My identity as an Indigenous person has been a struggle for me. Read on if you’d like to find out why I sometimes have trouble identifying myself as Metis.
As I’ve discussed before, identifying yourself is one of the very first things you do when you are participating in an event, class or workshop within the Indigenous community. However, when I have to do this I always hesitate when it comes to identifying myself as Metis. Instead, I always say Cree/Metis or mixed-heritage Cree. There are many reasons why, and I detail them below. However, you can skip ahead to the TL;DR if you don’t particularly care about all my musing and rambling.
A Brief History of Metis
A lot of people don’t realize that the word Metis isn’t just a politically correct way of saying halfbreed. It actually refers to a distinct group of people.
The Metis community began to grow when European (mostly French) fur traders and Native (mostly Cree) women began relationships. This started even before European settlement was a thing and most European contact was through the fur trade. Over generations of mixing the Metis community grew. They really became a distinct group after the Battle of Seven Oaks because they fought off European settlers as one. However, they still maintained close kinship ties to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous members of their family.
This began to change when settlers and their treaties decided to strictly define who was Indigenous and who was not. Some Metis people were given the choice of signing into a treaty with their Indigenous side of the family and therefore becoming status Indians. Some were given the choice of getting money and/or land (called a scrip) and then become regular citizens. Some were not given the choice at all and were forced to sign treaties, take scrip or become regular citizens with no compensation.
The Metis community was distinct from their original Indigenous family members based on language, culture, traditions and more. However, they remained close to all sides of their family until the government forced them into separation. This is one of the reasons why I hesitate to call myself Metis.
I understand that there is a distinct community and history attached to the Metis, which But from my understanding of the way history played out, the only difference between my family and some families who are mixed-heritage but are now called Cree is that my ancestors were not included in the treaty theirs decided (or were forced) to be signed in to a treaty. For this reason, I often choose to identify myself as Cree as well as Metis.
The Metis Today
Today there is some controversy about who gets to call themselves Metis. Originally the Metis were called “half-breeds” along with any other person of mixed-heritage. However, provincial Metis organizations are trying to change this perception. They aren’t trying to be exclusive by denying mixed-heritage people of other tribes, but they are trying to set themselves as a distinct group.
For example, many in the Metis community have been shocked by the recent census results which show an increase in people identifying as Metis in provinces like Nova Scotia. It’s true that descendants of historic Metis communities (the largest of which in Red River, Manitoba) have spread out across all of Canada. However, it does seem likely that some of those numbers are inflated by people who think Metis means a person of mixed Indigenous/Native heritage instead of members of the specific ethnic/cultural group.
However, this desire to be distinct is one of the reasons why I hesitate to call myself Metis. First of all, although I am a member of Metis Nation British Columbia through my Dad I really don’t like the way it is run. There is no funding for programs that would bring Metis youth into situations with Indigenous youth from other groups. I understand that the Metis community as a whole is fighting to be recognized as distinct, but isolating itself from other groups only makes the government imposed separation more valid and socially acceptable.
Also, the way membership to Metis Nation BC is decided is extremely discriminatory in my view. When I was first applying I was warned not to mention that I had an opportunity to apply for status through my mother as I would be denied. For some reason, the Metis Nation (in BC) is known for not allowing anyone who might have status otherwise to join the Metis community.
Recently in a class discussion, I discovered one of my classmates had a similar experience. Her mother is Carrier and her father is Metis. From what I understand, she couldn’t receive status through her mother due to the Indian Act’s second generation cut off. Therefore she attempted to apply to MNBC as a Metis person so she would have at least some kind of recognition for her Indigenous heritage. However, she made the mistake of letting them know her mother had status and was Carrier. MNBC denied her application because living with her mother was not living/being raised in “Metis Culture” even though her father was ethnically Metis. However, by denying her acceptance into a Metis community they provided an additional barrier for her if she did want to rediscover her Dad’s culture.
Ultimately, I hesitate to call myself Metis because the Metis organization in my province has exhibited exclusionary behaviours to its own community members.
I suppose it’s time I address the elephant in the room. Am I actually, ethnically and genealogically linked to that original Metis community in Red River, Manitoba?
Short answer, Yes, Long answer, keep reading.
My Dad’s Side
My father’s mother is Metis. I don’t know much about the history there besides the fact that she sent me all the birth certificates and paperwork that MNBC required me to have in order to accept me as a member as well. So by their standards, I have a connection to the original Metis community on my paternal grandmother’s side.
First of all, from my understanding of what it means to be a Witness does not fit at all with Metis culture and traditions. If you compare my family to my classmates, which I brought up in the previous section, you can see a double standard by MNBC. Neither of our families actively participate in Metis culture and community, yet we were treated differently. Because she had a connection to another Indigenous group she was denied, and I and my paternal grandmother’s family were allowed to join.
Secondly, because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses they are not allowed to have close personal connections with anyone outside of the religion. This means that even if they did have some traditions or culture to pass down to me, they didn’t do it. I am not a Jehovah’s Witness and therefore their contact with me and influence in my life has been minimal.
My paternal grandmother’s family is Metis according to MNBC standards which would give me a solid connection to a historic Metis community. However, they do not participate in any culture or community and they have not raised me in any way.
My Mom’s Side
My mother’s mother has Metis and Cree heritage. However, we cannot get acceptance from MNBC because of two main reasons:
- My grandmother didn’t know her real surname at my mom’s time of birth (aka the woman on my mom’s birth certificate doesn’t exist)
- My grandmother’s father is not listed on her own birth certificate (even though he is listed on the birth certificate of all subsequent siblings, even on the certificates of kids we know aren’t his)
To explain my grandmother’s story you have to know a few names first. My grandmother’s name is Eileen, her father’s name is George and his parents are Caroline and Jean Baptiste. I’m purposefully leaving out last names to try and keep some kind of privacy.
We think that Caroline might have been entitled to status as a Cree person because she lived on a reserve in Alberta for most of her life and attended residential school. As far as we know, she never actually carried a status card because she did not want to acknowledge herself as Native. She didn’t want her children to be associated with the negative stereotypes of Indigenous people. Jean Baptiste had both Cree and French ancestors, which makes him Metis, however, we aren’t sure whether or not he had status.
Their child George is my great-grandfather. As far as we know, he never carried a status card but we can’t be sure that he wasn’t entitled to status. George attended residential school and spoke Cree. According to my Grandmother, he could also speak Michif (the Metis language) but she remembers him speaking Cree more often.
My grandmother, Eileen, did not attend residential schools and neither did any of her siblings. We think this is because for most of her childhood she lived with her white mother. For a time, in her childhood she did live on reserve with her grandmother (Caroline), she did know how to speak/understand some Cree but forgot it as she grew. She may or may not be entitled to status depending on what her father’s status was.
There are many reasons why this complicated family history leads me to hesitate in calling myself Metis. Residential school is not generally a part of Metis histories. Although some Metis children were taken to residential schools, in general, most Metis children did not have to go. Also, my ancestors spoke Cree more prominently than they spoke Michif. Finally, my grandmother and my mother may be entitled to Indian status (although we have no way of pursuing it at this time). There is no doubt that my maternal grandmother has Metis heritage but some of her history could point to her family being socially recognized as Cree.
The main reasons why I hesitate to call myself Metis are:
- Historical Metis communities held close ties with Indigenous communities until the government imposed separation through treaties/status.
- Current Metis organizations deny applications of members who have ties to other Indigenous communities
- Current Metis organizations focus on programs emphasizing their difference rather than their similarities to other Indigenous groups.
- My paternal grandmother’s family is Metis but:
- Doesn’t live according to Metis traditions/values/spirituality/customs/culture
- Has had no part in raising me (and therefore little influence on my life/identity)
- My maternal grandmother’s family is Metis but also:
- Her father and grandparents went to residential school (which is not typical for historic Metis families)
- Her father and grandparents more prominently spoke Cree than Michif
- Her father (and therefore herself and my mother) might be entitled to Indian status (=
Ultimately I do have Metis ancestors, but I will never say that I am only Metis because of these reasons. That’s not to say that being Metis is bad or that I don’t want to be Metis. I just want to acknowledge the complicated history of the Metis community and my family specifically when I identify myself.