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An 1867 report on the indigenous population of the Red River Valley on the US side of the border of the newly created Dakota Territory by M.K. Armstrong, public surveyor for the United States, offers a very flattering description of Red River Metis people – a rare occurrence at a time when indigenous people suffered increasing racism and marginalization at the hands of colonial land speculators.


Armstrong stated:


“There were a great many [half-breeds], and they lived on pounded buffalo meat, or pemmican and called themselves ‘plains hunters’. They make their annual summer visits to the plains with horses, oxen, carts, and their entire families to procure meat and robes, and return late in the fall to live in their thatched-roof log houses on the Pembina River, of which the woods are filled for sixteen miles below St. Joe (now called Walhalla, North Dakota). This pemmican trade is like our fisheries, and is carried on almost as extensively; 300 carts sometimes going out in one train. The pemmican is made by drying and stripping the buffalo meat, then threshing the same with a flail, like wheat, till broken into fine shreds; the tallow of the buffalo is then heated to a liquid and poured onto the meat, and the whole mixed with a wooden shovel, like mortar for plastering, and the entire compound, with berries and other fruits, is then shoveled into a sack of buffalo hide, which, when cooled, becomes as hard as wood and has to be cut or shaved off with an axe for cooking. This is the food our party has been living on for the last six weeks, and I must say that when dished up in style with onions, potatoes and flour, salt and pepper, it is very nutritious, and a palatable food. This, with black tea, maple sugar, and rather hard-shelled bread, completes a northern meal.



As for the [half-breed] means of transportation, large wooden wheeled carts, tireless and with unhanded hubs, harnessed with rawhide to an ox or horse, constitutes a team, so much so that the roads are all three tracked cart trails, making them very tiresome for two horses. During my survey I have had some Cree and French half-breeds with me and two of these ox-carts. and it would make a white man look wild to see these two-wheeled things go through the woods, smashing through brush, tumbling over logs, and fallen trees, and plunging down steep river banks, sometimes both ox and half-breed under the cart, and the next moment coming up all right on the other side. As for myself. I stopped riding in these northern sulkies after my first effort in crossing a creek, when I was thrown, compass and all, high and dry into a neighboring tree.


I believe these people are among the happiest in the world. If they only have enough to eat, storm, sunshine and hardships are all the same to them, and after their day's labor is done and supper over, they build a blazing campfire and with the iron kettle for a drum, they perform their Indian dance and songs for hours, and when they retire for the night they kneel by their beds and go through with the Catholic prayer. The Catholic religion prevails almost exclusively among the people here. They have a church at St. Joe, and there is a large attendance every Sabbath."


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SOURCE: Kingsbury, G. W., & Smith, G. M. (1915). History of Dakota Territory. S.J. Clarke.



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Situated in the sparse timber bordering a small tributary of the Saskatchewan River, the community consisted of French half-breed hunters engaged in the usual winter quest of buffalo. The camp consisted of some thirty, or forty, huts crowded irregularly together, and built of logs, branches of pine-trees, raw-hide, and tanned and smoked skins, together with the inevitable tepee. The camp was alive with horses, dogs, women and children, all intermingled. The half-breed hunters themselves walked around in their finest – ribboned, legginged, tasseled, and capoted.



Remnants of successful hunts were lying everywhere around: glistening buffalo skulls here and there, robes stretched upon a framework of poles and drying in the sun, meat piled upon platforms so as to be out of the way of the camp dogs, wolf, fox, and other smaller furs tacked against the walls of the huts, or stretched upon miniature frames hanging from the branches of trees. The half-breed women were busy drawing water and chopping wood so that at dark every little hut would be warm and enjoy the glow of firelight and the sound of violins scraped and sawed by a long-haired virtuoso were followed by the quick thud of moccasined heels.


Inside the cabins were bare floors of pounded earth, or half-hewn boards. In the corners would be a narrow beds of boughs, covered deep with buffalo robes; a fireplace of limited dimensions, a few wooden trunks; and a crude table and a few blackened kettles. Hung on the walls would be an armory of guns, powder horns, and bullet bags, and the rafters would be festooned with a myriad of skins and furs. The floorplan was small, but was the winter home to families from fifteen to twenty members of all ages and both sexes.


As a rule, the winter hunters are of French origin, descendants of the old traders and trappers of the Northwest and X.Y. fur companies, though by long intermarriage the blood of three or four nationalities often mingles in their veins.


The winter camp is the most perfect socialist and communistic community in the world. Its members hold every article of food in common. The general occupation of women throughout the winter was cooking and seeing to the men and the swarms of children, who eat freely of buffalo or other meat. A child scarce able to crawl is often seen with one hand holding a piece of meat, the other end of which is tightly held between the teeth, while the right hand wields a knife with which it saws away between fingers and lips till the mouthful is detached. The amount of meat consumed in a winter camp is simply enormous. In every hut feasting is kept up from morning till night, and it is impossible to enter the dwelling of a half-breed without being invited to dine. As a refusal is regarded as a slight to the host. No well-regulated Metis expects to leave his neighbor's door without a feast of the best food in the house.


As a consequence of so general a commingling of the sexes in the many huts of the winter camp, it occurs that when the young men are not engaged in dancing or feasting they are usually making love; and as there is a large number of young women and girls in every camp.

They receive the attention of their lovers with a degree of propriety and maiden coyness which reflects much honor upon their native modesty.


By some seeming incongruity the winter camp is also usually home to a local priest, and also to a free-trader who usually stays with the people until the middle of April, when the finally pack up their furs, collect outstanding debts, and make preparations for a return to the Red River settlement with the proceeds of the year's trade, while the half-breeds prepare for another summer of hunting on the plains.


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Source: Robinson, H. M. (1879). The great fur land, or, sketches of life in the Hudson's Bay Territory. G.P. Putnam's Sons.


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In the fall of 1850, Father Albert Lacombe – whom served the Red River Metis from 1849-1852, and later became priest at Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta – participated in his first buffalo hunt as the attending priest to the Red River Metis camped at the Turtle Mountains in what is now northern North Dakota.


On the eve of the hunt, Lacombe gathered the band together for evening prayers and hymns. According to Father Lacombe, the Metis formed a large circle and sang the hymns which were translated into Michif by Father George Belcourt. Following prayers, the Metis elected a chief of the hunt and the laws of the hunt were established for the following day’s hunt.


The next morning, the Metis arose very early and a mass was given to them by Father Lacombe. After mass was complete, about 1,000 Metis men, women, and children proceeded in about 800-1,000 Red River carts onto the prairies. When scouts sighted an immense herd of buffalo in the distance, a signal was given and the Metis quickly stopped their procession and a camp was rapidly made at the base of the Turtle Mountains. The men then mounted their horses and began to direct themselves towards the herd. As the herd was approached, the Metis hunters spread out into an immense line of attack. Father Lacombe, who was a witness to the hunt, gave a rapid prayer to the hunters whom bowed their heads. Then, the hunt commenced in earnest.

Lacombe reported that within 20 minutes the herd was routed and about 800 buffalo lay dead on the prairie at the base of Turtle Mountain. The animals were rapidly processed and the camp enjoyed the spoils of their harvest. The next day. Lacombe accompanied the Metis to the highest point in the Turtle Mountains – a place now known as Butte St. Paul – where they planted a wooden cross in thanks for the successful hunt by the Red River people.


REFERENCE

O’Connor, R.F. (1913) “A Blackrobe Voyageur”. The Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. 49. Dolphin Press, Baltimore.



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