In a previous post, I described what it is like as an Alberta Métis to come to Quebec and realise that ‘Métis’ does not mean the same thing here. I’m not a shut-in…I realised that there were different definitions out there, I simply hadn’t lived where I was defined by them before.
In another post, I talked about Pan-Indianism, and also Pan-Métisism. What this post and those previous two have in common, is that they are about identity.
The topic of Status was a much easier discussion, because I avoided delving into identity issues in order to give you the bare bones legislative context. Trust me, there are much larger identity discussions yet to be had on ‘who is an Indian’. More important, I’d argue, than just knowing the state of the categories right now…but you have to start from somewhere!
However, there is no real legislative context I can focus on when discussing who we are as Métis. I’ve no choice but to get all ‘identity’ on you. This is probably going to leave you with more questions than answers, but I do hope that your perception of the question itself will have shifted.
If I have any academic readers, I apologise in advance for bringing up debates or issues that some academics think are settled, or should be moved past. Whether or not I agree, the fact is that most Canadians have not been a part of these mostly internal discussions.
So? Is it your mom or your dad who’s the Indian?
I want to go into the history of the Métis, and talk about Powley and quote some John Ralston Saul (okay I actually have no desire to do that last thing) but this person just asked me a question at a party and his eyes are already drifting over the lithe form of a single neighbour. I have a hard time not addressing this question so sometimes we don’t get to be linear.
So I say, a little challengingly “neither. My mom is Métis”. I’m willing to leave it there.
His eyes snap back and he’s got a skeptical look on his face, “Oh,” he says, sounding disappointed and perhaps a little triumphant to have found a fake, “so you’re like, a quarter Indian?”
I am impressed with your mathematical skills, imaginary pastiche of all the people who have asked me this question since I moved to Quebec, but no.
And here I have run up against the little ‘m’ versus big ‘M’ identity argument. (I warned some of you I’d be rehashing supposedly ‘old’ territory!)
Little ‘m’? Big ‘M’? Huh?
If you were to boil down common approaches to Métis identity, you generally end up with two categories, sometimes overlapping, sometimes entirely separate, sometimes with all sorts of anomalies left over and scattered about. You, my egg-nog drinking friend who thinks it’s appropriate to quiz me on my ‘background’ are using the little ‘m’ definition.
Little ‘m’ métis is essentially an ethnic category. This is the category I’ve encountered most in Quebec. As an ethnic category, one is little ‘m’ métis when they are not fully Indian or non-aboriginal.
Obviously the Métis began as métis. (Funny fact, the pronunciation of Métis as ‘may-TEA’ is often seen as the proper French way to say it, but the French actually pronounce it ‘may-TISS’.) This is not the only term that was used, we were also called half-bloods, half-breeds, michif, bois brûlé, chicot, country-born, mixed bloods, and so on. My blogger name reflects that history, as âpihtawikosisân literally means ‘half-son’ in Cree.
On one extreme of little ‘m’ métis identity, one must actually be half First Nations and half not. On the other extreme, one can be métis with only a minimal amount of First Nations blood. You can just imagine the range of arguments involved in deciding where along the spectrum of ‘blood quantum’ is supposedly legitimate.
There are also discussion about connection to culture as a métis, so it is not always focused on blood. However, the cultural connection referred to is generally First Nations culture, not a distinct métis culture. This leads us into the big ‘M’ discussion. Do you want more rum in that eggnog?
Big ‘M’ Métis tends to be a cultural definition, referring to the blend of First Nations and European cultures resulting in the genesis of a new identity. There is less focus on ethnicity, although kinship ties are very much present. One extreme considers only the Red River Métis and their descendants to be ‘real’ Métis. Others consider any community to be Métis where it was founded by métis who developed their own culture and shared a history. On this extreme end you could imagine emerging Métis communities, not just historical ones.
So who is really Métis?
You mean, what is the definition I use for myself and thus present as the definition all others must live by? Oh come on, are any identity issues that easily navigated, even on an individual level?
Yes I am going to get personal, because it’s important that you know where I come from so that you understand why I have the opinions I have, and why others from different backgrounds may agree with me or not. I am going to ‘get personal’ so that people cannot effectively twist my words later and use them to deny others who feel that they too are Métis. I am going to speak for myself, not for all Métis peoples.
My understanding of my Métis identity has shifted considerably over the years. You see, I was only about 5 years old when the term Métis was recognised officially in section 35(2) of the Constitution Act of 1982. I point this out because although the term Métis predates that official recognition, it was not necessarily the most common term in use. Often we were referred to in the Prairies as the Road Allowance People. The term ‘halfbreed‘ still got tossed around a lot when I was growing up and was pretty ubiquitous in my parent’s and grandparent’s time. You can imagine how confusing it is in terms of forming an identity, to be known by so many ill-defined names.
What I knew but did not understand, is that we were related to pretty much everyone in Alberta, lots of people in Saskatchewan and a bunch of people in northern BC. Some of our relations lived on Stoney reserves, others lived on Cree reserves, still others had farms near places like Keephills, Smokey Lake, Rivière Qui Barre and so on. Names like L’Hirondelle, Loyer, Callihoo (spelled a million different ways), Belcourt…those were a dead give away that someone was related to me somehow. But aside from the odd family story that didn’t interest me as a child (but fascinate me now as an adult), I knew very little about our regional history.
So when I stopped being ashamed (a longer story there) and started to feel a part of something bigger, I turned towards the concept of a Métis national identity. That is when I started learning about a larger history than my own poorly understood, ‘boring-anyway’ regional one. Lots of talk about how distinct from European settler culture and First Nations culture the Métis are, with our own language (Michif mostly), our own style of music and dance, our own flag, our unique decorative style, our own symbols like the sash and the Red River cart. Heady stuff after generations of stories of ill-use, prejudice and shame.
I still consider all those things important, and I appreciate the fact that the name Louis Riel no longer refers just to ‘some French guy who the English killed’. However, the history of my region…the history so many Alberta Métis share, is equally as amazing and rich and worth learning about. Take this photo for example. Angelique Callihoo was the daughter of Louis Kwarakwante Callihoo, a Mohawk fur trader, and his second wife Marie Patenaude. Almost every Alberta Métis can tie themselves to Louis Kwarakwante somehow through their family lines! Louis Divertissant Loyer was the son of Louis Loyer (original, I know) and Louise Genevieve Jasper.
Essentially there were just a few families that settled in Alberta and founded a number of Métis communities. The history of these families is a major part of the history of Alberta, yet I never learned about it in school. In fact, I’m still learning about it, and it becomes more fascinating and interesting with each new detail. My identity as a Métis person is linked to my family history, and the history of the community of Lac Ste. Anne in particular.
Dude, I still don’t get it, just how Indian are you?
*sigh* I have no idea. That’s not the point. My Métis ancestors intermarried with one another over generations, linking me to so many different Métis families that I tend to great most Alberta Métis as ‘cousin’. As do many of us, which never ceases to make my partner laugh.
Some of us look very ‘Indian’. Some of us have blonde hair and dark skin with green eyes…some of us like myself are very pale and can ‘pass’ as non-native. Some of us are nearly ‘purebloods’ if you insist on blood quantum definitions, and others are clearly ‘mixed’. What links us is our history, and our present sense of kinship and community.
We aren’t Red River Métis (though many of us do have links), we are our own Métis, Lac Ste. Anne Métis, Settlement Métis, Smokey Lake Métis, St. Albert Métis and so on…a history of settlement, movement, intermarriage, cultural growth, roots dug deep. Some of us are closer to our Cree and Stoney relations than others. We all have our own ideas about what it means to be Métis based on our lived experiences down the years.
This isn’t helpful at all, surely there is some definition you can explain?
Sure, but you aren’t going to like it.
You should be asking yourself why it even matters that you have a definition for us. As pointed out in that link, the concept that the Métis have some (as yet ill-defined amorphous) rights has a whole lot of people asking this question.
Well it wasn’t until 2003 that the question got some serious attention. The Supreme Court of Canada heard a case involving a father and son who shot a moose out of season and without a license. Exciting stuff, no? No!? Well…it turned out to be exciting. For the first time, it gave us a basic legal definition besides half-Indian, half-European to discuss.
The Powley Test as it’s now called set out basic criteria for determining who is Métis. Here I am using the Métis Nation of Alberta’s summary of those criteria, which is pretty similar to what other regional Métis organisations have adopted and use to determine regional membership:
“Métis means a person who self-identifies as a Métis, is distinct from other aboriginal peoples, is of historic Métis Nation ancestry, and is accepted by the Métis Nation.”
Egads! So much in there to unpack and debate! So many more questions than answers! A little bit of ‘calling yourself Métis is good enough’, with some ‘have to have First Nations blood in there somewhere’ and whole lot of ‘other people have to agree that I’m Métis’.
Then there is that whole, ‘distinct from other aboriginal peoples’ part that so baffles the many Cree-Métis and other First Nations-Métis mixtures out there. You can be one or the other legally, but not both! That would be double-dipping…or something.
It is, but what identity issues are simple? I’m going to quote a rather long passage here by Chris Andersen because I think it’s important to keep parts of this passage in its fuller context or else I run the risk of making some people feel attacked.
When I argue for the drawing of boundaries around Métis identity to reflect a commitment to recognizing our nationhood, however, colleagues often object, as many of you might, in one of two ways. The first objection usually takes the form of a challenge rooted firmly in racialization: “If someone wants to self-identify as Métis, who are you to suggest they can’t? Why do you think you own the term Métis?” I ask them to imagine raising a similar challenge to, say, a Blackfoot person about the right of someone born and raised, and with ancestors born and raised, in Nova Scotia or Labrador, to declare a Blackfoot identity because they could not gain recognition as Mi’kmaq or Inuit. Second, I am sometimes asked, “What of those Indigenous people who have, due to their mixed ancestry and the discriminatory provisions of the Indian Act, been dispossessed from their First Nations community? What happens to them if we prevent the possibility of their declaring a Métis identity (some of whom, due to complex historical kinship relations, might legitimately claim one)?”
Such disquiet is often buoyed by a broader question of fundamental justice: What obligation, do any of us – Métis included – owe dispossessed Indigenous individuals, and even communities, who forward claims using a Métis identity based not on a connection to Métis national roots but because it seems like the only possible option? Whatever we imagine a fair response to look like, it must account for the fact that “Métis” refers to a nation with membership codes that deserve to be respected. We are not a soup kitchen for those disenfranchised by past and present Canadian Indian policy and, as such, although we should sympathize with those who bear the brunt of this particular form of dispossession, we cannot do so at expense of eviscerating our identity.
I admit that I do tend towards the more inclusive definitions. I believe in dual citizenship so to speak (even triple or quadruple citizenship!). However I also understand where Andersen is coming from, and I tend to agree. My ‘inclusive definitions’ are still big ‘M’ definitions.
At the same time, I chafe at the necessity of playing this game at all, where our identities and our rights continue to be defined by the Canadian courts and the Canadian state. This is an issue that plagues all native peoples so I’m not going to whine about it too much here in the specific Métis context.
I’ve got more questions than answers, what am I supposed to do with that?
You could start with learning more about the history of the Métis, which of course means also learning more about the history of First Nations and the interactions and relationships with European settlers that shaped this country.
This is a good resource, for example, though it is loooooong! It covers many periods and also includes the author’s particular views on the Métis identity, so keep that in mind. Now you know a little about those different views, which will certainly help you navigate the wealth of information out there. Keep in mind too the regional variations in history that you will encounter…there is a reason I refer to us as Métis peoples. You can also read some of the books I linked to above for both contemporary and historical views. Essentially, you can be interested, and like any topic you are interested in, you can start digging.
Most of all, remember this. If you ask anyone who they are and what it means to be that person, you’re not going to get a clear-cut simple answer. Do not assume that the lack of a clear-cut summary means the person you are talking to doesn’t know who they are. Don’t assume that having a nice clear definition makes things simpler.
Being is a verb, it’s a process. Being Métis is something you can spend a lifetime trying to understand. Most of us just live it, however, and when we do reflect on it, we don’t let it paralyse us.
I’m glad we had this discussion, I hope you enjoy your holidays!