March 28, 2021
Preface: I opened my blog post to write something about my latest painting and to add some cultural context and knowledge about it. However, what I found was that I am unable to provide that without first discussing my heritage. That led me down a big rabbit hole that is this essay. I've had people questioning my heritage for so long that it can feel like a wound. I want to address that and give you all some context about the Mètis experience in Canada.
When I tell someone that I'm Métis, they will often look at my pale skin and ask 'how Mètis are you?'. Let's unpack this. I will be answering this question, eventually. But we need to discuss this question because it seems innocent, but can be causing harm to the people we ask it to.
I've been rediscovering my indigenous heritage for a couple of years now. I've always known that I am Mètis. Growing up, my mom always told us and she enrolled us in classes that would give us some indigenous education. I took a wonderful Carrier class in elementary school that taught me a lot about the Carrier people. But I did feel like an outsider, one who knew more about the Carrier culture than her own.
When I tell people that I am Mètis, I am frequently confronted with the question, 'how Mètis are you?'. When I'm asked that question I feel like I need to answer with a passing grade in order to be able to identify as Mètis.
When it comes to rediscovering my indigenous heritage, it feels like it is something that does not belong to me. I'm not indigenous enough. I'm too white. I didn't grow up around my culture. I don't have any traditional garments. My blood has been too diluted.
So, I wanted to share my journey in how talking about Mètis (and Indigenous) people's blood in terms of purity, otherwise known as blood quantum, is harmful.
How Métis are you?
This is a question that I've been asked my whole life. People have questioned this of me when I'm trying to buy groceries or sell my art. They ask this question as if I am parading around pretending and they would like to unmask me. These people often do not have even a passing understanding about the Metis people. They often assume that we are just a mix of any indigenous group and any French ancestor. This is not true.
When they ask me this question, the answer that they are looking for is in percentages. They are looking for me to answer with a passing grade. This is the idea of blood quantum. Blood quantum is the colonial idea that your blood can be separated into the different peoples of origin. You know, like the pie charts that you see on the ancestry websites. The ones that break you down into 40% European, 40% indigenous and 10% other. As if you are a pizza that can be cut into pieces, instead of a real, whole person with a complex history.
Blood quantum discusses race as if we are measuring from 'purity'. The idea that you must be 100% of something in order to call yourself that. When your blood becomes mixed, it becomes diluted. Each time it becomes diluted, you are able to claim less and less of your heritage. Ugh, do you hear how gross this sounds? Purity of blood is a white supremacist idea that I will not subscribe to.
There is an idea of gatekeeping that comes with these questions. That the person asking the question will determine whether you are or are not indigenous. There's a feeling that you are not allowed to pass this gate if you do not answer the question correctly. (Translation: I will write off your heritage if you do not answer in the way that I like).
The Mètis people, do not measure their people this way. There is no passing grade, no blood test that can tell you if you are Mètis. Instead, participation in the Métis community is judged by whether your ancestors can be tracked back to the Red River area of southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan during the 1800s. So, the question becomes, do you trace your lineage back to the Red River?
You may be thinking, yeah, but Erin you didn't answer, how Mètis are you? How do I know if you pass the test if I can't speak in percentages? This is gross. Please stop doing this. I wouldn't ask my friends, how white are you? That's ridiculous.
Who are the Mètis people?
The Mètis people are a unique group of people that trace their lineage back to the Red River Valley in the 1800s. The Red River Valley is a relatively large area that encompasses many rivers, including the Red River.
I can trace my lineage back here. My ancestry records report my family living in one area, now referred to as Saskatchewan, As we dig deeper the name becomes the Northwest Territories, Rupert's Land and British North America. My ancestors that lived in tribal societies kept oral history of their story in the land.
The Mètis originate from the voyageurs, who originally paddled the canoes which carried the furs from the land back into Lower and Upper Canada. The voyageurs were French men who desired freedom from the colonial systems and enjoyed living on the land. They were known for the loud, boisterous songs that they would sing as they paddled across the land. They worked in close contact with the Indigenous peoples of the land and often made familial bonds.
Over time, these peoples formed a complex and nuanced group of communities called the Red River Settlement. The Red River Settlement is large in size. It stretches from Winnipeg across all of southern Manitoba, into Saskatchewan and south into North Dakota and Minnesota.
The Mètis people cannot be discussed, without talking about Louis Riel, a man who has been labelled in the history books as a traitor, crazy, rebel and murderer. In reality, he was our Nelson Mandela. He was our Martin Luther King Jr. He was our outspoken activist. He was educated, passionate, peaceful and thoughtful. The labels of traitor, crazy and murderer were spread around by the Canadian government. Without getting into a long conversation about this, let's just say, the history books have been written by the winners, and do not accurately represent the truth.
Louis Riel (center) and his provisional cabinet. My ancestor, Francois Dauphinais, sits two seats to the right of Riel.
The uprising that he led is called in the history books, The Red River Rebellion. Rebellion is the important word. It implies that the Mètis were trying to overthrow the government. The Mètis call it the Red River Resistance. We were trying to influence the government of Canada in it's nascent days, as the constitution was being written and it was trying to figure out what it wanted to be.
Louis Riel knew how the government worked. He was trained as a lawyer, and he sought to influence it as it was being formed to help protect the rights of the Mètis people in this new world. This new world involved surveyors, who were sent by the government to stake out parcels of land. The problem was, they were pretending like not a soul lived on the land, and would stake out parcels on land that people had been living on for generations. Already, in other parts of what would become Canada, European settlers had been given the land that was being occupied by Mètis people.
I went into my family tree and literally found an example where land was taken from my Mètis ancestors and given to my European ancestors.
So, Louis Riel went to the government asking for their lands to be protected in the new constitution. He wanted to protect the culture of the Mètis people and ensure that we played a part in the country as it continued to grow. However, this is not how things played out.
The rebellion was violently squashed. The first machine gun was used by the Canadian government on the Mètis people. Riel was hung for treason. The Mètis people fled the influence of the government and many of them, including my ancestors, fled north.
These words feel simple when it comes to the incredibly complex, nuanced and storied history of the Mètis people. This is not a full history, in any respect. I recommend the book 'The North West is our Mother' by Jean Teillet, one of Riel's descendants.
As the Mètis people fled the influence of the Canadian government, they were spread far and wide across the corners of Canada and the United States. This is why we define the Mètis people by the Red River itself. Because we were scattered throughout the land, untethered from the place we originated. We are complex and difficult to define.
My family went to northern Saskatchewan and eventually, my grandparents moved with my mom, who was a young teenager, and came to BC.
Mètis People Today
This history is largely forgotten, even by people who know they are Mètis, like myself. It wasn't until last year, when I started getting curious that I began to understand my own history.
Today in Canada, there are roughly 500,000 Mètis individuals. We are spread across the entire country and most of us have paler skin, so we are not visibly indigenous.
I have been told my whole life, by my mother, that I am Mètis. But I've always been caught up in 'how' Mètis I am. Part of this is the social conditioning of constantly being questioned. Part of this is the loss of culture that we've experienced as a result of moving from our homeland.
For most Mètis people, this leads to a crisis of understanding. We do not know our history. We do not know our culture. We cannot look at our skin and know we are indigenous. We cannot speak the language of our ancestors. There's a huge sense of loss in this. The UN calls what Canada does to oppress the indigenous people of the land, cultural genocide. When we cannot talk about our culture, it is because we have been victims of a cultural genocide.
Lots of our ancestors did not pass down knowledge about the culture. Even though I grew up in close proximity to my grandparents, who spoke Michif, I never heard it spoken. This is a complex, and difficult discussion that has to do with intergenerational trauma, residential schools, alcoholism and abuse. They did not do something wrong when they chose not to pass down their knowledge. They were reacting to a colonial world that was very much punishing all things related to indigenous culture. Our ancestors felt that it was safer for their children and grandchildren if they did not share that information. In some aspects, they are right. I fear getting flack for even discussing this.
I began to investigate my heritage before I became pregnant in late 2018, early 2019. My mother had been doing our family tree and so as I became more pregnant, we began to research and share our findings. Growing up, I had heard some bits and pieces that had been told to me through oral history. I didn't know the whole story and every time someone would ask me 'How Mètis are you?' I wasn't sure how to answer. I did not know that my grandparents spoke Michif until we started having these discussions. I just knew that my Grandfather had an accent and that many of my family members had darker skin.
It took me awhile to understand what I was looking at but eventually my mom and I would text each other back and forth with our findings.
"OMG! Did you know that one of our ancestors was a voyageur!?"
Something about being able to tangibly look at the connections unearthed a new understanding in myself. It's like it gave me permission to begin to embrace my Mètis identity. I feel like each piece of information gives me new ground to stand on.
I've found that the story of our family has been the story of the Mètis people. Our French ancestors came over in the 1600s. They married amongst each other in Quebec for several generations before one of my ancestors moved out to the west and married a Sioux woman in the late 1700s. Their children were born in the Red River Settlement in the early 1800s. Some of my ancestors fought in the Resistance. When the Mètis were defeated, I can see in the records that they moved north, where my mom was born.
Going through my ancestry records isn't easy. I've found many scrip records, which has been described as the largest land swindle in Canada. I've found government records calling us "half-breeds". I've found ancestors who attended residential schools. It is not a big stretch for me to see the residential schools linked with abuse and alcoholism in my family story. It's part of the story of Canada and some of the indigenous experience in Canada.
Scrip record for one of my ancestors, Pierre Poitras. He received around $166 or roughly $4000 today for giving up his claim to be Mètis.
I know that our story isn't just our traumas. It's also our connection to the land and to each other. Our culture is our language, stories, art, medicines and methods we use to heal from these difficult times. It's practiced in our love, and the way we care for each other.
When I look at my little daughter, now 5 months old, it gives me an entirely different context to this discussion. I'm able to see the future generation and understand that an indigenous point of view can be healing to the land and to our sense of selves. I want to give her the gift of her own culture.
I have a lot to rediscover and I will never recover all that has been lost to time. Through some of these essays, I want to unearth my family's connection to our Mètis heritage and the ways that it informs my life today.
My indigenous ancestors have been here since time immemorial. My European ancestors arrived on this land as early as the 1600s. I have countless ancestors who list Red River Settlement as their birth place. I have found Cree, Ojibway and even Sioux in my heritage. Yet, I am not those people. I am more than the sum of my parts.
So, how Mètis am I? Very.