In 1922, Joseph Clement Martell, a thirteen year old boy from Turtle Mountain, was ordered to cut bread at the Fort Totten Boarding school with a band driven cutting machine that was old and lacked safety measures that forced the user to push the bread in by hand. In feeding bread into the machine two of his fingers were caught by the knife and were amputated. A flurry of correspondence and a lawsuit followed.
It is undeniable that contact with whites seriously undermined the family social standards of most Indigenous communities who had the misfortune of having civilization foisted upon them. Problems such as disease, degradation of women, loss of economics, and other factors erupted quite rapidly when colonizers entered an area. But just how quickly could a society be destroyed by colonialism?
Writing about a community of Paiute living in Owens Valley, California, in 1859, Captain John Davidson was quite impressed by the serenity of their community, the chastity among the Indians, and the lack of venereal and other diseases amongst the people. However, just 3 and 4 years later when the US Army Fort Independence was built to "protect" the Paiute, the economy and morality of the tribe was almost completely disrupted by the intrusion of the white man and the introduction of their strange and immoral “civilization”.
White soldiers began taking advantage of the Indian women, and the Indian women were forced to offer themselves to the whites for food and protection when their own tribesmen were unable to provide for and defend them. By 1862, rampant prostitution and alcohol had severely damaged the social and familial structure and the local economy collapsed. Acts of rape and forced cohabitation, and resulting half-breed children further decimated the tribe’s community. A working, traditional culture was destroyed in less than a decade.
Shockingly, Fort Independence is a California Historic Landmark for its role in ending Indian "hostilities" in the region, allowing European settlers to expand and take the land from the Paiutes.
 Wilke, P.J. and H.W. Lawton (eds.) (1976). The Expedition of Captain J.W. Davidson from Fort Tejon to the Owens Valley in 1859. Ballena Press, Socorro.
 Cook, S.F. (1943). The Conflict Between the California Indian and White Civilization. Ibero-Americana 21-24.
Winter has always been a difficult time of the year for indigenous people. Survival was contingent on many things, including having the necessary shelter, food, and the ability to navigate the landscape without expending too much energy in the process.
Starting in the early fall, care would be taken to start gathering supplies such as wild rice, dried corn, pemmican, and smoked fish to store for the winter. Once a good stock was gathered, the group would start to move to the place where they would construct their winter camp – usually in a location known to have plenty of game, near a river or lake surrounded by adequate tree cover. Once there, female family members would work together to construct the winter wigwam. They cut saplings from the surrounding woods to form the lodge frame, covered them with rush mats and rolled sheets of birch bark sewn together. For additional warmth, a second row of rush mats was frequently placed around the entire lodge overlapping the first row. By working in a very organized manner, the women could construct a comfortable and inviting winter dwelling in a matter of a few hours.
The winter habitation represented the focus of life for the people. Winter evenings were social and pleasant, with a warm fire and storytelling. The young men would spend the evenings singing songs and playing their drums. The old women would tell wonderful stories, even acting them out for dramatic effect. At night, the family slept with their feet toward the fire, removing their moccasins and loosening their other clothing. If the weather was very cold, an old man or woman usually stayed awake throughout the night, smoking their pipe and tending the fire.
The core of most winter groups belonged to the same clan, or were intermarried families. Winter settlements composed of several households could numbering about 25 to 30 people, and their camps would usually be located within 100 miles of a nearby trading post. The territory used by each winter hunting group was fairly extensive, but the abundance of food and furs would set limits on the size of the hunting group as well as the extent of the territory exploited. A smaller territory might not be capable of supporting large winter groups.
The means of travel during winter months was by snowshoe. Without these, it was impossible to travel any distance when snow was deep. When possible, a dog team and toboggan or sled could be used to travel around. Basic equipment while out winter hunting included a packsack with food and matches, an axe, a rifle, and traps and snares. Even though men would trap together, they always set their traps separately, and each man claims only those animals caught with his own traps. Traps were usually checked every three to five days. It was customary to set about 20 to 30 traps per person. Even the women of the winter camp trapped when they could. Although they didn’t leave the immediate area surrounding the village, they would still set a few snares of their own and check them every few days – hoping for a rabbit or two.
Once spring came, it was time to break camp and head out to the maple groves and fishing camps, and the cycle of preparing for the next winter would began again.
Bishop, Charles A. 1974. “Northern Ojibwa And The Fur Trade: An Historical And Ecological Study.” Cultures And Communities, A Series Of Monographs : Native Peoples.
Buffalohead, Priscilla K. 1983. “Farmers, Warriors, Traders: A Fresh Look At Ojibway Women.” Minnesota History 48 (6). Saint Paul: 236–44.
Have you ever tried mapping your Metis family? With a little hard work, research, and some mapping skills, you can trace the geographic range of your family and determine many things about your family, including the various communities they lived in, the places where they hunted and traveled, and perhaps even what tribal nations and bands they were affiliated with.
When examining my ancestors, I was able to trace them to several key places associated with the historic Metis Nation, including places such as:
Not surprisingly, the area where my family derives from is entirely within what has been determined to be the official Metis Nation Homeland (see below map)
Have you tried mapping your family yet?
The Anishinaabe used cradleboards as part of the basic care for their infants. In constructing them, a general pattern was followed:
A board of cedar wood (or basswood) was cut to about 28 inches or so, a bit wider at the top than at the foot. About 5½ inches from the head end, a bow-shaped frame was inserted, the ends of which protruded beyond the reverse side of the board. The frame was held in position by a small peg of wood which had been inserted through it at right angles to the protruding end and parallel to the board. If desired, the frame was double bent with a dip at the center, creating a U-shape, but this was not always the case.
Historically, the cradle bag for the baby was made out of soft, tanned deer hides on the board. Under this, from baby's waistline up, rabbit (or other) skins were placed. From waistline down, a thick layer of dried swamp moss or rabbit skins was spread. The baby was placed on this. The ends of the deer hide would be tucked tightly around the baby. After this, strips of tanned buckskin were laced over the middle of the baby, beginning at the foot end. During more modern times the leather and hides were replaced by black velvet that could be intricately beaded upon.
It is said that a cradleboard will train a baby's back to be straight. They also help the mother to easily carry the baby on her back when traveling, and helped to keep the baby safe. A cradleboard can set flat on the ground or can be propped up against a tree or wall. If the board somehow falls, the frame keeps the baby from being injured. The cradleboard can also be hung up to keep the baby safe from dangers on the ground.
If a baby was premature and too small to be tied to the cradleboard itself, they might be placed in a birch bark container, and then tied to the board. This would last until the baby was finally big enough to be tied to the board itself.
Most babies who are cradle boarded like the firm feeling of being swaddled, and will cry to be put into it.
One of the biggest lies that settler society loves to tell and repeat as often as they can – especially when the subject of Indigenous land rights or resources comes into question – is that historically, the Indigenous people did not believe in land ownership, or simply that “nobody owned the land”. Nothing could be further from the truth and such thinking has been used to steal Indigenous lands and resources for hundreds of years, and is still a prevailing belief among non-Indigenous people. It is a recurrent theme in movies, school history books, and even in internet memes circulated in Pan-Indian Facebook groups.
So what did “ownership” mean from the standpoint of Indigenous culture? First of all, it cannot and should not ever be equated with the European idea of individual ownership with documents, fees, taxes, or metes and bounds, with the right to lease or sell property. Sure, that is the system that was finally forced upon Indigenous people, but traditionally ownership was vested in a particular group (tribe, band, clan, or family) who owned inherent rights to live, use, and harvest certain places, rivers, lakes, and resources through traditional use and ‘tenure’. Land tenure was understood by others and was perpetual. It could be shared and it could be increased or decreased according to changes in climate, shifts in resources, and other variables. Such tenure could only cease when land and harvest rights were abandoned.
Things like beaver dams could be ‘owned’; sugar camps and maple groves were recognized as belonging to certain families or clans - and no other Indian family would think of making sugar at a place where it infringed on another family’s rights. Cranberry patches, wild rice areas, and hunting territories were regulated by intra-tribal understandings. The same understanding applied to everything on the land, and cumulatively this resulted in large territories that were recognized by the first treaties with the Europeans used to steal these places out from under the original Indigenous owners when they misinterpreted the ceding of certain land uses from the Indigenous people as a cession of complete ownership in totality.
This is why the theft of the land and the forced ideas of European land ownership is such an insult and infringement of law in the eyes of Indigenous people.
Digital Horizons is an online treasure house of thousands of images, documents, video, and oral histories depicting life on the Northern Plains from the late 1800s to today. Here you'll find a fascinating snapshot of the lives, culture, and history of the people who shaped life on the prairies.
Digital Horizons was established in 2007 by a consortium including: Concordia College Archives, Moorhead, Minn.; NDSU Institute for Regional Studies & University Archives, Fargo, N.D.; Prairie Public Broadcasting, Fargo, N.D.; and State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck, N.D. Their growing list of contributors include:
In 1920, the Missionaries at the Rocky Boy Reservation were desperately trying to finish their chapel before winter so that they could hold a Christmas celebration at their new church. Unfortunately, they did not finish in time and it was far too cold to hold the celebration there. Even so, they were able to have a successful Christmas with the help of the entire community. Surprisingly, the celebration even included the incorporation of native drums and songs! The retelling of this Christmas story is as follows:
“The goal, all through autumn had been to complete the chapel and celebrate Christmas within its walls; to have the first of the Gospel story told in a building provided by Christian friends and dedicated to sacred use. The goal was in sight, and then all was altered. The heating stoves could not be installed in time, so another plan [had to] be considered. I asked for the use of the Indian Council Hall, which was readily granted. And a fine celebration we had on Christmas eve.”
“We secured a couple of men to get a large fir tree up in the mountains. A number of young Indian men whitewashed the Council Hall, cut up plenty of wood and put things in shape generally. The matron and her sister helped with the baking and lunches. Some of the half-breed girls aided with the lunches and decorated the tree. Mrs. Burroughs and I found plenty to do, not the least being to get the great number of gifts classified and ready for distribution. The storekeeper brought down a second gasoline lamp and helped with the serving of lunch. A half breed readily interpreted for me as I gave the Christmas story, and something of an account of The National Indian Association and its purposes for this people.”
“Mr. Parker, Government Agent, spoke first and told them that The National Indian Association had put up the Mission buildings, provided this celebration with its many presents, and were interested in helping the Indians in every way possible. He urged them to show the interest they ought in the Mission. The Matron, her sister and five half-breed girls sang a number of Christmas hymns very sweetly, as I played on the ‘baby organ’. I knew the Indians would like a part, so had a number of young men beat the drum and sing in Indian. Some started to smoke during the program and I noticed one or two better informed men successfully request them to desist. Everyone gave good attention and showed interest in the story of Jesus’ birth, and applauded the girls who sang.”
“And they did enjoy the lunch! One old woman shouted and shouted when lunch was announced. There were 276 present, and all had a hearty feed. The lunch consisted of chopped beef sandwiches, cake, coffee and oranges. The children all received candy. Two hundred and seventy-six received presents for themselves and took gifts home for children or old people who could not attend.”
Annual Report of the National Indian Association (1920). New York: NIA.
Christmas is a time for traditions and being with family. It is a special time when we express our love of our culture and our love of our family. Below is a short description of how Christmas was celebrated by the Métis at Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota.
This description, from 1936, provides a snapshot into the simple, family-oriented celebration of the holiday:
“The old French and Indian [Métis] spirit of Christmas begins at Christmas Eve with midnight mass. After the services are over we all begin to greet our friends. Then we hurry to get home to the little ones and do our part with Santa Claus.”
“We are awakened in the morning very early, by the sounds of little bugles, trumpets, drums and all sorts of merrymaking toys. The little children with their mouths filled with candy and laughter make all happy and we wish the world a Merry Christmas!”
“When supper was over, individual jigging began. This is a special feature of our dances. The fiddler, with the fiddle casually against his ribs, struck up the Red River jig. One of the best jiggers chose his partner and began...”
Indians at work. (1942). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Office of Indian Affairs.
While the debate over who is Métis rages, one thing to remember is that Métis ancestry doesn't rely on some far distant ancestor. Rather, it is tied to an ancestral connection to the historic Métis Nation that arose in the Metis Nation Homeland which includes Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, parts of Ontario and the Northwest Territories, and portions of northwestern Minnesota and northern North Dakota and Montana in the United States. Just having evidence of an Indian or aboriginal ancestor is not sufficient proof that an applicant is Métis, and without evidence of a connection to a Métis ancestor, a person simply lacks proof that would allow them to qualify for anything beyond self-identification.
For instance, you can find evidence of Métis ancestry and a connection to the homeland by finding your ancestor's "scrip", awarded by the federal government to the Métis inhabitants of Manitoba and the former North-West Territories. Such scrip records are readily available online HERE. I am personally fortunate that several of my ancestors had applied for and had scrip issued.
As an example, here is my great great grandfather's scrip, issued under the Northwest Scrip Commission:
His scrip lists where he was currently living (Walhalla, North Dakota), where he was born (Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan), and outlines his claim to scrip based on where he lived prior to 1870 and established that he was a Métis based on his parents being "half-breeds" living in the homeland.
His father also received scrip under the Northwest Commission, and his scrip document further lists his children:
Other ancestors of mine also received scrip under the Manitoba Scrip Commission (click images to enlarge):
In addition to these Canadian scrip records, which demonstrate provable genealogical connection to the Métis Nation and the Métis Nation Homelands, other forms of information can be used to prove a connection to the Métis Nation. For instance, here are two issuances of Half-Breed Scrip, granted to my 3rd great grandfather and 4th great grandfather, under the 1863 Treaty at the Old Crossing in the United States, whereby Métis members of the band could obtain scrip and land under the treaty:
Both of these individuals also had received Canadian Métis scrip (as shown above) which was not uncommon since the Métis people were quite fluid across the borders and many received scrip under both authorities.
Another source that can be used to prove Métis ancestry are the 1870 Red River Census indexes. These indexes show families who were part of the 1870 census and these indexes list if a family is Métis and usually list all family members. For instance, here is one of my 3rd great grandfather's indexes. It shows my 3rd great grandmother and my great great grandfather as a child:
Other censuses, such as the 1901 census of Canada, show people as Métis in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and various other records can be used as well. However, the main focus of all of these is towards proving Métis ancestry and a connection to the Métis Nation Homeland.
Once your family tree is completed, you can always apply to the St. Boniface Centre du Patrimonie to have a certified "proof of Métis ancestry" completed. This proof will establish and certify that a person truly is associated genealogically as a Métis person. The proof is that the applicant has an ancestor that has been identified as Métis through official documentation such as census records (1870, 1901, 1911), scrip or land grant documents (including the affidavit or the index, etc.), or other official documents such as church records (parish registers or other).