How did the Métis become such a large part of the Turtle Mountain Band? The answer is complicated, but it is one that is based on kinship, trade, and cooperation that developed over decades during the 1800s.
The Métis peoples had existed in the west before 1800, but their numbers were relatively small and scattered, rather than forming a strong force in the region. This changed quickly with the union of the XY and North West companies in 1804, and the economy-oriented reorganization of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1810–11, when many lower-ranking employees were either dismissed or quit when their pay was lowered.
From the very beginning of the fur trade, marriages between European traders and Aboriginal women had created a population of mixed-blood children. In the Great Lakes region and other areas in the Northwest, the Métis formed their own society, separate from that of either of their parents though strongly tied to both. The need of the fur trade for huge amounts of provisions gave the Métis (as well as the plains Cree) a niche on the northern plains, and after the Red River settlement was established it became the focus of a developing Métis nation. As their numbers increased, Métis-Ojibwe groups developed in areas that the Ojibwe had formerly dominated: the Interlake, Swan River, Turtle Mountain and Pembina areas.
Because the Métis were successful hunters and traders, some Ojibwe joined forces with them to obtain more and better prices for furs and access to a higher standard of living through trade goods. The number of mixed-group camps rose with the increase of the Métis population in the west between 1805 and 1812. One of the main settlement areas was at the Pembina Hills; another was at Turtle Mountain. By about 1805, mixed bands were reported near Cumberland House, Saskatchewan, and in 1806 groups were reported even further west.
The cooperative work between the Ojibwe, Cree, and Métis was bolstered by a complex web of kinship ties that minimized conflicts between these groups and allowed them to combine their strengths. As one fur trader remarked of inter-group marriages during this period, “These unions consolidate the interests of the tribes, and are foundations of much social harmony and good fellowship.” In some cases, Métis men even became leaders among these mixed groups―operating as “chief” instead of traditional full-blood leaders as they offered the group the ability to combine the preferential rates given the Métis for their furs with the rights and skills of their Native kin in hunting and gathering.
The cooperation between the Ojibwe and the Métis did not end with hunting. Almost every summer during the 1820s war parties were launched against the Sioux in the lower reaches of what is now North Dakota, mostly in retaliation against attacks made on the Ojibwe living around Pembina. Rather than defensive actions, these war parties were an attempt to gain access to resources and new hunting areas. The new territory wrested from the Sioux included most of the Red River valley down to the Sheyenne River and almost all of what is now northern North Dakota―the area that was formalized as Pembina and Red Lake Ojibwe territory during the 1863 treaty at the Old Crossing.
READ MORE: Peers, Laura L. (Laura Lynn). 1994. “Ojibwa Of Western Canada, 1780 To 1870.” Manitoba Studies In Native History. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.