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A Happy People...

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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