with an accent.
Most of the Métis were of French and CREE descent. Some had a parent or grandparent from another Indian tribe, especially the CHIPPEWA (OJIBWAY), and from among Scottish and Irish settlers. The sizable population of mixed-bloods in Canada resulted primarily from the fur trade. In Europe during the 1700s and part of the 1800s, beaver hats, as well as other fur fashions, were very popular, and fortunes were made by shipping furs back to Europe. Traders depended on Native Americans as suppliers of the valuable pelts.
Many traders, especially among the French, adopted Native customs. Some lived among the Indians, intermarried, and had children with them. The men who paddled the trading canoes through the western wilderness for the big fur companies came to be called voyageurs, the French word for “travelers.” Those who were independent and unlicensed traders were the coureurs de bois, or “runners of the woods.” The mixed-blood children of both voyageurs and coureurs de bois were the Métis, many of whom eventually took the same occupations as their parents did.
By the 1800s, the Métis had developed a unique lifestyle, with elements from both European and Indian cultures. They spoke both French and Indian languages, the latter mostly Algonquian, the language of the Cree and Chippewa (see ALGONQUIANS and SUBARCTIC INDIANS). Sometimes they practiced Catholic rites; at other times, Indian rituals. They farmed and lived in frame houses part of the year; they hunted and lived in hide tents the rest. Because of their uniqueness, the Métis came to consider themselves a separate group with their own special interests and destiny. Out of their common hopes came the Métis wars, usually called the Riel Rebellions. The Second Riel Rebellion came to involve their Cree kinsfolk as well.
The First Riel Rebellion
The First Riel Rebellion, also known as the Red River War, occurred in 1869, two years after the Canadian colonies became independent from Britain and united into a confederation with a centralized government at Ottawa. (Britain had taken control of Canada from the French in 1763.)
The Red River of the North runs from Lake Winnipeg in Canada to the Minnesota River in the United States. (It is not to be confused with Red River of the South, in Texas.) The Métis used to live along the Red River valley in great numbers. Every year, these Red Riverites would lead their ox-drawn carts laden with furs along the valley all the way to St. Paul, Minnesota, to trade with the Americans. It is estimated that 2,000 different Métis caravans made this long trek in some years. The Métis had had to become politically active for this right to cross the border to trade. A man named Louis Riel had led the Courthouse Rebellion of 1849, demonstrating at Winnipeg with a force of men for the release of a fellow Métis arrested by ofﬁcials for smuggling goods across the border. Twenty years later his son, also named Louis, led the so-called First Riel Rebellion.
The reason for the revolt was not so much freedom of trade as land rights. After confederation, more and more non-Indians were streaming into the Red River region in search of homelands. In protest against landgrabbing by outsiders, Louis Riel, Jr., and the Métis took over Fort Garry at Winnipeg. They also formed the Comité National des Métis (National Committee of Métis) and issued a List of Rights, declaring themselves independent from the rest of Canada. Riel’s right-hand man was Ambroise Lepine, a skilled hunter and tracker. The Métis were such effective ﬁghters that the central government decided to negotiate with them rather than ﬁght. When the Métis agreed to peace, Ottawa passed the Manitoba Act, making the Red River area a province and guaranteeing most of the Métis’ List of Rights.
The Second Riel Rebellion
Nevertheless, settlers broke the terms of the treaty and kept encroaching on Métis lands. Little by little, the Métis lost much of what they had been ﬁghting for. Many decided to move westward to the Saskatchewan River to start a new life hunting the buffalo on the Great Plains. But the ﬁght for a homeland and autonomy was not over. The central government was sponsoring the construction of the Canadian Paciﬁc Railway linking the east and west coasts. In the 1880s, white Protestant settlers sought lands along the Saskatchewan River. Métis rights were again ignored.
Louis Riel was now at a mission school in Montana, teaching Indian children. The Métis thought him the man to lead another ﬁght for Métis land rights and freedom of religion. They sent the renowned buffalo hunter, horseman, and sharpshooter Gabriel Dumont to fetch him. Riel agreed to return to Canada to lead the resistance, but only on condition that the Métis try to avoid violence. Dumont, Riel’s close friend and general, organized the Métis into an efﬁcient force. Riel gave his approval for a campaign of sabotage—occupying government property, taking hostages, and cutting telegraph lines. The Métis also sent an ultimatum to the North-West Mounted Police (the Mounties) at Fort Carlton, demanding the surrender of the post. The year was 1885; the Second Riel Rebellion had begun.
In spite of Riel’s wish for a nonviolent campaign, the situation escalated. The Canadian government used the new railway to send troops, called the North-West Field Force, from the East. Several battles resulted—at Duck Lake, Fish Creek, and Batoche. The Batoche battle in May 1885 was the turning point. Earlier that day, Dumont and his men had knocked out of commission the Northcote, a riverboat converted by the North-West Field Force into a gunboat. Dumont’s men had damaged the boat by stringing a cable across the South Saskatchewan River to trap it, then ﬁred on it. But at Batoche the Métis rebels were no match for the much more numerous government troops. After a three-day siege by their enemy, the Métis surrendered. Meanwhile, the Cree had been ﬁghting their own battles. After several more encounters and a period of hiding out in the wilderness, they too surrendered.
Following the Second Riel Rebellion, the government dealt harshly with the rebels. Louis Riel was sentenced to death. French Catholics wanted to spare him, but the British controlled the government. He probably could have saved his life by pleading insanity, but he refused to denounce his actions. The execution of Louis Riel was carried out on November 16, 1885, just nine days after the railroad was ﬁnished. Gabriel Dumont managed to escape to the United States and in later years found work in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Métis power and culture were broken. Saskatchewan became an English-dominated province, as Manitoba had earlier.
In addition to Métis individuals and families living throughout much of western Canada, there are Métis communities in both Canada and Montana. They have become increasingly organized in recent years, forming tribal councils and working together for common goals, such as the preservation of their unique culture and economic advancement. In 2004, the Canadian government ﬁnally recognized the Métis as a First Nation on a government-to-government basis.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes by CARL WALDMAN