Tradional Practices of the Métis People
Métis people have their own unique culture, traditions, language (Michif), way of life, collective consciousness and nationhood.
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, 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, in need, 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 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 the "Rules of the Prairies” and were followed by many of those individuals who later settled in the plains of North America.
Laws of the Prairies
The laws incorporated during the Métis buffalo hunt formed the Laws of the Prairies. Each captain received a copy of these laws. The authority of the captains and soldiers was in effect only during that particular hunt, and whenever an important matter arose outside of the hunt, it was solved by mutual agreement of the whole camp.
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.
Métis youth learned at a very early age how to clean and tan hides, prepare meat for winter storage, and how to make snowshoes and baskets. The elderly women also taught the youth how to cook and make clothing for the family.
Buffalo meat fed Métis families, white colonists and fur traders. The Métis had business in supplying these items to the NorthWest Company and, after 1821, to the Hudson’s Bay Company.
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. This is when the fur grade industry was born.
In 1670, the Hudson’s Bay Company was established. The charter granted to them 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 globe, 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 were then guaranteed both a market for their furs and secured 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 Indigenous 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 Indigenous wives that they gained from the French, and this was an important reason for the Company to allow its men to intermarry with the women. Besides familiarizing the Frenchman with the customs and language of her tribe, the Indigenous 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 Indigenous 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 Indigenous women at the fur-trade posts was to provide the men with a steady supply of 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.
Closely related to the manufacture of moccasins was the Indigenous women’s role of making 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.
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, creating more settlements as a result.
In addition to their movement with the annual buffalo hunt, the migration of Métis from Eastern Canada may have occurred through a search for better economic opportunity or to escape racial and social persecution. This 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 through 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.