A debate over identity is playing out over a people most Americans have never even heard about.
The Métis, French for “mixed,” are the descendants of unions between 17th century French fur trappers and and indigenous women in what are today the Western Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
“From those early communities that were created, these mixed people continued to marry each other,” said Métis writer and ethnobotanist Rosalyn LaPier, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. "It wasn’t just a blending of two different cultures, but the creation of a new culture, a new ethnic identity--what anthropologists call 'ethnogenesis.'"
Drawing on both French and indigenous cultures, the Métis gradually developed a new language, Michif, and distinct forms of land usage, dress, music and cuisine. They became known for the distinctive red sash they wore, fiddling and jig dancing, as well as the Red River cart, used as transportation throughout the 19th century.
By the early 1800s, the Métis had forged a new political identity centered in a colony along the Red River in present-day Manitoba. They traveled freely across the border into the northern U.S. plains in pursuit of buffalo, and some established settlements in the U.S. states of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana. But when the U.S. and Canada established final borders, Métis on the U.S. side were essentially legislated out of existence.
“They said to us, ‘You up in Canada, you’re Métis. You Métis in America? We don’t know what to do with you so we’re going to call some of you Ojibwe, some of you Cree,’” said anthropologist Kade Ferris, a historian of Métis descent and enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in Belcourt, North Dakota.
Many American Métis ended up on Indian reservations. Over time, some families have maintained their Métis identity and culture; others have lost touch with it entirely.
Jt Shining One Side, also known as Joyce T. Belgarde, a Turtle Mountain citizen, didn’t learn about her Métis heritage until she went to college.
“Michif was spoken in the home, but my parents were products of Indian boarding school, where they were beaten for speaking other languages, so they didn’t want to teach us about that way of life,” she said. “People played the fiddle, jigged and played spoons, but I had no sense of being Métis.”
She added, “When I pass on to the spirit world, I will go as Ojibwe.”
Video (below) shows Edmonton Métis Dancers, wearing traditional red sashes, jigging to traditional Métis fiddle music at National Indigenous Day celebrations in Enoch, AB, June 2017.
In 1982, Canada recognized the Métis as one of three aboriginal groups, giving them the same hunting, fishing and land use rights afforded to First Nations and the Inuit.
They are represented by the Métis Nation of Canada, which defines “Métis” as those persons who self-identify as Métis, can demonstrate a genealogical connection to a historic Métis community, and who are accepted by the Métis Nation of Canada.
But these days, a record number of people are claiming Métis identity both in Canada and the U.S. Many of these claims, said Ferris, are dubious.
“These people use the word Métis as a racial classification, not as a cultural or national classification,” he said. “There are people now who will call themselves Métis when they are mixed race Native and non-Native.”
Groups identifying as Métis have sprung up across Canada’s eastern provinces. This rankles the Métis National Council and its members, who maintain that these groups are only looking to take advantage of tax breaks and land use rights afforded the “real” Métis.
Mary Lou Parker is “Grand Chief” of the Eastern Woodland Métis Nation Nova Scotia (EWMNNS), one of many groups the Métis Nation does not recognize. She bristles at the suggestion that she and her 30,000 EWMNNS members are not legitimate.
“We have accumulated about 5,000 pages of documentation proving Métis identity, resulting from intermarriage between Europeans and Nova Scotia’s Mi'kmaq and Passamaquoddy tribes,” she said. “What we are after is recognition from both federal and provincial governments, and we are working on a date when we can present our credentials.”
French Canadian professor Paul Darryl Leroux, who researches the growing number of self-identified Métis in Quebec and Nova Scotia at Nova Scotia's Saint Mary's University, dismisses her claim as ‘race-shifting.’
“Groups like this continue to go unrecognized by all governments, the courts, and most importantly by the very indigenous people whose ancestors they claim today,” he said.
In 2017, the Canadian government signed an accord establishing a nation-to-nation relationship with the Métis Nation and has committed $516 million in funds over 10 years to support housing, health and educational needs.
In the United States, Métis are working to revive the Michif language and continue to celebrate their heritage in festivals and other events; but, they are not looking to gain independent recognition.
Even if they were, said LaPier, it would be impossible to separate and distinguish Métis from Chippewa or Cree, so intertwined are their cultures.
“But we know who we are,” she added.