After reading Seeking the Center a friend of mine became curious about the description Métis that appears on the back cover of the book. She looked it up and asked me about it. "It means mixed race, right?" she asked. "Like mestizo."
Well, no. There's confusion about the designation Métis. On the one hand, yes, the French word métis, with a lower-case m, literally means mixed, often used to describe people of "mixed blood" - i.e., people who are bi- or multi-racial. But Métis, with a capital M, does not.
The Métis, as a people, have their roots in the North American fur trade, going back as far as the 17th century, when European fur traders and Indigenous people began forming alliances, often cemented by, or taking the form of, marriages between fur traders and indigenous women. The children of these marriages often intermarried among themselves, and over generations developed their own language (Michif) and culture. They became a large and influential group in the Canadian and American west, working not only as hunters, fur processors, pemmican manufacturers, and voyageurs, but as guides, translators, traders, merchants, and so on. Today they are recognized by the Canadian government as one of three Aboriginal groups - i.e., cultural groups that existed originally, before Canada itself: First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. The United States has never recognized the Métis as a distinct cultural group, although their northern plains homeland extends across the U.S.-Canada border.
The Métis are also, in the same sense as, say, the Ojibwe or the Cree, a nation, and one whose origin predates the arrival of the Canadian and U.S. governments to their homeland. Their sense of nationhood developed over the course of generations, and was solidified during the 19th century through a series of political/military events including the Battle of Seven Oaks (1816), the trial of Guillaume Sayer (1849), and the Métis resistances at Red River, Manitoba (1870) and in Saskatchewan (1885).
The Métis leader in the latter two confrontations was Louis Riel, a charismatic, spiritually inclined, and enigmatic man who envisioned a Native nation in North America. His forces were crushed both at Red River and at Batoche, Saskatchewan, by the Canadian government, then in its infancy. He himself was captured, tried, and hung for treason by Canadian authorities after the defeat at Batoche in 1885.
Since 2008, the third Monday in February has been designated Louis Riel Day in the Canadian province of Manitoba. In other parts of Canada, Louis Riel, as well as Métis culture in general, are celebrated on November 16, the anniversary of Riel's execution.
Here are some titles for further reading - by no means an exclusive list! - in order of publication date:
- Strange Empire: A Narrative of the Northwest by Joseph Kinsey Howard (1952)
- Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870 by Sylvia Van Kirk (1980)
- Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country by Jennifer S. H. Brown (1980)
- The People Who Own Themselves: Aboriginal Ethnogenesis in a Canadian Family, 1660-1900 by Heather Devine (2004)
- One of the Family: Metis Culture in Nineteenth-Century Northwestern Saskatchewan by Brenda Macdougall (2010)
- "Métis": Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood by Chris Andersen (2014)