Have you ever wondered why academics seem to know so much about nineteenth century Metis history and so little about the twentieth century, especially between about the end of WWI and the 1960s? Certainly, academic scholars have written about Metis in the twentieth century. But these seem to end around World War I and pick up again in the 1960s and in any event, are dwarfed by the amount of books, articles and book chapters on nineteenth century Metis people, places and events. Even people who know next to nothing about Metis history seem to know something about our role in the fur trade and the events of 1869-70 and 1885 that led to our political demise, and entirely too many people have an opinion on whether or not Louis was crazy.
No doubt, much of the history on the Metis written in Canada today is fueled by the spate of court cases on Metis harvesting rights that have gone before the Canadian courts in the last decade, which for fairly complicated jurisprudential reasons is more interested in nineteenth century histories than those of the twentieth. Likewise, historians have sought to explore the complicated corporate roots of fur trading companies that helped animate the social and economic conditions that led to initial unions between “First Nations” women and fur traders, an enterprise that favours the eighteenth rather than twentieth century. It is no surprise, then, why so much is written on Metis of the nineteenth century and so little on Metis of the twentieth.
Moreover, I should say here that there is nothing wrong with researching and writing about Metis history of the nineteenth century (or earlier). It not only fills longstanding gaps in what we know about the origins of Metis communities and the Metis people; if we care to look, it contributes greatly to a more complex understanding of Canadian history as well. I have learned much of what I know about the place of Metis in Canada’s colonial creation and growth through such scholarship and my thinking, and the thinking of others, is undoubtedly richer for it.
Nonetheless, there is something violently abstracting (to borrow a term from Derek Sayer) in how many government agencies, many Metis organizations and a depressing number of academic scholars return again and again to nineteenth century events when trying to make sense of the kinds of issues Metis communities and individuals face today. It seems that nearly any text you pick up today that bothers to include Metis history (that is, that lacks the salutary “the issues of Metis, while legitimate, are beyond the scope of this book” disclaimer that echoes through nearly every book written on “Aboriginal” issues in the last three decades) does so by reference to 1885 and/or the unjust hanging of Louis Riel as evidence of Canada’s willingness to use violence against its Indigenous populations when necessary.
A broad silence, coupled with a apparent (if tacit) agreement among historians to “hit the breaks” on the study of Metis history at 1885 and its immediate aftermath, have conspired to create a historical “black hole” of nearly a half century, from about the end of WWI to the beginning of the formal political organizing of the mid 1960s. And, while we have a surprisingly decent historical accounting of Metis politics in the twentieth century, this is the exception instead of the rule. For the most part, we are left explaining late twentieth and early twentieth-first century Métis issues by reference to nineteenth century events and their immediate aftermath, as though the twentieth century – which bore witness to some of the most profound ruptures in social relations ever experienced – never happened.
Stepping away from the orienting power of 1885 opens up a whole new world of Metis history, one that can begin to look at what Maori scholar Brendan Hokowhitu has elsewhere termed the “Indigeneity of immediacy”: how have subsequent modernities – Canada’s and our own – shaped our sense of collective self as we adapted to/became embedded in/resisted the changing economic and cultural “pitch” of Canadian society? What did it mean to be Métis in the various regions and eras of the twentieth century, particularly those of “les trente glorieuses” following WWII? What comprised our everyday experiences? What practices, strategies and material culture shaped “self” and “other” in how we understood ourselves as Métis? How were broader government policies – and “softer” cultural forms (like popular culture) – manifested in the various domains of social life and how did we become invested in and/or resist? To put these issues less academically, the mid-century popularity among Metis men of, for example, white jeans, ducktail hairdos and Elvis Presley cannot be explained in any linear terms by the Northwest Uprising.
These are all questions and experiences that we know very little about. I suspect, however, that further historical analysis of Metis origins or the events of 1885, no matter how detailed, would shed little additional light on them. Moreover, exploring the deep complexity and social embeddedness of these people and places – producing a “thicker” description, to misuse anthropologist Clifford Geerz’s term – vastly complicates the abstract linkages continually drawn between contemporary Metis issues and historical processes. In a very important way, focusing on twentieth century events allows for a more complex discussion of Metis identity, one embedded in the social and material aspects of its time and space, rather than in tired and increasingly treadless narratives about our supposed “hybridity”.
Our twentieth century history is rooted in the happenings of the late nineteenth century but it is by no means limited to it: neither should our historiography be.
So, to all you academics out there: if you or your students have an interest in Metis history, please feel free to stop talking and writing about the Northwest Rebellion as though it explained everything we needed to know about how and why Metis act as we do or the conditions we find ourselves in today. Likewise, please stop teaching or writing about Metis as though all you or your students needed to know about Metis was our links to the fur trade (important as they were). Please remember that origins are just that, and they do not and cannot by themselves ever fully account for Metis identity today, anymore than the War of 1812 can explain Canadian identity (the Conservative government’s recent and somewhat bewildering expenditure on its commemoration notwithstanding). Undertake or encourage your students to undertake an exploration of twentieth century Metis sociality and don’t be shy to embed it in the contexts of time and place.
“But Chris”, you might say, “I don’t even know where I would begin to look for information on twentieth century Metis history”. You’re in luck: among others, the Gabriel Dumont Institute headquartered in Saskatoon, SK has a wealth of information – documents, stories, music, artifacts – ably documenting twentieth century Metis history (http://www.metismuseum.ca/main.php). Likewise, some non-academic histories of twentieth century Metis exist in the form of personal memoires and community-written histories (and you can feel free to contact me for a partial bibliography). Or if all else fails, try talking to a Metis who is still living and breathing. You will enjoy it – I guarantee it.