The Buffalo Hunt
The Métis of the great plains were great buffalo hunters. Since the buffalo were constantly moving to bigger and better pastures, many Métis became nomadic, following the buffalo.
The beginnings of Métis self-government evolved from the buffalo hunt. The hunt involved the organization of hundreds of men, women and children; carts and horses for westward journeys that extended hundreds of miles. At the time there was no commercial or military activity that rivaled the magnitude of the buffalo hunt.
After days of travel, camp was made and the first organizational meeting for the hunt was held. Leaders were elected to lay out procedures of the hunt, and every detail was thoroughly planned to carry out the hunt of its fullest potential. Rules were drafted; some of which dealt with religious duties and others to prevent any foulups during the course of the hunt.
The buffalo hunt is an excellent examples of the Métis community’s traditional commitment to caring for its weaker members. Planned into the hunt was the number of buffalo necessary to provide for those who were elderly, infirm or without a hunter in the family. Those people were cared for during the planning process of the hunt.
As well, the buffalo hunt was an important element in shaping the Métis into a cohesive political and military unit. Each hunt had ten captains. Each captain had his soldiers who shared the scouting duties.
This group of elected leaders presided over the hunting expedition. They established rules and laws and ensured they were obeyed. These rules were later known as "Rules of the Prairies” and were followed by many of those individuals who later settled the plains of North America.
Laws of the Prairies
The laws incorporated during the Métis buffalo hunt formed the Laws of the Prairies and each captain received a copy of these laws. Whenever an important matter arose, it was solved by mutual agreement of the whole camp. The authority of the captains and soldiers was in effect only during that particular hunt.
Each member of the family had an important role to play. The role of the wives during the hunt was as significant as that of their husbands, the hunters. After the hunt, the wives and children were responsible for butchering the buffalo. The hide was stretched, dried and then softened until it was in the form of a strong, heavy material similar to leather. Once prepared, the hides were used for clothing, moccasins, tents, bags and used for storage, etc. The meat was cut up for easy transport. Most of the buffalo meat was made into pemmican and dry meat.
Young Métis women learned at a very early age how to clean and tan hides, prepare meat for winter storage, how to make snowshoes and baskets. The elderly women also taught how to cook and make clothing for the family.
Buffalo meat fed Métis families, white colonists and fur traders. The Métis did a brisk business in supplying first the NorthWest Company and after 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Company with dried buffalo meat and pemmican.
The Fur Trade
During the 17th century, European fashions centered around fur. The fashion industry became the primary market for beaver (which was also used in the production of felt) and other furs. Furs were plentiful in the New World, so both Britain and France devised ways of obtaining them from their North American colonies. Thus was the fur grade industry born.
In 1670, the Hudson’s Bay Company was established by the Charter of the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay.
The charter granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company read as follows:
"Those seas, steightes, bayes, lakes, creeks and sounds in whatsoever Latitude they shall be that lye within the entrance of the streightes commonly called Hudson’s Streightes together with all the Landes and Territoryes upon the countries Coasts and confines of the seas, bayes, lakes, rivers, creekes and soundes afore said that are actually possessed by or granted to any of our Subjectes or possessed by the Subjectes of any other Christian Prince or State”.
The Charter gave the Hudson’s Bay Company the trading rights to all the land which drained into the Hudson’s Bay and this area subsequently became known as Rupert’s Land.
Initially France used independent traders out of Quebec rather than establish a fur trading company through government decree.
The demand for furs in Europe created a tremendous rivalry between the French and British traders. The Hudson’s Bay Company established a series of forts along the shore of Hudson’s Bay, where they traded with the Indian people. In doing so, the Company guaranteed that trade goods would always be available to the Indian people in exchange for furs.
France, because of commitments elsewhere on the glove, lacked both the human and financial resources to establish forts. Their immediate solution to the problem was to dispatch traders westward to trade with the Indian people. The French encouraged these traders to marry Indian women, thereby establishing good trade connections and gaining allies against the Hudson’s Bay Company. Indian leaders supported these marriages as they (the Indians) were then guaranteed both a market for their furs and secure access to trade goods.
At the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company posts. Aboriginal women came to be relied upon as an integral, if unofficial, part of the labour force.
Their economic assistance was a powerful incentive for the traders to take Indian wives.
Even within their own tribes, the women exercised a role in the functioning of the fur trade that has been little appreciated by historians of this period.
The Nor’Westers had a first hand knowledge of the usefulness of Indian wives that they gained from the French, and this was an important reason for the Company to allow its men to intermarry with Indian women, Besides familiarizing the Frenchman with the customs and language of her tribe, the Indian women performed a wide range of domestic tasks.
Given that the Nor’Westers with their large force of skilled engagés still relied on the services of Indian women, it can be appreciated that Hudson’s Bay Company with its limited and inexperienced personnel had an even greater need for this assistance.
Throughout the 18th century, officers on the Bay argued with the London Committee that it was essential to keep Indian women in the posts, as they performed important tasks that the British had not yet mastered.
Possibly, the most important domestic task performed by the Indian women at the fur-trade posts was to promote the men with a steady supply of "Indian shoes” or moccasins. The men of both companies generally adopted buckskin, wool, or whatever comfortable efficient garments would protect against the inclement climate. They universally adopted the moccasin as the most practical footwear for the wilderness.
The first step in making moccasins or other leather apparel such as leggings and mittens was the laborious process of tanning the moose or deerskins. Large quantities of the skins were needed, for moccasins wore out quickly — at York Factory in 1800, the women made 650 pairs for the men’s use in the summer season.
Closely related to the manufacture of moccasins was the Indian women’s role of making the snowshoes that made winter travel possible. Although the men usually made the frames, the women prepared the sinews and netted the intricate webbing that provided the support. A man dared not even venture outside the post to collect firewood or hunt small game in winter without snowshoes. To be without the women to make them was to invite disaster.
Where are the Métis in Canada?
Not all Plains Métis returned after the annual buffalo hunt. Some known as the hivernants, chose to remain on the prairies, setting up semi-permanent cabins and settlements. Roughly thirty such settlements have been found in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Montana. As the buffalo herds diminished, the Métis had to travel even further west to find the animals. This in turn meant more settlements.
As well, the migration of Métis from Eastern Canada, whether through a search for better economic opportunity, or to escape racial and social persecution, placed the Métis in all areas from Labrador to Vancouver Island.
Métis Forms of Transportation
The Métis used dogs, horses and oxen to pull a variety of carts, wagons, toboggans and sleighs. Horses obtained by trading were also used for riding and hunting.
In the winter, dogs pulled toboggans made from willow frames and covered with a wet rawhide that was shaped over the frame and left to freeze. In the spring when the rawhide thawed, it was cut up for mending snowshoes, or other uses.
Horses were also used to pull toboggans and the elaborate and showy carioles which were used for pleasure only. The runners of the cariole were made from birch wood that had been carefully chosen, cut, boiled and shaped.
Many Métis used the Red River Cart to carry their belongings across the prairies from Manitoba to Saskatchewan and Alberta.