October 25, 2014 by The Editor
In one word, a scholar writing about French Detroit encapsulates conventional thinking about French-Canadian culture on the American side of the Great Lakes: vanished. This is not something at all new to descriptions of the region’s Old French-Canadian and Metis communities. In fact these descriptions of the “fading” French culture have been going on for nearly 200 years. Descriptions of the French-Canadians of Detroit as a people whose days are numbered, whose day is over, have long been penned by an array of writers.
Perhaps most striking is the rarity of any sort of characterization at all of the Detroit French in the Michigan Pioneer Society Collection. These volumes of late 19th century essays (available through archive.org) largely consist of first and second-generation Anglo-American migrants to the area claiming the moniker of founders. If the French appear at all in the volumes, they come from the elite families who married early into the wave of early 19th century migration from the East Coast. Sympathetic and romantic as it may have been, Bela Hubbard’s extensive description of the Detroit French (found in the Pioneer writings) echoes the sentiment: “the joyous, carefree days of the Frenchman are over.”
As I’ve written elsewhere, this sense of disappearance has long persisted, finding its place in the dissertations of scholars and books meant for a popular readership. What many of the commentators seem to have in common are three points: they are people who seem to have never lived or had roots in the Detroit River Region; they equate French-Canadian culture with the presence of the French language; they understand French-Canadian and Métis cultures through the lens of the society that marginalized them rather than on their own terms.
While I agree that the loss of language is a tragic, if potentially reversible situation, the persistence of French-Canadian and Métis consciousness among Americans in the Great Lakes region for the many decades since the French language faded, indicates to me that language is not the sine qua non of culture. I wish it were still spoken in Michigan. I wish I spoke my grandfather’s French. I do not. But I have not, therefore, abandoned my culture and disappeared.
And if, according to some writers and scholars, French-Canadian culture has vanished, Métis culture certainly never existed. To many scholars and genealogists it’s a fiction made up through generations of fabulists who mistook the presence of their ancestors in the region of the Upper Country (Pays d’en haut) as evidence of indigeneity. Scholars who explore the idea of Métis Detroit have been castigated for suggesting that Detroit was once “ridden” with Métis.
What is this sense of appropriation and ethnic superiority? As I have asked before in another context, who gets to speak for our culture? And who is qualified to say whether or not it still exists?
If genealogists have long-held a dominant role in the telling of French-Canadian culture for the past two or three decades in certain locales, they have largely failed in bridging the continuity gap. What then, who then, constitutes the standard bearers of French-Canadian and Métis culture? In my opinion it is effectively the same people who have long perpetuated our customs, our folkways, and lifestyles.
They are musicians and storytellers, including people who maintain their family’s treasure trove of first hand accounts and oral legends. They are hunters, fishermen, and trappers who have continued a traditional lifestyle down to the present generation. They are artists who reinterpret traditional images, symbols, and historical events. They are re-enactors, many of whom are not French-Canadian or Métis, but whose love of the traditional cultures and history of the Great Lakes has inspired them to learn and teach about the material culture and folkways of our ancestors.
They are people whose values have something in common with the “lazy, ill-bred, and uncouth” Old Detroit French (to quote an Anglo-American observer of the early 19th century): a reliance on community and social responsibility for a sense of place and self, instead of on maximizing the amount of resources that can be extracted from the environment around us, a conflict seen in the writings of early 19th century Detroit. And finally there are researchers, folklorists, and scholars who dig deeply into the fabric of contemporary and historical culture to understand a people not easily understood.
There is a fundamental flaw in works by some writers and historians concerning the Detroit-area French-Canadian culture. The flaw appears when predicating its existence/disappearance on the values and activities of the elite and on the presence of a particular language (without, even, seeking to understand how and why that language disappeared: assimilation is a simple and incomplete answer.) It is a testament to modern historiography that it can sustain such deeply conservative conceptions of the past. It is as if to say, ‘the marginalized have simply disappeared.’