A short description of a sun dance which took place in July of 1908 and included Cree, Ojibwe, and Red River Metis participants.
The historical Métis Homeland included a vast area extending from western Ontario to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and a multitude of historic communities in what is now Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, Canada, and portions of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana in the United States. Many of these communities are well-known, such as those concentrated around the Red River settlement (Winnipeg), or around Batoche or Edmonton. Smaller, lesser-known communities existed across the homeland throughout history, including many temporary, hivernant (wintering) places.
This map is provided for informational purposes only and is not an exhaustive list, but rather is a work in progress.
St. Joseph (now known as Walhalla) is located in northern North Dakota, approximately 5 miles south of the US/Canadian medicine line. The location was a preferred camping location for the Ojibwe and Métis people during the early 1800s due to the protection that the tree cover and numerous draws and valleys offered. Many small cabins were built there and a small settlement started growing, with many large buffalo hunts originating at this location.
In 1843, trader Norman Kittson decided to open a trading post here to better serve the local community. At about this same time, Joe Rolette helped organize Red River cart trains to haul furs and hides to St. Paul. The new commercial activity created by the increased cart trade drew many new Métis families to the area, and by 1849 there was a resident population of one thousand.
In 1851, Father George Belcourt moved his mission from Pembina to this location and christened the settlement “St. Joseph.” For two decades, St. Joseph was the center of the Métis culture in the United States – reaching a peak population of about 1,200 people.
In 1869, the Hudson’s Bay Company surrendered their possessions in Manitoba and Saskatchewan to the Dominion of Canada. This affected the fur trade economy. Then, in 1870, the US opened a land office and started offering homesteads to European settlers who soon started to edge the Métis and Ojibwe hunters from their hunting lands. By 1877 only a handful of Métis remained in St. Joseph, They were quickly replaced by Scandinavian immigrants who changed the character of St. Joseph and the name of the community to Walhalla.
In 1850, Major Woods visited the Metis at Pembina. He noted that a large number of Metis made their home at Pembina, and that these people were subsisting primarily by hunting buffalo. The old men reported to Major Woods that the buffalo had been depleted about one-half within their lifetime, and they realized that they must soon disappear.
From the best information Major Woods was able to obtain, the population of Pembina at that time consisted of 177 families. Of these, 511 were males and 515 females (about 1,026 people). They had about 600 Red River carts, 300 oxen, 300 work horses; 150 horses for buffalo hunting, and 1,500 hundred cattle. There were a few hogs but no sheep. Woods noted that the Metis population to the north at Red River Settlement was about 4,000 to 5,000.
Woods reported that the Metis at Pembina had tried farming some years before, but they had no market to sell their produce, so they gave it up and now only maintained gardens for personal use. The Metis were making most of their money by serving as trappers, hunters and voyageurs. Dried meat and pemmican were almost their sole source of sustenance, and they would go to the plains in the spring and fall in hunting bands of about 500 men, accompanied by their families. Each family would have from one to ten carts that they would try to fill with pemmican and hides by the end of the season.
The Metis had a system of government and self-rule consisting of a nine-person council. The council in 1850 consisted of Headman J.B. Wilkie, and his counselors J.B. Dumont, Baptiste Vallee, Edward Harmon, Joseph Laverdure, Joseph Nolin, Antoine ‘Labelle’ Azure, Robert ‘Bonhomme’ Montour, and Baptiste Lafournaise. The Metis were recognized as having Indian rights at Pembina, and the US Government took efforts to detach them from the greater body of Metis at Red River Settlement.
In support of Woods’ report, Father Belcourt, the attending Priest at Pembina gave his assessment of the Metis people. Belcourt wrote:
“The half-breeds are mild, generous, polished in their manners, and ready to do a kindness; of great uprightness, not over anxious of becoming rich, contenting themselves with the necessaries of life, of which they are not at all times possessed. They endure with lightness of heart when called upon to work in the course of diverse occupations. They have much openness of spirit, and their children manifest good capacity when taught…They are generally gay and fond of enjoyment; they affect music, there being but few, comparatively speaking, who do not play on the violin. They are a fine physical conformation, robust and full of health and of a swarthy hue. The men commonly marry at the age of seventeen or eighteen and as a general thing are of good morals. The half-breeds number over five thousand souls. They first established themselves at Pembina, near the mouth of the river of that name in 1818, when they had with them a resident Canadian priest. They had also erected a church, and were engaged in the cultivation of the soil with great success, when Major Long visited the country; and having ascertained the latitude, declared it to be south of the 49th degree. St. Louis being the nearest American settlement of any size, and the distance being very great, it was out of the question for the residents of Pembina to hold intercourse with it, except by incurring great expense as well as danger."
"When the US/Canadian border was established, the Hudson Bay Company tried to force the Metis to stay on the Canadian side of the border and make settlement about the mouth of the Assinaboine River, under penalty in case of failure so to do, of being refused all supplies from their store. At that time even more than at present, powder, balls, and net thread for fishing, were articles were necessary to their subsistence. In short they were being obliged to submit…[however] the military posts established at Abercrombie and Pembina served to keep many of the half-breeds from flocking across the line to populate the Red River Valley. [Additionally] we received many thousand sturdy Canadian settlers who became the sturdiest and best of that portion of the state, contributing millions to its wealth. The friction along the border long ago ceased and the utmost good feeling prevails. The Hudson Bay Company still exists but has entirely changed its line of trade and is now interested in the development of the country, rather than in the Indian trade which was its life decades ago."
LOUNSBERRY, C.A. NORTH DAKOTA MAGAZINE, VOL. III SEPTEMBER, 1908 NO. 1: POPULAR HISTORY OF NORTH DAKOTA.
In many instances, women played a prominent role in promoting the health and healing of the people. They not only treated illness in general, but sometimes attended to the special medical needs of other women, particularly at childbirth. This doesn't mean that they were just midwives, as most adult women knew how to assist in labor. Instead, these mashkikiiwikwe, or "medicine women", were called in when complications arose in childbirth or in healing of severe illnesses, and they were paid for their services as specialists.
Mashkikiiwikwe were also consulted by women who wished to induce abortion or prevent a miscarriage. In one particular case, a mashkikiiwikwe mixed certain herbs with other materials and had her patient stand over the smoldering mixture to stave off miscarriage. The woman in question stated that the knowledge of this cure came “to my sister and me from my mother, and she received it from her grandmother... Since no one but my sister and I have this knowledge, and we won't live much longer, it will die when we go; it belongs to our family."
In 1840 Alexander Ross, a Canadian trader, witnessed a buffalo hunt on the Sheyenne River, of which he gives the following account:
At 8 o'clock the cavalcade made for the buffalo, first at a slow trot, then at a gallop, and lastly at full speed. Their advance was on a dead level, the plains having no hollows, or shelter of any kind, to conceal the approach. When within four or five hundred yards, the buffalo began to curve their tails and paw the ground, and in a moment more to take might, and the hunters burst in among them and began to fire.
"Those who have seen a squadron of horse dash into battle may imagine the scene. The earth seemed to tremble when the horses started, but when the animals fled it was like the shock of an earthquake. The air was darkened, and the rapid firing at last became more faint, and the hunters became more distant.
During the day at least two thousand buffalo must have been killed, for there were brought into camp 1,375 tongues. The hunters were followed by the carts which brought in the carcasses. Much of the meat was useless because of the heat of the season, but the tongues were cured, the skins saved, and the pemmican prepared.
For years, buffalo hunting had been carried on as a business, under strict organization. A priest accompanied the hunt to look after the spiritual welfare of the hunters and their families. The women went along to do the drudgery of the camp and care for the meat.
When the herd was reached there was the early morning attack, after due preparation, each hunter killing from five to twenty, according to his skill and equipment, and each was able to claim his own from the size or form or combination of bullet and buckshot used by him.
When the meat was cared for another assault was made on the herd, with which they sometimes kept in touch six to eight weeks, the attacks being repeated until all of the carts and available ponies were loaded for the return trip.
In 1849, 1,210 half-breed carts were among the Pembina hunters. When they halted at night the carts were formed in a circle, the shafts projecting outward. Tents were pitched in one extremity of the enclosure, and the animals gathered at the other end. The camp was a complete organization, captains and chiefs being elected to command.
No person was allowed to act on his own responsibility. nor to use even a sinew without accounting for it. No hunter was allowed to lag, or lop off, or go before, without permission, each being required to take his turn on guard or patrol, and no work was allowed to be done on the Sabbath day. A camp crier was appointed, and any offender was proclaimed a thief, or whatever the nature of the offense might be.
Source: North Dakota history and people, outlines of American history. Clement Lounsberry - W.C. & Cox Co. - 1974
While the modern popular culture image of the Métis man is a jaunty voyageur in a candy-striped Hudson Bay blanket capote with a yarn toque, and a brightly-colored sash wrapped around the coat, reality was less like that European-created myth, but much more interesting.
In general, the standard capote of choice employed by the Métis during the first half of the 19th century was a classic cut, with broad lapels, dropping to about the knees. This coat was most often a beautiful cerulean blue color. When possible, the capote would be fastened by brass buttons (if these were available), but could as easily be fastened by bone disks or other metal available through local traders.
Trousers were most often corduroy – brown, khaki, or black in color – and footwear was usually moccasins that could be beaded or left plain depending on the taste of the wearer. Decorations were limited, primarily the ever-popular sash that is associated with the Métis people, and leg garters that were either beaded leather bands or smaller woven sashes. The waist sash was used as a belt, and the cinching of it about the waist served as a way to secure one’s trousers and keep the capote closed. The leg garters were both decorative and useful – cutting off unwanted airflow into the pants while riding. Headwear was subjective, but often a fur cap (or turban) was worn – much in the fashion of the Ojibwe who used these sorts of hats – especially in cooler weather.
The manner of dress was commented upon in several historical accounts dealing with the Métis men of Red River:
The young [men] of the neighborhood array themselves in the bewildering apparel which obtains upon occasions of this nature: a blue cloth capote, with brass buttons; black or drab corduroy trousers, the aesthetic effect of which is destroyed by a variegated sash, with fringed ends, pendants about the knees; moccasins, and a fur cap with gaudy tassel (Robinson 1879).
In another instance, Hudson Bay Company factor Alexander Ross provides a vivid description of his own encounter with Métis dress:
From Fort Garry I invited my friend to accompany me on a visit to the upper part of the [Red River] settlement, as he was anxious to know what kind of life the Canadians and half-breeds lead in this part of the world. We had not proceeded far before we met a stout, well-made, good-looking man, dressed in a common blue capote, red belt, and corduroy trousers…” Ross continued, “…the universal costume of both French Canadians and half-breeds, the belt [sash] being the simple badge of distinction; the former wearing it generally over, and the latter as generally under the capote. The stature of the half-breeds is of the middle size, and generally slender, countenances rather pleasing than otherwise. In manners mild, unassuming [not effeminate], and somewhat bashful. On the whole, however, they are a sedate and grave people, rather humble than haughty in their demeanor, and are seldom seen to laugh among strangers (Ross 1856).
A more vibrant description of the manner of dress is provided in an 1880 Smithsonian monograph about the Métis:
In their dress the Métis show no marked peculiarities, but betray, in a tempered way, the fondness of the Indian for finery and gaudy raiment. In Manitoba the men usually wear a blue overcoat or capot with conspicuous brass buttons, black or drab corduroy trousers, a belt or scarf around the waist, leggings, and moccasins, the whole variously adorned with colored fringes, scallops, and beads. The legging is an important article of the young [men's dress]; it is usually made of blue cloth, extends to the knee, below which it is tied with a gaudy garter of worsted work, and has a broad stripe of heavy bead work running down the outer seam (Harvard, Norris, et al 1880).
As the century progressed, access to manufactured clothing became easier than sewing leather or blanket cloth. European shirts, trousers, hats, and suits were readily obtainable and much sought after as a symbol of wealth. Even then, the old accoutrements died hard. Sashes, garters, and fringe remained staples of Métis dress.
Another style adopted by Métis men was quite similar to that of the ‘Western Cowboy’, as popularized in North American folklore. This often included dungarees, a fine shirt, ‘cowboy’ hat, kerchief, and an overcoat made of black or dark blue, or a leather jacket with fringes and fur. One of the most famous photographs showing this style of dress is an 1885 photo of Métis general, Gabriel Dumont, dressed in his finest plains outfit, holding his trusty rifle.
Women’s clothing was much more varied and ranged from highly practical to quite fashionable.
During the earlier part of the 19th century, when life consisted of accompanying the men on their annual hunting expeditions onto the plains, women would dress quite often in clothing that mirrored their Indian mothers – with broadcloth dresses, shawls, and always wearing comfortable moccasins that were usually beaded in beautiful floral designs.
When not on the annual hunt, bright colored calicoes, bead-worked shirts, and even store purchased black or dark blue dresses were the norm.
A report on the Metis population provides a very brief description of the standard dress of women in the Red River region during the middle of the 19th century:
The women generally dress in a black gown with a black shawl thrown over the head, in a manner at once comfortable and becoming. The girls often wear a colored shawl about their shoulders and a showy handkerchief upon the head; they like scarlet petticoats and prize gaudy ribbons and jewelry (USACE 1854).
As time went on and the wealth generated by the buffalo hunt started to disappear, store bought clothing was often not an option for some Metis women. In other cases, life on the edge of society, or on reservation, saw innovative measures taken to sew clothing from available materials.
Below is a request by the Indian Agent asking for guns and ammunition for the "Friendly" Indians of the Missouri River. At the time, there was a general prohibition on ammunition, and the Red River Metis were selling ammunition to the River Tribes. Those who bought the ammunition were considered "Hostile".
During my recent trip to Fort Sully and Fort Rice, I found the universal complaint of friendly Indians to be regarding the prohibition of the sale of ammunition. Under the date of 15th September last, I wrote the Hon. Commissioner of Indian Affairs upon the subject. I have the honor to again draw attention of the Commissioner to that communication.
I have advised with all the military, and I have advised with all the others within this agency from Crow Creek to Fort Rice, and I have not yet found one not in favor of setting this order aside. The Indians who gather at these different points are friendly to the government and enemies to the hostile Indians. and fear them as enemies. They say they are willing to help protect the whites if they can only be permitted to purchase the means with which to do it. The Indians inimical (hostile) to the government procure all the ammunition they desire from traffic with the Red river half-breeds. This the friendly Indians understand, and tell me this prohibition has driven many of their young mean into the hostile camp; and again, it is now approaching the season of the year when the Indians, settled along the Missouri river, must subsist to a great extent upon such small game as cannot be successfully hunted with bows and arrows.
Justice to these Indians requires that the order be immediately abrogated. I think it a very dangerous order to enforce among these Indians. At this place, Fort Sully and Fort Rice the Indians of known friendship should be permitted to purchase ammunition in small quantities, sufficient for hunting purposes. An arrangement as to the quantity and manner of purchase can easily be made between the commander of the district, with whom I have conferred upon this subject, and the agent. I trust this subject may be regarded of sufficient importance to command immediate attention.
J. R. HANSON,
United States Indian Agent of the Upper Missouri Sioux.
"Letter of Secretary of the Interior Communicating, in Compliance with a Resolution of the Senate of the 8th Instant, Information Touching the Origin and Progress of Indian Hostilities on the Frontier" Date: Jan 01, 1867 - Dec 31, 1867