Collection at the Smithsonian Institution
Many of the unique historical artifacts of the Métis people are found in museums and historical collections across Canada and the United States. These objects reflect the rich and wonderful history of the people who grew strong during the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries on the prairies and forests of the upper Great Plains.
Born of mixed-ancestry to Native mothers and European fathers, the Métis often acted as bridges between white and Indian communities, eventually becoming their own nation with their own culture and cultural artifacts.
The following artifacts are found and maintained at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, DC. Please click on the photos for larger images.
BEADED CLOTH BAG (METIS)
BEADED OCTOPUS BAG (METIS)
WOVEN LEG SASHES (METIS)
BEADED POUCH (METIS)
METIS BOW AND QUIVERS
OCTOPUS BAG (METIS)
BLADED BALL CLUB (METIS)
QUILLED Mittens (Metis)
Quilled Saddle/Pad (Metis)
BEADED COAT (METIS)
RED RIVER METIS QUILLED COAT & MITTENS
A hunt that took more than 1,300 buffalo in a single day
Noted fur trader, Alexander Ross, described a Metis and Ojibwe hunting expedition that took place in 1840. According to Ross, two expeditions were undertaken that year by a group that include about 1,630 men, women, and children. The hunters started their hunt leaving from Red River Colony where they made a stop at Fort Garry to purchase supplies before traveling south to Pembina. In his description, Ross gives detailed information about the highly organized political organization of the hunting party and the rules followed by the hunters while on the march.
According to Ross, “The first step was to hold a council for the nomination of chiefs or officers. Then captains were named, the senior [leader] on this occasion being Jean Baptiste Wilkie, an English half-breed, brought up among the French. Besides being captain…[Wilkie] was styled the great war chief or head of the camp; and on all public occasions he occupied the place of president. Each captain had ten soldiers under his orders; in much the same way that policemen are subject to a magistrate. Ten guides were likewise appointed. Their duties were to guide the camp, each in his turn -- that is day about -- during the expedition. "The hoisting of the flag every morning is the signal for raising camp. Half an hour is the full time allowed to prepare for the march; but if anyone is sick, or their animals have strayed, notice is sent to the guide, who halts until all is made right. From the time the flag is hoisted, however, till the hour for camping arrives, it is never taken down. The flag taken down is the signal for encamping. While it is up, the guide is chief of the expedition and the Captains are subject to him, and the soldiers of the day are his messengers: he commands all. The moment the flag is lowered, his functions cease, and the captains' and soldiers' duties commence. They point out the order of the camp, and every cart, as it arrives, moves to its appointed place.
Ross stated that the captains and other chief men laid down rules to be observed by the hunters. Most of these rules concern restrictions on hunting without general orders being given, and the punishment for infractions of these rules.
The hunt of 1840 left Pembina on the 21st of June.
Ross states that while on the march, many of the hunters and their families experienced severe hunger. On the ninth day the expedition reached the Sheyenne River without having seen any buffalo. But on the nineteenth day, along the Missouri River, the hunters finally encountered buffalo on July 4th. About 400 huntsmen, all mounted took up their position in a line at one end of the camp while Captain Wilkie surveyed the buffalo, examined the ground, and issued his orders.
At the end of the day’s hunt, 1,375 buffalo had been harvested.
From: Red Lake & Pembina Chippewa by Voegelin and Hickerson, ICC Docket 18A
An early use of the term "Metis" to describe the Red River People
While most historical accounts of the Metis Nation speak of the people as half-breeds, at least one early account used of the word “Metis” to designate the Metis people of the Red River region, and shows that the Metis Nation itself was a known and recognized entity quite early in the century.
While traveling in what is now North Dakota, French explorer Joseph Nicolette was near present-day Shin Bone Lake (Warwick, ND). At this location he reported finding the traces of a Metis encampment, which in his words appeared to have been "…vacated but a few days before as we judged from the deep cuts of their loaded wagons." Nicollet continued by summarizing the information he had concerning these people:
“They are called Metis, or half breeds, being descendants of Canadians, English, and Scotch, crossed with Chippeways, Kristinaux, Assiniboins, Sioux, etc. They represent the remains of Lord Selkirk's colony and of the Hudson Bay Company. As for many years they were only in small numbers, their incursions within the limits of the United States were attended with danger to themselves, in consequence of outrages committed upon them by the full breeds, the Sioux, the Rikaras, the Mandans, the Minitarees, etc. But they have since greatly increased; they [hunt in] number from 600 to 800 people, and have become so formidable as to compel those tribes to seek an alliance with them, and thus to maintain peace The Metis call themselves "free people," (gens libres); but by their neighbors they are designated as "Metis of the Red river," "the Red river People," "the People of the North"
Additional contemporary accounts place the Metis as highly organized and operating in concert in other locations in what is now North Dakota. In 1843, the naturalist and painter John J Audubon arrived at Fort Union with a large party. Both he and his associate, Edward Harris, kept detailed journals of events during their stay. Audubon's journal entry for July 28 contained a reference about successful Metis and Chippewa hunting in the region:
"I was told this afternoon that at Mouse River, about two hundred miles northwest of this [place], there are eight hundred carts in one gang, and four hundred in another, with an adequate number of halfbreeds and Indians, killing Buffalo and drying their meat for winter provisions, and that the animals are there in millions."
Adapted from: Indian Claims Commission Docket No. 464, 28th Cong., 2d Sess., H. Ex. Doc. No. 52, Report intended to illustrate A Map of the Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River, made by J. N. Nicollet (1845)
Despite their Unique heritage, the Metis were a tribal People
The half-breeds who originated in the Red River region — who are the core who later became the Metis Nation — have been mentioned in fur trade journals, missionary notes, and other primary sources since the beginning of the 19th century as being a “people apart” from either the Indians or the settlers. It was reported that the Red River Metis population consisted of the descendants of about thirteen different tribes, including such tribes as Dakota Sioux, Chipewyan, Blackfeet, Montagnais, and others, but the great majority were of Cree or Ojibwe heritage.
It is known that by about 1815 the Metis had their own chiefs and were politically organized in most of their governmental and economic affairs. One Hudson Bay Company report from 1834 noted that the fur market was over-supplied, and as a result the company was setting prices correspondingly low. This reduction in price was not taken well by the Metis. As a result, the collective Metis joined together and forced the traders (by threat), to buy their pemmican or face a general insurrection.
Their success as a collective “tribe” was witnessed each year as their buffalo hunting trips regularly left with parties of over 1000 hunters armed with guns and carts to haul their millions of pounds of meat and hides back to the fur posts. Throughout the countless descriptions of the early and middle 1800s, the general theme was that the Metis were a unique and separate people that stood apart from both the settlers and the Indians who surrounded them.
The distinction from the Indian tribes in the region did not mean that there were not amicable relations. As relatives by blood and culture, the Metis would regularly camp with and hunt with their related Indian brothers and marry among them. The Metis influence over the Indians was noted in their capacity to serve as mediators during various treaty negotiations — even being included in several treaties themselves. Metis were noted to be part of Treaty 3 in Canada, and were included in the 1863 Old Crossing Treaty between the United States and the Red Lake and Pembina Bands of Ojibwe.
As well, many Metis formed themselves into “bands” (or communities) based on familial ties and geographic location (i.e. hunting and procurement areas). These bands varied considerably, depending on the locality in which they arose, the Indian tribes they descended from and were allied to, the ethnicity and nationality of their fur trader forefathers, and the various roles they played within the fur trade economy. What they had in common was that they were Metis. It was in these interstitial spaces that unique Metis identities were forged. Bands such as the Cypress Hills Hunting Band, Pembina Metis, Milk River and Judith Basin groups, and others coalesced and became noted for their unity and strength.
There can be no mistake that the Metis were indeed an indigenous “tribe” that stood apart from the other indigenous people who surrounded them.
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities