January 17, 2014 by The Editor
As more people in the Great Lakes area, particularly on the US side, come to understand that they have metis heritage, they will find support in data showing anywhere between 50% and 85% of French Canadians in Canada have at least one aboriginal ancestor. There are many metis people who can show you a photo of a great grandparent who was metis or Indian. Many more have documentary proof of a much more distant ancestor who was Native American. Still more have family oral tradition relating this history.
In this essay I explore the nature of metis identity in the US, particularly in the Great Lakes area, with a few questions. To begin, how does the French Canadian culture that developed in the Great Lakes reflect the data noted above? How has it come to resemble indigenous cultures? And how have the cultures of the Anishinaabeg peoples of the region incorporated French Canadian values and practices?
How have they together created a third space: a multivalent culture that continues in the 21st century to survive, elusive of definitions meant to eliminate it as a legitimate expression of culture? How is that culture expressed and who gets to define what that is?
Increasing numbers of Americans have multiracial ancestry. The past few years in particular have seen the idea of ‘mixed-race’ as part of a national dialogue with the President, prominent celebrities, and sports figures as leading figures in the discussion. Yet the reality is, people of mixed race have lived in North America since Europeans began to settle here.
One element of this phenomenon that has not yielded a great deal of discussion in the United States (while being a very important topic in Canada) is ‘metis’ identity – people of mixed racial heritage, often First Nations and French, but also Scottish, African and other groups. The Metis in Canada are a recognized aboriginal group with rights under the constitution – even as the definition of ‘metis’ is fraught with controversy, politics, and exclusion.
Efforts to define ‘metis’ as a people who can trace their ancestry to a particular place and time (19th century Manitoba) bely the actual ancestries of many self-identified metis. The ancestors of many metis today lived in mixed-race, creole communities in the Great Lakes area for example and experienced variations on the oppression faced by the Metis of Red River, but were not part of the Red River uprising. Yet the cultures of these metis communities developed in similarly unique ways at the same time.
Arguments to limit or expand the ‘metis’ umbrella are wrapped up in convoluted semantic sparring over Metis with a capital M or metis with a lowercase m; arguments by academics about the nature of ‘ethno-genesis’ and culture; claims that metis communities in the Great Lakes, for example, did not exist as a unique culture after the early 19th century; and political expediency that seeks to limit the sheer numbers of people who would qualify for metis rights under a broader legal understanding of that identity.
However, in the United States increasing numbers of people, often of French Canadian heritage, are claiming the metis moniker. There is nothing to be gained for Americans who claim to be metis, either in terms of financial benefits, hunting rights, or tribal affiliation. And the risks involved were learned long ago by many contemporaries of Louis Riel living in the Great Lakes when the local inhabitants, Indians, French and metis alike, were being displaced by Anglo-American ‘pioneers.’
Today, people who choose to self-identify as metis based on their family histories face social challenges that undermine their own sense of identity. Claiming anything related to Native American heritage when you have not been raised in a Native American household is cause for mockery and public humiliation by a sociopolitical class concerned about entitlements (see Senator Elizabeth Warren.) Many French Canadians have long understood themselves to be ‘part Indian’ inviting claims of arrogance on the one hand and ignorance on the other.
There is understandable resistance among Native Americans to people perceived as “wannabes.” And the reality of New Age frauds and ‘metis organizations’ that periodically pop up around the country with no discernible historical ties to their purported identity undermine the willingness of people who know their own history to engage with it on a public level.
It is a perfect storm of cynicism. Honest people can have a genuine appreciation of their past which may include many races and cultures without having to take on the forms and practices of each of those family lines. But, if a person chooses to more fully develop one aspect of their family history, is that not their right? And what if a person realizes, after reflection and study, that their family life was actually a reflection of a tradition that the wider culture doesn’t appreciate or value?
What does it mean when a French Canadian says “I’m part Indian”? How does that manifest in his or her life? What does it mean when someone else responds, “Yeah, so are you the salt of the earth, or what?” Simply understanding your own heritage should not be a cause for criticism, any more than elevating your understanding to the level of appreciating and engaging in cultural practices should be. And is it as fraught when a Cree or Odawa says “I’m part French Canadian”? What if the response to that statement was, “You’re not proud of your heritage…”?
My belief is that we all lose when we cannot appreciate the complexity of our ancestries. Today’s reality for many people with roots in the Great Lakes is a shared legacy of 400 years of history, culture clash, and unions (marital and trade) that created a new culture. I personally don’t need to be something I’m not; but who and what I am should not be defined, limited, or crossed out by academics, government policy makers, or God-forbid, ideologues who insist on ethnic or religious purity.