June 04, 2021 1 Comment
This is my Mètis sash. It hangs on my door and reminds me of life lessons. It reminds me that I'm not one thing. When I look closer I can see that I'm woven together with my life experiences, joys and struggles. This sash helped remind me that dark times may be present, but they don't make up your whole story.
This sash was given to me by my mom, the sweetgrass by a friend, the sage and shell are from my niece. The table was built by me. We're always receiving gifts from others, some are physical items, but words can be gifts too. When we can weave these gifts into something that serves us, we're making life meaningful, we're healing and we can give gifts to help others weave their sashes.
Métis Pride, Erin Stagg 2021, acrylic on canvas
Early in my pregnancy, my mother gave me a red sash to hang in my new studio. It’s a red sash, the icon of the Métis people. My mom encouraged me to display it proudly. We had been going through the family history and unearthing our heritage so it had a new meaning to me. I laid it lovingly in my art studio and when the pandemic closed everything, it came home with me. But the feeling I’ve never been able to shake is that it doesn’t belong to me. How do I connect with my sash?
I’ve always recognized that the sash is the symbol of the Métis people. However, we didn’t grow up with one and I never saw one in my grandparents' homes. My mom picked this one up from a store on a trip to the prairies.
At first, I didn’t know ‘how’ Métis I was. When we were looking through our genealogy, I began to understand where we came from. I talked about this a bit more in my last blog, if you’d like to read it.
As I learned more, it began to change my mind but it took a bit longer to change my heart. As with much of the Métis culture, I’ve felt like I’m appropriating it. I’ve never understood the depth of the imagery, the history or my place in it.
I began writing this piece before it was announced that 215 children's bodies were found in a mass grave outside of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. This section is written a week after that revelation.
In short, we experienced and continue to experience a cultural genocide. While many Métis people may have escaped the Residential School experience, that was not the only tool of oppression that colonial forces used against us. For a detailed account of our history I recommend The North West is Our Mother, by Jean Teillet.
The Métis people were pushed off of their lands by the Canadian government as they brought in settlers. The Métis people resisted. Louis Riel tried to operate under the colonial system, and was elected as the first premier of Manitoba. But, the Canadian government sought to oppress us, and never acknowledged his legitimacy. Instead, tensions rose. Despite the legal challenges to ensure that Métis had land and culture rights which were enshrined in the constitution, John A MacDonald deliberately ignored us.
This story is long and complicated and I cannot do it justice. In the end, the Métis resisted the colonial forces as they came in to survey and steal yet more land. We rose up and demanded that they leave, much in the same way that indigenous people fight pipelines today. In response, they sent Gatling guns and armies. The first Gatling gun was tested out by the Canadian government on the Métis people. Reports say that we still won that battle but we did eventually lose the war.
Louis Riel, as our leader, was wanted for treason. After a lengthy period of fleeing from these colonial forces he eventually gave himself up. He was hung for treason. We entered into the period of dark times and dispossession. Métis people were beaten in the streets of Winnipeg by police and settlers alike. Our women were raped and attacked. So, many of our ancestors fled our homeland.
My ancestors went north. They had had their land given away to Mennonite settlers who would turn out to also be ancestors of mine. Many people fled north and encountered further oppression. We were forced time and time again off of our lands. The buffalo were slaughtered en masse in order to starve out the Métis people. In essence, the colonial forces stomped us into the dirt.
We were not taken to residential schools, in the most part, because we were half-breeds. We were nothing. Recently a Métis elder recounted how she wished that she was in a residential school when she was a kid because they had electricity and food. She had no idea the horrors occurring inside.
Many of the Métis people did not pass along a proud history or regalia because of this extreme poverty. We were not recognized by the white people or by the indigenous people. Many families would lie about their ancestry in hopes that their children would be accepted as Mexican, Italian or caucasian.
So, why do we feel disconnected? It's because we experienced and continue to experience a cultural genocide. It is not your fault. It is not your families' fault.
As you read the history, please know that this is a beginner’s understanding of the sash. I’m sure there are elders who would know more. If you know an elder who would like to share their knowledge, I would be honoured to speak with them and offer them tobacco. If I have errors in my understanding, please let me know so that I can make corrections.
The red sash is the most recognizable symbol of the Métis people, perhaps even more recognizable than the flag. As early as the 1800s, when the sash was first adopted, it was identifiable as a symbol of the dynamic and growing Métis population.
Erin's sash, 2021
The sash is a physical expression of the blending of two cultures. It takes traditional indigenous finger weaving and blends it with the woolen materials introduced by the Europeans.
The sash originates in the finger weaving traditions of the Anishinaabe people. They practiced elaborate and skilled finger weaving and would weave plant fibers to create items like small bags, tumplines for carrying cradleboards, drag straps for sleds or toboggans, garters and sashes. They used plant fibers made from the inner bark or stripped roots from certain trees. They also used sinew or even hide, all specially cut for whatever they were making.
The act of finger weaving requires immense patience, dexterity and skill. It was something that was learned and practiced over tens of thousands of hours. Some designs are simple, and others are very advanced and require making more than one sash at a time and weaving it alongside another to create a seamless design. The most cherished woven pieces were adorned with beads and porcupine quills.
When the traders brought in wool, the Anishinaabe and Métis peoples of the area began using wool to create their sashes, belts and bags. It seems that the tradition of these sashes was started in the town of L'Assomption, Quebec and it's popularity spread it across what would become the Métis nation.
The weavers would wax up the threads and weave them tightly, making it waterproof and allowing the traders to haul water over short distances. The Métis people also used sashes to store their fishing hooks, keys, as first aid or sewing kit, as an emergency bridle or saddle blanket for their horse and more. In photos, we see the sashes were worn as belts around the waist to help tie their coats closed. Eventually the sash has come to be worn over the shoulder, as a source of pride.
Sashes take many hours to create. A skilled weaver, can make a sash in about 60 to 300 hours, depending on the design and method. Some traditionally woven sashes can be $500 a foot, or about $3000 for a full sash. For a list of current sashmakers, please see the end of the article. If you have a weaver that you'd like to link in this list, please let me know!
Before the iconic red sash, sashes came in many different colours. When plant fibers were used they were muted and earthy, reflecting the plants that were used.
Metis Sash, Source: Indigneous Peoples Atlas of Canada
The first sash is believed to be woven in the town of L'Assomption, Quebec. This reflects its French heritage. It became a symbol of the North West Company and worn by their traders, who were of French and Métis heritage. The colours helped unify and identify the otherwise widespread population of traders. While the practicality of the sash meant that it was incredibly useful while out on the land.
After the merger between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company in 1821, the HBC began to adopt the Métis sash. They adopted the colour red as the predominant colour. This colour shift represents the change from French to English influence. It also reflects the Métis hunting flag. And after 1870, it reflects the spilled blood of the Métis people.
In modern day, it’s most common to see the red sash, however other sash colours are recognized as well. Each sash is a unique art piece. A skilled finger weaver may show off their talents through intricate designs. Families were also known by the distinct colours of their sashes, much like the Scottish tartan.
Metis sashes with infinity symbol. Source: UBC
Blue and white threads reflect back the blue and white infinity symbol that is representative of the Métis flag. Other theories on the meaning of the colours include: blue is for the depth of our spirits, our connection to water and white is for our connection to smoke and the creator. Families which have a blue sash may have ancestors who worked for the North West Company.
Green is a representation of the fertility of our nation and our connection to nature. Yellow is for the prosperity and resilience of our people and their ability to move through trauma.
In many sashes after 1870, the yellow was replaced by black. Black is for the dark times, the periods of dispossession and racism at the hands of the Canadians. In the years after 1870, Métis people were beaten and shot in the streets of Winnipeg. Many were forced out of their homes and left the Red River to move to the west. This dark period marks the beginning of the disconnection that many Métis people feel from their culture.
Today, the sash is a widely recognized symbol of the Métis people, even outside of our culture. The Order of the Sash is the highest honour that a Métis person can be given. It’s given out in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but I’ve been unable to find any information on past recipients.
Understanding these things gives me some complex feelings. I feel like I should know these things already. I feel disconnected from the history and from the culture. It feels almost shameful to be learning these things off of the internet.
Some of these facts, my mom shared with me. This continues the indigenous tradition of oral history and storytelling, even though I never realized it growing up. She’s also told me things that I’ve never heard anywhere else. She told me that families passed down their colours in the sashes and that women had wider and larger sashes, to help carry their babies. She remembers a family member of ours with a blue sash, but cannot recall any other details. I’m sure there are many facts that have been lost to time, and I wanted it written down that this was oral history that’s been shared in my family.
There’s another side to this that my mom tells me about and that’s how we did not call ourselves Métis. On some of our documents, we are listed as half-breeds. We lived poor lives and did not have regalia to pass along in our family. Despite being descendent from Red River Settlement, we did not pass along a proud Métis story. Once I asked her, did you ever see an octopus or fire bag (other pieces of Metis regalia) in our family? She said “no” and with a laugh, “that’s for those uptown Métis. You have to understand, we were very poor, Erin.”
So, I didn’t grow up with a sash in my home or my grandparent’s home. I’ve never seen a sash that’s been handed down. That blue sash that my mom saw growing up is now long gone. All that’s left now are the threads of stories.
This is a question I ask myself all the time. How do I find my way back? How can I weave these threads of my culture back together?
The answer for this came in an unexpected place. I gave birth in October of 2020 and part of my postpartum journey has been connecting with other mothers in an online peer support group.
One day, we were talking about the darkness that’s present in many of our journeys. We were a community of new moms in dark spaces, just leaving them or just entering them. From those dark spaces, it can be very difficult to see a bright future. We were encouraged that while our tapestry may be mostly black now, it won't always be this way. Slowly other colours will be woven in and the black will lessen. While we will carry those black threads for the rest of our lives and it will continue to inform us, the tapestry of our future will begin to have new colours woven in. We will find the colours of healing, community, love and growth woven in with the darkness. It will lessen the pain and allow us to help others through their dark times.
I immediately thought of my sash. I went over to grab it to show it to the other people in the zoom call and I shared the story of the sash with my peers. I shared the meaning behind the colours and what the sash means to the Métis people. I was finally able to connect with my sash in a way that I never had before. It brought tears to my eyes, as I was able to fully grasp the beauty of my regalia. Finally I was able to hold it and truly know what it stood for.
Each experience of mine adds a unique colour and story to my life. I’m more than just one story, I’m more than the sum of my parts. Every Métis person is like a thread in the nation of the Métis people, each providing a unique perspective on what it means to be Métis. Woven together, we are stronger than we are apart. The sash is a physical reminder of this soul teaching that we all know in our hearts to be true. We are stronger together.
This whole painting is healing to me, but it is just one piece of the puzzle. It started with the gift of a sash from my mother as we began the journey to understand our heritage. Next, I found it's true meaning in the kind words of another mother. These words led to the gift of sweetgrass from another mother. I then wrote my article 'How Metis are you?', for which I received a lot of very thoughtful comments. Then, I had the inspiration for this painting. My niece shared the gifts of her sage, shell and raven's feather that she uses for smudging. I lay these items out on the table that I built and took the photo that I used for my painting.
These gifts help me understand my identity and place in this world. The exchange of gifts is one that's quite sacred to indigenous people. We believe that giving and accepting gifts is an important healing process. My mom pointed out the table that held everything up and said that I must first lay the groundwork for that healing to occur. She also reminded me that I have a duty to spread gifts and love so that I may contribute healing and good energy to other people's sashes.
I think it is the job of my generation to remember. It’s our duty to ask questions of the elders and to save this information for our children. I see it like a pendulum. The momentum has slowed, and it’s almost stopped. Our job is to keep it moving, so that 7 generations from now our descendants will have a thriving culture. Their pendulum will be beating rhythmically, keeping the spirit of the Métis people going.
If your family doesn’t have stories of their sash, know that you’re not alone. I’ve asked Métis elders and families about their sash and many do not have a story. Many say that they were too poor to have a sash, that they didn’t know they were Métis, or were adopted and completely lost that connection. If the sash doesn’t speak to your family, there’s no shame there. The Métis experience is incredibly diverse and your experience is valid.
In the areas that I have lost knowledge, I will ask the elders that I find along the way. I will also smudge and ask that my ancestors guide me. I'll wait for their quiet voices and do my best to listen.
Today, I see my sash and know that it represents part of my story. The fact that it’s machine woven reminds me of the disconnect and honours that part of my family history. It honours the part in my heart that knows that I’ve lost something. I'm learning to see the meaning in the colours and apply them to my life. I'll do my best to wear it proudly, though I know that will be a work in progress. As I learn to embrace my sash I will also learn to embrace my story, one thread at a time.
Closeup of Métis Pride, acrylic on canvas, Erin Stagg, 2021
This journey of rediscovering my culture has brought art up that I want to make. That art inspires thoughts that I'd like to share and it all feeds each other. I personally find this process very healing. I remember that every bit of my culture that I reclaim is "saging against the machine", as Sisters Sage puts it.
If this image speaks to you, and you'd like to support me, I sell beautiful prints: poster, fine art paper, metal and canvas. My prints are made locally by small businesses in my home town, Prince George. Thank you to everyone who loves this painting.
Kalyn Kodiak, Michif - Kodiak Herbal: https://kodiakherbal.com/
Carol James - sashweaver.com
Sharon Pichè, oral history