Metis Ethnogenesis


Historian Peter Bakker writes that the ethnogenesis of the Metis began out of the pairings of people who were male European fur traders (French) and women who were Indigenous (Cree/Ojibwe). In Contours of a People (see "relevant resources" below), historians Brenda McDougall, Carolyn Podruchny and Nicole St. Onge write: "Studied together, the three characteristics [of Metis culture and nationhood that arise from these collected essays]—an expansive geographic familiarity, tremendous physical and social mobility, and maintenance of strong family ties across time and space—appear to have evolved as a result of an entrepreneurial spirit in a variety of economic niches associated with the fur trade writ large. The Metis were involved most famously in the large scale, commercial buffalo hunt specific to Plains Metis culture, but they were also involved in other important activities, including trapping and freighting, working on vast transportation networks that operated along waterways and cart trails, taking part in subsistence and commercial hunting and fishing operations, free trading, and performing contract jobs within the fur trade industry, all practiced in a variety of geographies encompassing plains, parklands, woodlands, and the subarctic. All these economic endeavors, and the cultural practices that subsequently emerged from them, contributed to a sense of shared community and contributed to the nationalist sentiment felt by many Metis today" (pages 7-8). These historians also discuss the formation of genealogical structures and extended family relationships as inherent to Metis identity. In light of the importance of kinship networks, the community fracturing and detriment to social well-being caused by land dispossession, diaspora and fragmentation of Metis people heading west becomes more apparent: "The link holding all of this together—mobility and geography—is found in the Metis conceptualization of family. Like many other societies throughout the world, the Metis created for themselves a system of extended family relationships within fixed communities and across these vast distances because of their tremendous mobility. Looking at subarctic Metis communities, Richard Slobodin argued that a widespread feature of Metis family and social life was an emphasis on family surnames as a means of inspiring and maintaining social and cultural unity. He attributed this particular cultural characteristic to the vastness of the region in which they lived, their relatively small population, and the range of economic activities in which they participated. Within a generation or two, the Metis developed a complex genealogical structure and shared knowledge by emphasizing those surnames as a key aspect of their identity" (pages 12-13). In the same book, historian Etienne Rivard notes the importance of Catholicism in Metis life, as indicated by primary sources: "Métis accounts also provide a sense of the importance of settlements in Métis community life. Describing the moral importance of Father Ritchot, Goulet emphasized the central role of the Catholic Church. Indeed, churches and religious figures regulated most of the central activities of community life in settlements—marriages, baptisms, funerals, and masses. The churches also affected patterns of settlement when they divided territory into parishes of specific religious adherence. Furthermore, Goulet stated that newcomers from Ontario in the 1850s affected the Red River communities, recalling his father’s sense of loss for the 'feeling of unity and friendship that had always been felt among those people of different races and religions'" (page 151).


As noted below in "Relevant Resources", Metis historian Harry Daniels distinguishes between legal and political identities of Metis status. That is, legally, a “Metis” person is the descendant of someone who received a Half-breed land grant. Politically and culturally, however, the term Metis refers to a descendant of people who developed distinct socio-political communities on the Prairies and in the Red River area, demonstrating nation-specific religious, linguistic, economic and legal characteristics, as well as cultural traits exhibited in music and apparel (pages 18-19). The researcher notes that extensive literature exists on the importance of Metis (and Indigenous) sovereignty over categories of self-identification. There is also agreement amongst Indigenous scholars who write on this topic that state-imposed categories of legal identity are colonial constructions designed to reduce the number of "Indians" in Canada over time, and thus state financial obligations to Indigenous peoples. Further, these state-imposed identities do not conform to the definitions of community or poltico-legal membership as held by Indigenous peoples, and in doing so, do not recognize Indigenous nationhood. For more information, please consult: Andersen, Chris. 2014. “The racialization of ‘Metis’ in the Canadian Census” in "Metis: Race Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood," 74-89. Vancouver: UBC Press. See also Walter, Maggie and Chris Andersen. 2013. "Indigenous Statistics: Quantitative Research Methodology." Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Although historians are primarily cited in the "summary" statement of this entry, the researcher emphasizes that as a nation, the Metis community is the original source in terms of defining their ethnogenesis and identity. For example, Metis historian Harry Daniels confirms the statements of the historians mentioned in the above summary statement. That is, he defines the Metis people as a distinct nation which formed during the fur trade era from the mixed offspring of European fur traders and Indigenous women. He reports that this emergence is most visible in the 19th century - a century marked by events such as the Battle at Seven Oaks, the Sayer Trial, and the Red River and Riel Resistance. It should be noted that geopolitical struggles over rights to territory and self-determination can be construed as typically masculinist because of the emphasis on characteristics of “legitimate” political activity in the male-dominated public sphere. In contrast, the researcher notes that prior to and during these 19th century events, Metis women, as the designated “transmitters of culture”, labored in the background, cultivating many of the particularities of Metis culture, such as clothing and beadwork (see Maria Campbell's forward and Diane Payment’s chapter in “Contours of a People” book listed in resources section of this database as well as As well, many Metis women not only practiced their culture in the “private” sphere of the home, but also engaged in traditional Metis economic practices such as hunting and trapping, with some becoming well-known hunters and sharpshooters (as per Norbert Welsh's autobiography which mentions the hunting and trading activities of his wife, Cecilia Welsh-Boyer, and Maria Campbell's introduction in Contours of a People which acknowledges the hunting and sharpshooting reputations of some Metis women). Please see the entry on the "Metis Community at Batoche" for more information on Metis women's economic roles and their efforts to re-build the Metis settlement after the conclusion of the Riel Resistance of 1885. For contemporary applications of Metis identity, please also see the entry related to the Supreme Court's Daniels decision [2016] in "related resources" below.