By Kisha Supernant
In the lands currently known as Canada, there is a lot of important discussion about the Métis Nation. Recent judgments in court cases (e.g. Powley v. Canada, Daniels v. Canada) have sought to define the Métis and the Canadian census has tracked an explosion of people self-identifying as Métis over the past 15 years. Yet, confusion remains about who the Métis are, how they came to be and why that matters.
Many Canadians believe that what makes a person Métis is having a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous ancestry. Some groups, especially in eastern Canada, have begun forming communities based on having a singular First Nations ancestor as far back as 1640. Framing our identity as based on mixing, however, ignores the history, culture and landscapes of our people and our Nation.
The Métis Nation arose in western Canada, where our flag was first raised in 1816 after the Battle of Seven Oaks, south of Red River. Our people moved across the prairie and parklands of what was then known as Rupertsland, formed integrated communities through generations of marriage between children of unions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. A language, way of life, a political system, economic practices and kinship relations emerged as these communities evolved and came together throughout the 19th century. When we rebelled against the new nation of Canada, we negotiated our rights through the document that became the founding of the province of Manitoba, the Manitoba Act. When the promises of that document were not upheld, we rebelled once more, but this time we took up arms and were defeated at Batoche in 1885. Recognizing the unique situation of the Métis and our land rights, the government of Canada established the scrip program to offer Métis people either land or money. The Northwest Scrip Commission of 1885-1900 largely disenfranchised our people, pushing them to the margins of Canadian society.
My research, as a Métis archaeologist, looks at the material history of our way of life in the 19th century to help demonstrate our use of the land and the extent of our community during this period. I focus on a type of site, known as overwintering or hivernant villages, where large groups of Métis families would build cabins to spend the winter out in the prairie to hunt bison. These villages were occupied primarily from 1850-1880 and were located in places that extend from southern Manitoba all the way to Edmonton.
Some of these places, such as the large wintering village at the northeast of Buffalo Lake near Red Deer, may have housed up to 1500 Métis people during the winter and were important cultural and economic centers. My work, where I map and excavate these sites, demonstrates the types of day-to-day activities which we engaged in and how we lived on the land during the end of the era of the bison. I help to tell the history of our people that doesn’t make it into the history books: the story of the women who made intricate beaded garments in the middle of winter, of the men who wore the beadwork as they went out on the winter hunt and of the children who ran and played in these spaces.
This work matters because it shows how we were and are a people with a distinct culture, history and identity. Such an understanding of Métis culture history could—and should—inform the current political discourse concerning the Métis in modern Canada.
Kisha Supernant, Research Fellow for the Rupertsland Centre for Métis Research, Faculty of Native Studies, Associate Professor Anthropology, University of Alberta. Supernant will discuss the exploration of Métis identity through archaeology at her Lunch & Learn presentation on November 15, at Augustana Campus. To register call 780-679-1626 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.