The Unique Red River People

Updated: Sep 14

In the 1885 book “The Indian sign language”, a very detailed description of the Red River Half-breeds is given by the author, with a comprehensive reasoning as to why mixed did not necessarily equal Metis.


Their explanation is as follows:


“Until some years after the formation of the Canadian Confederation in 1870, when emigrants began to enter the country, there was an almost total absence of white female population. For about a century, therefore (since about the late 1700s), there had been a gradual increase in the number of half-breeds, as the Europeans employed in the fur trade married with women purely Indian during the earlier decades, and subsequently in increasing numbers with the daughters and descendants of their predecessors.


From the European point of view there are two classes of half-breeds, usually known as English and French half-breeds; the former being descended from an English-speaking, and the latter from French speaking, ancestry. There is a well-defined difference between these, and they have not much amalgamated. They all agree in an intimate speaking acquaintance with their Indian mother-tongue. The French half-breeds, however, are a race of hunters and travelers, who have never taken very kindly to agricultural pursuits in the various settlements which have been established in the Indian country, while the English half-breeds have as a class been mildly successful agriculturists, and in the Red River country and on the Saskatchewan, have become comfortably established as settlers.


In point of religion the French half-breeds are chiefly Roman Catholics, and the English mainly Protestants. Their improvement has been for many years one of the chief objects of the labors of missionaries of all creeds in the Indian country. As a class the half-breeds have no special written laws, conforming themselves in this respect to the habits of the Indians while in the Indian country, and to the laws of the whites among whom they live on the frontier. While actually in the field chasing the buffalo, however, they are under a very strict discipline, administered by a captain and staff of assistants, whose office is by general election of the camps.


They reside throughout the whole Northwest Territory, but there are certain localities where settlements of more or less pretensions have been formed, such as Red River settlement in Manitoba, and Prince Albert on the Saskatchewan.”



The author continues, describing the native parentage of the Red River half-breeds:


“What are known as the Red River half-breeds are mostly of white and Algonquin extraction; i.e. Chippewa and Cree. I have seen them this side of the British line on their hunts and in their winter quarters, and they are veritable gypsies.


The men dress in civilized clothing, but all wear moccasins, and a sash (usually red) around the waist for ornament and to sustain the trousers. The women also wear the ordinary dress of civilization, usually made of calico. The men and boys are fine horsemen, ordinarily using for a saddle merely a pad stuffed with hair, often handsomely beaded. The stirrups are small, made of iron or leather, and are attached to the pad with a narrow strap. The women ride in the carts. During the winter they select some wooded and well-sheltered place for their camps, and construct log houses. If their fall hunt has been successful, and they have a sufficient supply of dried meat and pemmican, in addition to that sold for sugar, coffee, and flour, to last them during the winter, and they can secure a few barrels of whiskey, they seem to be perfectly happy. Many of them are fair musicians, and they all seem fond of such sounds as they can worry out of their cracked and seedy violins. Unlike the full -blood Indians, the men perform their share of the work, and as the women do not suffer such great privations and hardships…it is not infrequent for them to bear from eight to fourteen children.”


In concluding the unique nature of the Red River people as distinct and not an amalgamation of anyone mixed, the author states:


“There are several thousand of these people who might very properly be classed as a band or tribe, and the Red River Half-breeds are the only ones who, so far as I know, form a genuine tribe. Of course at each of our agencies there are usually found mixed blooded Indians…Indians whose parents belonged to different tribes…but it is not customary to so class or consider them [as related to the Red River half-breeds].”


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Clark, W. P. (1885). The indian sign language, with brief explanatory notes of the gestures taught deaf-mutes in our institutions for their instruction, and a description of some of the peculiar laws, customs, myths, superstitions, ways of living, code of peace and war signals of our aborigines, by W.P. Clark .. L.R. Hamersly.



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