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History of the Métis Homeland

Quick refresher: The Métis are a group of people who are descended from primarily French-Canadian, Scottish, and English fur traders who married mostly Cree and Ojibwe women, who then formed their own society with a separate ethnic identity from their parent European and First Nation societies. Intermarriage began pretty much as soon as Europeans and Native people met, but the first distinct Métis identities and societies began to appear in the western Great Lakes area (modern Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin, and northern Illinois and Ohio) in the 1700s.

In the early 1800s, as white settlers began to enter those areas, a lot of Métis people moved west. South of the Great Lakes Métis, French-Canadian, and British people continued to monopolize trade despite being in what was technically US territory until the war of 1812, after which many migrated north and west. Thus in the area near Lake Winnipeg a society sprang up known as the Red River colony, a mixture of Great Lakes Métis and new Métis born out of the fur trade in that area. At this time there was a division between Métis born of Franch-Canadian ancestors and those of Anglophone ancestors. In 1816 after the Battle of Frog Plains (also known as the Battle of Seven Oaks) in which the Métis made a decisive victory against the fur trade companies, a sense of a common Métis identity developed in the area, causing it to be frequently referred to as the birth of the Métis nation.

Métis people began to spread west for largely two reasons. The first was their involvement in the fur trade, like their French-Canadian predecessors; many Métis men worked for the North West Company or the Hudson Bay Company, taking them as far away as the modern Northwest Territories and British Columbia, as well as through the prairie provinces. Increasingly, however, Métis people took the the prairies (both in what is now Canada and the US), where they hunted buffalo in the summer months.

By and large, the Métis are still found in these same areas. An image of the Métis nation homeland as it is popularly imagined is this one:

This includes all of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, and parts of Ontario, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, North Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota. A concept of a Métis homeland is somewhat complicated. It tends to refer to places that Métis people have historically lived; however, Métis people are also found outside of it both in history and the present, and in addition, numerous other non-Métis people also have their homelands within what is considered the Métis homeland (namely First Nations communities, which are often located side-by-side with Métis ones, and very frequently there is significant blurring between the two).

That said, I would say that a few other areas should probably considered part of the Métis homeland, such as northern Wisconsin and Michigan (I am slightly biased as that is where my family is from!). The main reason that these areas are not commonly considered part of the Métis homeland is that they fall into two categories that are often invisible in Métis history: that of Great Lakes Métis who largely did not participate in the two Métis resistances of the 19th century, and that of United States Métis, who lack the federal recognition of Canadian Métis. Ontario Métis are from the same cultural group as Wisconsin and Michigan Métis, but they are Canadian; Métis in North Dakota and Montana are in the US but most have connections to the Métis resistances.

The Métis nation, therefore, has been existing across the modern US-Canadian border for centuries, both in the Great Lakes region and the prairies. The border in the east was largely solidified to the Métis by the 1860s. On the prairies, Métis people continued to hunt buffalo and live mostly ignorant of the border through the 1860s and 70s. In the 70s and 80s, the border was being more strictly enforced by US and Canadian officials, but Métis people continued to move across it regularly. After the North West Resistance of 1885, a diaspora of Métis people spread out from the Red River area, including a large number who went south to the United States, hoping to escape the stigma of being “halfbreed.”

Developments in Métis Government

Some of the first forms of centralized Métis government came along with the annual buffalo hunts in the prairies. An enormous amount of Métis people came together in the spring and fall to hunt buffalo for both subsistence use and for pemmican and buffalo robes to sell. In order to make sure that the hunt ran smoothly, a complex system of organization was developed. A captain of the hunt was elected by the community, along with a council. This group organized how the hunt would proceed, creating a system of written and unwritten rules (sometimes known as the Laws of the Prairies or the Laws of the Hunt). This system was in place likely from some time in the mid to late 1700s, and was firmly established by the 1820s. It drew Métis from the Red River settlement, the plains, and even from southeast in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the hunt itself took place in an area that is now southern Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba as well as North Dakota, Montana, and western Minnesota.

Previously, the overwhelming majority of people living in the Red River area and further west were Métis people of both Francophone and Anglophone heritage. By the 1860s, however the British and Canadian governments became concerned with the possibility US expansionism reaching land owned by the Hudson Bay Company. In 1868 Rupert’s Land was transferred to Canada, and Canadian officials announced that they would be taking control of the Red River area in 1869. The Métis community viewed this as a threat to their way of life, fearing that both anti-Francophone and anti-Indigenous prejudice would cause the Canadian officials to remove their ability to govern themselves.

After the Métis conflicts with the Hudson Bay Company in the early 1800s, numerous Métis had come to be part of the Council of Assiniboia, which was an unelected body of representatives from the company as well as the Francophone and Anglophone Métis communities in the area. The Council was still active when Canada announced its intention to enter the Red River area, and it organized Métis people to defend their sovereignty over the area. Among them, Louis Riel proposed the creation of a provisional government and was eventually elected its president. The provisional government, through militia action and negotiation, managed to get Manitoba admitted to the Confederation as a province with certain promises for the protection of certain political rights, land ownership, and cultural aspects such as language and religion. The provisional government ceased to exist when the Canadian government sent a military force (the Wolseley Expedition) to confront Riel, who fled across the border to the United States.

Following the creation of Manitoba, its government was immediately dominated by Anglo representatives–although Louis Riel was three times elected to represent Manitoba, due to his exile he never actually took the position. As a result, many Métis moved west to modern Saskatchewan and Alberta, where they could continue to live in their own societies. A number of councils similar to the former provisional government sprang up, the most powerful being in St. Laurent, but the North West Mounted Police soon intervened in Métis affairs due to Canadian fears of a repeat of the resistance of 1869, and the councils lost most of their authority beyond small domestic issues. The Métis were forced to deal with a territorial government that featured virtually no Métis representatives, the exact thing they’d been trying to avoid by migrating.

For much of the 70s and 80s the Métis tried to negotiate with the government to gain representation of their views, but success was limited. By the 1880s, Métis people had formed unofficial groups in their communities aiming to rectify the situation, and Louis Riel was called back from the United States, where he had been living in a Métis community in Montana. Riel and other leaders such as Gabriel Dumont led the North West Resistance of 1885, which ended in the execution of Riel. In the aftermath, the Canadian and territorial governments turned strongly against the Métis, who nonetheless fought hard to get a foothold in the government of the area. Repression by government officials led to widespread silence about the 1885 resistance, and in many cases Métis families attempted to pass themselves off as French-Canadian to avoid stigma.

Métis on the Canadian side of the border began to reassemble in local associations aimed at improving the economic situation of the Métis beginning in the 1930s. In the early part of the 20th century, Métis people were often known as the Road Allowance People, due to the enormous number of Métis people who had been dispossessed of their lands and were living on the public lands around roads. Métis communities were largely self-governed on a local basis but subject to persecution by Canadian officials. In the 1960s, there was another wave of political organization by Métis communities, sparking the creation of Métis provincial organizations. Despite local involvement, Métis people received little national recognition or political rights until 1982, when they were named one of Canada’s three Aboriginal people. The following year, the Métis National Council was created to bring together Métis organizations in each province and to represent the Métis nation on a national and international stage.

South of the border, many Métis had moved south and/or west into Montana alongside Cree people who were often kin in search of buffalo; many more came south to Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota after the resistance of 1885. They lived in autonomous communities but in the late 1870s were increasingly pestered by the US military, who suspected them of providing arms to the Lakota. Pressed by difficult living conditions and lack of food, the Métis and Cree in the Montana area drew closer together and began to request the assistance of nearby reservations, with whom they often shared family. In 1882, a group of Ojibwe and Métis signed treaties creating the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. In the last decades of the 19th century, many Métis families moved onto the reservation. Others became part of the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation created in 1916, or one of the several other political descendants of the Pembina Band that had consisted of both Ojibwe and Métis people on the Red River.

No real equivalent to the revival of Métis identity and political associations in Canada has occurred in the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries. Métis people in the United States were divided politically between those enrolled and on reservations, who were (and still are) treated as Indians by the federal government, and those who were not associated with a reservation, who came to be considered white by the government.

The Great Lakes Métis on both sides of the border continued to live in their communities even after many migrated northwest in the early 1800s. Although initially strongly integrated with the fur trade companies, after they moved west Métis communities became more autonomous, and tended to be more strongly connected to the First Nations around them (mostly Ojibwe and Odawa, but in Wisconsin and Minnesota there were also significant connections with the Menominee, Dakota, and other nations). With an influx of white settlers in the 1840s and 50s, the US and British governments began to make treaties with local First Nations groups. The Métis also requested land or payment benefits in many of these treaties on both sides of the border, and were in nearly all cases supported in this by their relatives among the First Nations groups, while the governments fought to keep Métis out of the treaties. Several treaties gave Métis payments as “halfbreeds” and a few promised them land (such as the halfbreed tracts in the United States); regardless of these promises, most Métis eventually lost the land to settlers, just as Métis in the prairies lost their scrip lands.

There is very little existing written history of Great Lakes Métis communities after the 1850s. In both Canada and the US, some Métis eventually enrolled in local Indian reserves/reservations, while others lived in their own communities, frequently on the outskirts of either predominantly white towns or the Indian reserves. In the United States, Métis communities in the Great Lakes continued to live with at least something of a separate communities from other Indian and white people until at least the 1940s, but there has been no real movement of Métis people in recent times around that identity. In contrast, Métis in Ontario have a political organization under the Métis National Counsel, and one of the most influential Métis-related court cases in Canada was brought about by an Ontario Métis family (the Powley ruling).

Cross-border and non-Indian

And so we reach, more or less, the present day. The Métis nation continues to exist on both sides of the border. In Canada, the number of people identifying as Métis openly has increased and Métis political power is likewise increasing throughout Western Canada. There, the Métis are recognized as indigenous people distinct from First Nations and Inuit people. They do not have a designated land base in the form of a reserve or reservation, and until very recently had essentially the same legal status as non-indigenous Canadians, unlike many First Nations people. Since 2003 there has been more discussion of Métis legal rights, including the Powley ruling which indicated that Métis people do have certain rights non-Aboriginal people do not. One can be recognized by the Métis National Council, receiving Métis status and a card, but it does not carry significant legal benefits akin to having Indian status.

In the United States, the word Métis is practically unknown outside the Turtle Mountain Reservation and several other historically Métis communities in the north. Métis people who are part of the Turtle Mountain Band are considered to Indians under United States law, and the band is run by tribal government like other First Nations groups in the US. Other Métis whose families did not join up with a First Nations reservation in the US remain mostly without centralized organization.

I do not have research or evidence beyond the anecdotal as to how much interaction has occurred between Métis people north and south of the border. In my experience, it is very, very common for Métis families to have relatively recent ancestors from both sides of the border, and it’s not too unusual for people to cross it to visit relatives or for special occasions such as Back to Batoche. Because Métis people as a distinct group remain mostly unknown in the US, most Métis-centered political efforts are strongly based in Canada. Most Métis people are aware, however, of the historical cross-border nature of the Métis nation. It’s difficult to tell if there will be any sort of movement to join forces with Métis across the borders. One of the most unifying factors, however, has been the revitalization of the Michif language, which remains particularly strong in North Dakota. As a result, in the past few decades there has been an increase in communication between US and Canadian Métis who are trying to keep their language alive.

There are many other indigenous groups in North America that cross international borders created by colonizer nations. These include the Kanienkeha (Mohawk), Mikmaq, Blackfoot, Ojibwe, Cree, Yoeme (Yaqui), Kumeyaay, Tohono O’odham, and others. Across the US and Canadian border, certain agreements have been worked out so that indigenous citizens may cross the border with more ease than non-indigenous people–for instance, the Jay Treaty has allowed Canadian-born people with Indian status to come to the United States. Crossing the US-Mexican border has been much more difficult, due to the American concern about immigration from that area.

In some ways the situation of the Métis more closely resembles indigenous nations that cross the southern border than the northern one. The ability to negotiate easier border crossing between Canada and the US is facilitated by the fact that the United States and Canada have relatively similar organizations of reserves and reservations, and tribal enrollment and status for First Nations people. In Mexico, however, there is less official record-keeping of indigenous people, which makes the United States less inclined to grant concessions to people who claim indigeneity and want to cross the border. The Métis in Canada are in a similar situation, having been mostly unregistered in government records and thus not as easy for the governments to keep track of. That situation is changing, though, with the creation of a Métis registry in Canada. Likewise, some indigenous nations on the southern border are finding ways to ease travel across the border with enhanced tribal IDs and other methods.

This is not to say that IDs and government registries are necessarily good things. They come with heavy baggage of colonial control and are highly controversial. Still, it will be interesting to see as Métis people reconnect across the border, spurred on by interest in Michif and other Métis cultural aspects, if the Métis nation will once again take control of its cross-border homeland.