While it is natural for people to try to separate Métis from Indian – especially here and now when we try to identify who is what for purposes of things like hunting rights, educational benefit, and enrollment or citizenship in Indigenous communities – during the early 1800s, ethnicity and ethnic identity was a very fluid thing for those people who would later become the nucleus of the Métis Nation during the 1870s.
In July of 1832 Father George A. Belcourt, a priest from Québec who was familiar working with Indian people was assigned to work with the local Saulteaux community surrounding Red River. His assignment was desired because there was a growing concern that the Anglicans were having influence on the native population which could lead to a shift in alliance of the Indian population. Belcourt selected a site for his mission along the Assiniboine River at a location where a large number of Saulteaux Indians and Métis gathered and camped during the spring. The exact location of the first mission, known as St. Paul des Saulteaux, was somewhere on the left bank of the Assiniboine River, somewhere near Portage La Prairie or St. Eustache. Once the Mission was established, St-Paul des Saulteaux was inhabited primarily by Saulteaux Indians, or Métis who were affiliated with the Saulteaux bands.
During the 1840 census of the Red River, St-Paul des Saulteaux (Saulteaux Village) listed ninety-eight people residing in the village grouped into twenty-three households. Only 13 “homes” were enumerated with most people residing in tents and tipis. The surnames of most heads of household were apparently Métis (i.e. French or Scottish derived), but it cannot be assumed that these individuals were ethnically or cultural different than the full-blood Saulteaux of the region. The settlement was quite well known and drew annual visits from many of the surrounding Saulteaux bands. Visits from Red Lake Chippewa (from Minnesota) were also recorded.
The Mission, although serving as a winter and spring camp for the Saulteaux/ Métis, was not a permanent settlement by any means. Most residents were prone to travel across their territory hunting for most of the year and sometimes returned to the location infrequently (e.g. every few years, or so). Despite the efforts of Father Belcourt, most of the Saulteaux were unwilling to settle permanently.
By the 1860s the Mission was moved to the location of Baie St-Paul and had become a “Métis” rather than Saulteaux settlement. Nonetheless, this community shows that at least until the 1860s or 1870, ethnic identity of the Métis was a relatively fluid thing. While the Métis culture was developing and solidifying as a distinct phenomenon, for much of the early part of the century most (eventual) Métis could assume the identity of their Indian bands (such as the Saulteaux) and could pass between identities without problems – a truly unique truth that speaks to the indigenous, rather than white/settler, basis of the Métis Nation.
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities