Maybe You Knew This? Métis, Michif, and a Diaspora

Recently I read (devoured, really) Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. It had been twenty years since I’d read any of her work (Love Medicine, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984, and The Beet Queen). As the bio inside the book will tell you, Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa; her ancestry is Native American, as is her heart. She wears this heart on the sleeve of every novel she’s written.

It’s a good book (won the National Book Award for Fiction). Intense. I was shocked at the denouement. (And that’s a good thing.) But this isn’t a review (you can read the New York Times review, perhaps, or the Washington Post’s). No, it’s a continuation of the discussion we’ve had (here too) about what’s to be learned (about people, about history—which is sort of the same thing, really) in fiction. These are the things I find endlessly interesting when I read. (Hence the Post-its on my bedside table.)

In this passage, Mooshum is an old, old man; he claims to be 103 years of age. Our narrator, young Joe, is just thirteen. It is 1988, on a reservation in North Dakota. A round house, by the way, is a sacred place of worship.*

Mooshum was born nine months after berry-picking camp, a happy time when families got together all through the bush. I went out to pick berries with my father, Mooshum always said, and I came back with my mother. He thought it was a great joke and always celebrated his conception, not his birth, as in fact he had become convinced that he was born at Batoche during the siege in 1885, which my father privately doubted. It was true, however, that Mooshum had still been a child when his family left behind their neat cabin, their lands, their barn and sweet water well, and fled Batoche after Louis Riel was caught and sentenced to be hanged. They came down over the border, where they were not exactly welcomed with open arms. Still, they were taken in by an unusually kind-hearted chief who told the U.S. government that maybe it threw away its half-breed children and gave them no land, but that the Indians would take these children into their hearts. The generous full-bloods would have a hard time of it in the years to come, while the mixed-bloods who already knew how to farm and husband animals fared better and eventually began to take over and even looked down on those who had rescued them. Yet as Mooshum went on in life he cast off his Michif ways. First to go was Catholicism, then he started speaking pure Chippewa not mixed with French, and even made himself a fancy powwow outfit to dance in although he still jigged and drank. He went, as they said in those times, back to the blanket. Not that he wore a blanket. But sometimes he threw one over his shoulder and walked out to the round house and participated in the bush ceremonies.

What? I thought. What? Refugee Indians? (You’ll have to work with me; there are a variety of ways to refer to this people group, but Indians is easiest for now.) Any story with refugees in it sounds like a sad one to me, and so it is. I googled Batoche—which already sounded French—and 1885.

It’s in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, and, yes, there was a battle there. It concerned the Métis people, who were indigenous Canadians of mixed race, specifically aboriginal natives—Indians—who intermarried with Europeans, many of them French, most of them fur traders. My fave dictionary says of Métis,

French (probably influenced in meaning by Spanish mestizo), from Middle French metis mongrel, of parents of different nations, from Late Latin misticius, mixticius mixed — more at mestizo
First Known Use: 1816

Wikipedia says other words for these people included mixed-bloods and half-breeds. Frankly I’ve never understood this need to quantify so completely (surely DNA shows we are all of mixed blood?) but these pejoratives will be familiar to anyone who’s watched a Hollywood western; younger readers will think of Muggles, and that’s close enough to understand the concept.

So already some of the passage above becomes clearer—half-breed, French, knowledge of farming. If you grasped the French connection, you understand the reference to Catholicism. The Métis were concentrated in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and Louis Riel, a Métis politician, emerged as a leader of the movement to establish rights and a homeland for the Métis.

It did not end well, as you will have surmised; there was a battle at Batoche between the Anglo-centric Canadian government and the Métis. Riel is a villain or a hero, depending upon which side of the history books you hang your hat. And by the end of the nineteenth century, a Métis diaspora had moved thousands from southern Canada into Montana and North Dakota and Minnesota. This is somewhat surprising, given the United States government’s record with the indigenous tribes, then not surprising given that national borders meant nothing to the Plains Indians.

Michif is the language the Métis spoke; it is what’s called a “mixed language,” a fusion of two source languages—in this case Cree and Canadian French. Erdrich tells us in this passage that the Métis “began to take over and even looked down on those who had rescued them,” although my brief research hasn’t exposed specific reasons for that. I did read that these European fur traders tended to be men of social standing, and they often married or had relationships with daughters of Native American chiefs, which would have consolidated social standing on both sides. They also often looked less ethnic, less “other,” which would have been a plus in those days.

Fascinating stuff, don’t you think? Maybe you knew this, but I did not. And all in the pages of a novel (with a little help from Google).

* This passage is transcribed from pages 201–202 of a first edition of The Round House by Louise Erdrich, published by HarperCollins in 2012. Erdrich is descended from a father of German descent and a mother of the Turtle Mountain Chippewas, a Native American tribe in North Dakota. Her maternal grandfather was a tribal chief and her ancestral homestead is one of the oldest extant structures on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Erdrich has traced both sides of her family stories back two hundred years.


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