September 22, 2016

Métis Culture

Métis History

The Children of the Fur Trade, Flower Beadwork People, One-and-a-Half Peoples, Otipemisiwak, Half-breeds, lii Michif, and Bois-Brules are only some of the names used to describe the Métis, Canada’s other Aboriginal Peoples.

Our Métis communities have a rich history of blended cultures and unique identities. The Historic Métis emerged as a distinct people and nation on the plains of western North America during the late 1700s. As the fur trade expanded westward, many of the employees, who were of European origin, found it both necessary and convenient to establish familial relationships with First Nations women. These relationships resulted in children of mixed European and Aboriginal ancestry.

Despite their economic interest in delaying large-scale agricultural settlement, the fur trade companies eventually adopted a policy of discouraging unions between employees and First Nations. As a result, Mixed Aboriginals married other Mixed Aboriginals and developed a culture that was not European nor First Nations but rather a unique fusion of the two cultures: our Métis Nation was born.

Métis Culture and History: Who We Are and Where We Come From

In 1811, The Hudson’s Bay Company granted Earl of Selkirk Thomas Douglas land within the Red River to establish an agricultural settlement, supplying the expanding fur trade with provisions. However, the coming of settlers disturbed the traditional lifestyle of the Métis, especially key harvesting and commercial practices, so tensions ran high.

Within just five years of the settlement, armed conflict erupted in 1816 between Selkirk’s colonists and the Métis then under the leadership of Cuthbert Grant (Jr.). This battle has become known as the Battle of Seven Oaks and the first time that our national flag, the first indigenous flag of Canada, was flown. This infinity flag is still the iconic flag of the Métis Nation and proves that, even by the early 19th Century, we Métis recognized ourselves as a distinct Nation with an infinite cultural identity.

Shortly after Canadian Confederation, the Federal Government made an effort to acquire the land owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, successfully acquiring Rupert’s Land in 1869. At that time, the Métis constituted an estimated 85% of the total population of the Red River settlement, approximately 11,400 people in total.

In addition, two key events occurred this year in Rupert’s Land that contributed to a growing sense of Métis Nationalism. First was the formation of the first Métis Nation Provisional Government under President Louis Riel. Second were the illegal actions and subsequent execution of Ontario Surveyor Thomas Scott by Riel’s Provisional Government.

Despite negotiating the foundational Manitoba Act in 1870, Louis Riel was exiled to the United States of America, where he remained until 1884. With Riel in exile and after Manitoba joined Confederation, Federal troops were dispatched to the Red River under the command of Colonel Garnet Wolseley, intending to establish Canadian governmental sovereignty. The actions of the federal troops created an atmosphere among the Métis of Red River that many historians describe as a “Reign of Terror,” resulting in a mass relocation of our Métis ancestors to Saskatchewan and into the Northern United States.
In the early 1870s under the leadership of Gabriel Dumont, Métis in Saskatchewan began petitioning the Federal Government for recognition of their Métis rights.

However, the Federal Government did not take action until finally amending the Dominion Lands Act in 1879. This amendment, though, did little to address Métis grievances. Thus, the Métis again enlisted Louis Riel in 1884 to assist us with our efforts to address our governance and citizenship rights. Together, Riel and Dumont organized a second Métis Nation Provisional Government.

Then, in 1885, the Métis engaged in battle with the Canadian Federal forces at the Battle of Duck Lake and at the Battle of Fish Creek. Despite the initial victories of the Métis, the Federal Government quashed the Métis at the Battle of Batoche, the final military engagement between Métis and Canadian forces.

Following the Battle of Batoche, the Métis were again driven westward. This time their exodus brought them to Northern Alberta and the Peace River District of British Columbia.

Michif Language: Speaking Up and Speaking Out

The Métis are well known as speakers of many languages. In the past, Métis spoke up to five or six languages, including Michif, French, English, Cree, Ojibway, and Bungee. Researchers Leah Dorion and Darren R. Prefontaine explain that the Métis "have a long tradition of adapting aspects of First Nations and European culture” and that our “language is no exception.” Most common in the prairies were Michif-French (a dialect of Prairie French), Michif-Cree (a distinct language using nouns and grammar from the Cree language), and Bungee (also referred to as Bungi, an extinct blend of Gaelic, Cree, French, and Salteaux).

Historically, the Métis were the lifeblood of the west. Our ability to communicate in so many languages was incredibly useful in many traditional occupations: voyageurs, bison hunters, boatmen, fisherman, traders, small-business owners, lumbermen, farmers, cattlemen, and certainly highly regarded interpreters. To this day, many Métis people still speak or understand multiple languages, an important part of our cultural legacy.

Want to learn more Michif words or hear how to pronounce the Michif words throughout this document? Visit the Gabriel Dumont Institute: or download ‘Michif Lessons’ by the Gabriel Dumont Institute in the App Store.

Michif Words

Hello: Tansi
Good morning: Boon matayn
How are you? Taanishi kiiya?
Fine, how about you? Ji bayn. Kiiya maaka?
Okay. Thanks: Si kwaarayk. Maarsii
I'm sad: S'id valeur
I'm happy: Ni miyeuytay
Thank you: Maarsii

The Sash

There are many traditions of Métis culture, including fiddle playing, folk songs and tales, crafts such as beading, and the hallmark Métis sash. The sash served as a temporary tumpline, key holder, first aid kit, washcloth, towel, and even emergency bridle or saddle blanket! It also became a sewing kit at times, especially during a bison hunt. This sash was particularly familiar to those who settled in the Red River area and is still an integral part of Métis celebrations today.

Meaning of the Métis Sash Colours:
Red: The blood of the Métis that has been shed fighting for our rights.
Blue: The depth of our spirit.
Green: The fertility of a great Nation.
White: The importance of our connection to the earth and our creator.
Yellow: The prospect of prosperity.
Black: The dark period of the suppression and dispossession of Métis land.

Métis Jigging & Music

The fiddle was historically the main musical instrument of the Métis people. As we were not able to purchase these instruments, they were handmade from maple wood and birch. Fiddling is a barless structure that uses only a small part of the bow, creating a bounce to the tune that is typical in Métis music.

The traditional dance of the Métis is the Red River Jig, a special piece of fiddle music played and danced in two sections. The early Métis combined the reels and waltz from their European ancestry with the dances of the Plains Indians, creating unique dances that were believed to be some of the most technical dances of any Aboriginal people.

Red River Cart

The Métis people are known as the practical inventors of the Red River cart, a crucial means of early transportation. Métis people used the Red River cart for long trips, especially hunting trips. The carts, similar to those brought by Scottish and French settlers, were made out of only wood, so they were easier to repair on trips than others with metal parts. The wheels consisted of six to eight spokes wrapped tightly with rawhide to protect the wood from damage.

The high-pitched sound of the carts was so piercing that it could be heard from kilometres away. Surprisingly, grease was not used on the axels, a clever innovation because dirt would get trapped, creating a “mud” that actually wore down the axels even faster.

The wheels faced outward from the hubs. This modification meant that the cart would not sink into the soft ground when carrying large loads that reached over 800 pounds, far too heavy for the carts initially brought by the European settlers. Thus, though modeled on older carts, the red river cart was another distinct and practical Métis cultural and social innovation.


Did you know?

This flag, in blue or red, is the oldest Canadian patriotic flag indigenous to Canada. The flag was first used by Métis resistance fighters prior to the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816.

Learn More Here