A relationship based on blood and mutual benefit
By the end of the 18th century a few Ojibwa bands were residing west of Lake Winnipeg where they were exploiting the rich game on the fringes of the prairies. This branch later became known as the Plains Ojibwa since some of them moved farther south, became bison hunters, and were influenced by other aspects of the culture of the Indians of the northern Plains. In the lower Red River Valley, the Ojibwa had become well established by the early 19th century. Here they were called Saulteaux, referring to their former association with Sault Ste Marie, or Bungi, meaning “a little of something,” because of their reputed habit of asking the settlers for a little of this or that when trading. They joined the white traders in some of the bison hunting efforts that were carried on from this locality. It was here in the Red River Valley that considerable race mixture took place, leading to the emergence of the Métis.
By the 1820s, the rising Métis population began organizing large-scale bison hunts that set out from Red River each summer and autumn. The huge scale of the Métis hunts meant that the Métis dominated the colony and trade market for provisions. This domination caused some tension at times, particularly as the Métis were usually paid more for their hides and meat than were the Ojibwa. Despite this, what the Ojibwa lost in trade to Métis competition, they gained in access to the big herds when they started to work with their relative Métis on joint hunts.
In addition to gaining new access to more buffalo, the Ojibwa benefitted from the large size of the main camp of the Métis hunt in another way, for it made them less vulnerable to Sioux attacks and therefore enabled them to venture farther into Sioux territory after both buffalo and Sioux scalps. More than one hunt was disrupted, or ended in payments to cover the dead, by Ojibwa camp followers picking a fight with a party of Sioux encountered by chance.
With the post-merger reorganization of the Hudson's Bay Company, approximately two-thirds of the fur-trade labor force, most of whom were Métis, became redundant and was dismissed to wander freely on the prairies and to mingle with their Ojibwe and Cree relatives. In 1821, there were at least 500 Métis in a settlement at Pembina as well as those established in the Red River colony. The Pembina group moved to Red River in 1823, and by 1831 there were 1,300 Métis in and around the colony. These people retained strong ties to their Native kin, and like them they relied on a mixed subsistence base of hunting, fishing, growing small garden plots, and harvesting berries and maple sugar.
As the bison hunts grew larger, the herds moved further away to avoid the annual hunts. This meant that the Ojibwa and Red River Métis were forced to venture deeper into Sioux territory to find bison, which resulted in the Sioux being pushed further south and west and gaining more territory for the Ojibwa.
In 1831 there were some 1,300 Métis in and around Red River, as well as the settlement at St. Joseph near Pembina, and approximately 820 carts accompanied the hunt. By 1843 there were 2,600 Métis, and 1,210 carts accompanied the 1840 hunt; by 1856, the Métis population had risen to 3,250 and the hunts had continued to grow. Ojibwa from the Red River, southern Interlake, Assiniboine River, Turtle Mountain, and Pembina areas almost always participated in these hunts, both to gain the benefit of large-scale communal hunting and to allow them to approach the herds in enemy territory.
Hallowell, A. Irving (Alfred Irving), and Jennifer S. H. Brown. 1991. “Ojibwa Of Berens River, Manitoba: Ethnography Into History.” Case Studies In Cultural Anthropology. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.
Peers, Laura L. (Laura Lynn). 1994. “Ojibwa Of Western Canada, 1780 To 1870.” Manitoba Studies In Native History. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities