The Background and the Presenter:
Bones, marrow, blood. Genes and chromosomes. Amino acids and sunlight. Dead
matter leaping to life. Life leaping to consciousness. From time to time we learn who and
what we are. Some small piece of the idiosyncracy that is identity is illuminated by light
reflecting off water flowing from the heart of an unknown world. In canoe country, I feel this
sense of connection, wondering how it was when first we came, or perhaps before they
came. The country is in my blood. And my course on the "Frontier Heritage" becomes
more and more an exploration of the mysterious mosaic of ethnic and racial realities and
myths that makes us Americans. For me, teaching the course has become an exploration
of the mysterious mosaic within myself, as well as a discovery of the history that is in each
For years I've known how being Genovese, being Tomaso Carlo Bacigalupo's son,
burning to know, aflame to achieve, made this third generation Dago a student of the
humanities, a dreamer of perfection. Recently, I've begun to guess that being Gertrude
Lillian Durand's son, is making this 12th generation Canuck-Canuck a crafter of words, a
maker of tight-mitered word corners. She is a cabinet maker's daughter. When they
needed someone to hang a perfect door, they called Joe Durand, even when he was
seventy. I saw him set and sharpen a crosscut saw with pliers and a flat file at age 73,
sighting and shaving bent and rounded steel into perfect points and alignment. His own
saws were toledo steel and he bent them tip to heel and let them spring back to show us
what good tools meant. He kicked my ass and laughed when, at twelve, I tried to put
trowel to wall after watching him for half a day. Now watch close, and next time do it
right, he said. He was a tyrant, and a master craftsman. What made him, what made my
mother, is making me. As a teacher of the humanities hoping to understand the difference
between our dreams of perfection and our realities, and a writer trying to frame the
sentences that build word homes for all the people of the world, I seek to explore the
frontiers of our pasts for the sake of our future.
On September 23, 1662, Jean Durand, a peasant from the town of Doeuil in the
province of Saintonge, having completed his three year contract to earn his way to New
France, took to wife Catherine Annennontak, daughter of the late Nicolas Arendankir
captain of the Hurons of Georgian Bay. In 1658, she fled her fathers death and the
annihilation of the Huron nation by Iroquois armed with Dutch and English muskets. The
orphan and 200 other women and children were led to Quebec by the Jesuit missionaries
who had been converting them. She was reared and taught in the French manner"
by Madam de la Peltrie and Marie de l'Incarnation at the Ursuline convent in Quebec, so
that she "could someday marry a Frenchman." The Jesuits of Canada dowried her for
marrying her frenchman, giving 350 livres to the newlyweds. She was fourteen years old.
And from this blood and bone, from these genes and chromosomes, from the policies of Champlain and the Recollets and Jesuits, of church and state, spring 12 generations of people of mixed blood. Mixed offspring married mixed offspring, and in Quebec no one kept track. In the west, moving up the lakes they were called bois brûlé, "burnt wood," coureurs de bois, "woods runners," voyaguers, "canoemen." Catherine and Jeans son, Louis was among the first to go. As these fur traders moved west to the plains, spreading from the Missouri basin to the Arctic, they came to see themselves as people apart, as the Métis , the mixed..
A classification, about 240 compact tribal histories (contact to 1900). It is limited to the lower 48 statesof the U.S. but also includes those First Nations from Canada and Mexico that had important roles ( Huron, Assiniboine, etc.).He introduces each section in the following way:
This history's content and style are representative. The normal process at this point is to circulate an almost finished product among a peer group for comment and criticism. At the end of this History you will find links to those Nations referred to in the History of the (tribal name). Using the Internet, this can be more inclusive. Feel free to comment or suggest corrections via e-mail. Working together we can end some of the historical misinformation about Native Americans. You will find the ego at this end to be of standard size. Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to your comments... Lee Sultzman.
Half-breeds, Settlers and Rebels: Newspaper Images of the Red River Métis in 1869
The Métis were not only of mixed blood but of mixed culture and their lifestyle depended upon the river, the hunt, the fur trade and a pattern of primitive agriculture suited to a semi-settled people. Their life style was midway between that of the nomadic Indian food gatherers and that of the Europeans, the economic base of which was agriculture.
. . . These Métis are the true Natives of Canada. Indians and Europeans were immigrants -- only the millennia separated their penetration into the New World. The meeting of the two races produced a mixture which was not from another land, but whose sole roots were in the New World. ( Sealey and Lussier, 1975, p. 9)
So the Métis of Canada have come to see themselves. But how did the dominant Anglo cultures of the United States and Canada view people of mixed blood? The answer to that question varies over time, but it ends where most questions about the preservation of "native" cultures in the Americas have ended; in the fight to maintain some sense of identity, some connection with tradition, some sense of what the elders have to say in the face of every kind of pressure to capitulate to the dominant cultures. The case of the Métis is especially difficult because neither the dominant cultures nor the native cultures wanted the Métis to endure or prevail. Additionally, the Métis' connections to French Catholic culture further alienated this people from Anglo Protestant culture.
Robert Thomas, Head of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, poses he issue nicely in his after word to Peterson and Brown's The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis.
"The question of identity (is) in a very broad and simplistic sense, the answer to the question, 'Who am I?', or, on the level of the group, the answer to the question 'Who are we?' ... if one ponders the enormity of the answers to those questions one can see that he or she has stepped into a profound sphere of human life. Individuals, no matter how sophisticated, cannot explicitly answer about themselves...(or)...their "people." Such questions are too all encompassing. No human being is that self-aware."
In exploring such questions about identity historians are now arguing that to come to real understandings of the ways in which the frontier experience shaped the characters of North Americans, we will have to turn away from Turner and Roosevelt's construction of the past as the drama of "manifest destiny" and spend more time studying the portrayals of the experiences of specific groups in specific frontier locales.
Lyle Dick, for example, in " The Seven Oaks Incident and The construction of a Historical Tradition, 1816-1970" explores the way history and myth are made. He raises fundamental questions about "objective" history, questions which are based on the careful analysis of the way in which amateur historians and professional historians portray the Métis people of Canada. He points out that in contrast to nineteenth century amateurs' preservation of competing interpretations of both the people and events at Seven Oaks, professional historians pictured the Métis "as the inherently flawed product of an unsound racial mixture." He concludes that the "transformation of Seven Oaks historiography from Red River pluralism to Anglo Canadian romance ... to myth" has become "ideological bedrock, ... stubbornly resistant to revision."
Finally, attempts to understand the role played in forming "national character, aboriginal and non-Anglo European groups like the Métis and Metisto suffer from the Anglophone bias that characterizes most histories of North America. That history is, in the main, a tale told by the "victors" which gives short shrift to the perspectives of Native Americans, Spaniards and Frenchmen, let alone groups of mixed languages and cultures. Peter Charlebois summarizes this situation in the introduction to his Life of Louis Riel.
"Canadians have easy access only to English-language books and newspapers of those times. Newspaper accounts of the battles were written to sell newspapers. History textbooks to this day start with the false premise that it was the white settlers who had the right to the land. ... Some of the books on these events have been written so as not to offend anyone: others frankly promote racial, religious and national prejudices. More recently, scholarly works treat all events and people equally, on the false premise that one may write without presuppositions, trying so hard to be fair that they are unfair. The facts of life and history are that all people and events are not of equal importance, that people do things for reasons and most often aren't afraid to say what they are."
Charlebois is a least partially right. We do need to consider the way in which the stories we tell and told about the experiences of the pioneers and the natives, reveal the under stories of racism, imperialism, and nationalism that are the legacy of European settlement in North America. However, attempts to redress the imbalance of the self-congratulatory boosterism, and unabashed racism and imperialism of Turner's thesis, have their own limitations if all they produce is narrowly focused empirical studies of marriage patterns or trade arrangements in frontier communities. It is too easy to slip into views of people and events which are atomistic, and which while they give a clearer sense of the economic causes of events, or of the cross cultural similarities in the experiences of indigenous people as they are exploited or overrun, mask the common ground of the lessons of freedom taught and learned by and from the land and the people as they came together. Here, though deeply flawed by his underlying racist genetic theory, Marcel Giraud's two volume The Métis in the Canadian West (1986), comes closer to the truth in portraying the emergence of the Métis on the fur frontier .
"From among these individuals who henceforth were dedicated to the primitive existence, a new class of men emerged in the West which, under the name of 'gens libres', 'hommes libres', or 'freemen,' established between white and native the last and most complete link in their unification. Nearer to the Indian than to the employee in the post, more intimately associated with his nomadic ways, the freeman let himself be absorbed irrevocably into the country where the voyageurs were often content with temporary residence. He even developed confused aspirations of local patriotism of which the first settlers in Manitoba would soon experience the effects. To the regions in which he wandered, surviving by his own resources, independent of the trading companies, he was attached not only by the modalities of his existence, but also by the Métis family he had created, by the blood relationships that united him with the native tribes, and finally by the nature of the country whose majestic spaces or wooded horizons he had come to love."(p. 264-65)