By: Vanessa Nim
Illustration by: Yvette Sin
My Métis ancestors were known by many names — half-breeds, mixed bloods, Bois-Brûlés, country born — but my favourite is the “Flower Beadwork People”. The Dakota and the Cree referred to us this way because of the distinctive beadwork patterns created by Métis women near the turn of the 19th century. The patterns combined the detailed artistry of First Nations beadwork with European floral embroidery designs. The result was a vibrant, intricate piece of cultural heritage within the violence of colonialism. Métis women, born of duelling ancestries, stitched together a new cultural identity. This is what I mean when I say I am Métis. It means my blood is blended, both ancient and completely new.
The work created by the Flower Beadwork People was a blend of beauty between red and white blood. Natives and Europeans alike knew our people for this unique artistry. During the 19th century, Métis beadwork was in high demand among European traders and became a huge economic driver for Métis families. However, Europeans wanted the experience of buying from a “real Indian”, so many Métis were forced to sell their craft to First Nations and Inuit traders. Because of this, much of the work by Métis artists — by the Flower Beadwork People — has been credited to other Indigenous peoples, mainly from the Cree and Ojibwe nations. This is what it means to be Métis. It means to be hidden, but to thrive through invisibility.
As rooted as the river, and just as in danger
Sitting at my grandparent’s kitchen table, I listened to my mother laud about her “whiteness”. She was telling us a story about how a lady at the food bank she volunteers at had asked if she was half Asian. My mother has small eyes and half-Asian children — two facts that often land her assumptions of also having Asian heritage.
“I’m so white, I tell people that my ancestor Peter Fidler has got a monument in Elk Point, Alta.,” my mother says, jamming a finger in the air proudly, referring to the accomplishments of our European ancestor.
“Well, no,” my grandfather chimed in, “because he married a fucking Indian.”
The “Indian” my grandfather referred to was Mary Mackagonne, a Swampy Cree woman. Reliant on Mary’s traditional knowledge, she and Peter canoed across Alberta surveying and mapping the land. Together, they had 14 children. These children were a part of one of the original Métis peoples, spending their lives first in what is now Alberta, and eventually in the Red River Settlement in what is now known as Manitoba. My ancestors remained in Red River for generations. They formed a faction of the growing Red River Métis community and eventually moved to adjacent areas following the Métis scrip.
This is what I mean when I say I am Métis. It means I am a descendant of the Red River Métis, with an ancestral connection to what is commonly referred to as part of the Métis homeland. It means I have had, and always will have, ties to the land in what is now western Canada — mainly Alberta and Manitoba. As Métis poet Katherena Vermette wrote in her collection River Woman, “my blood has been here forever / as rooted as the river / and just as in danger.”
The hidden peoples
For most of my life, I did not understand or recognize this connection — this lineage or heritage — of mine. The first time I heard my grandfather directly refer to himself as Métis was only a few years ago. Until then, not even my grandmother — who he has been married to for 43 out of his 63 years of life — had heard him call himself Métis.
This obscurity of heritage is common among many Métis families. Many Métis of my grandfather’s generation and the generations prior were ashamed, and often afraid, of wearing their heritage and culture proudly. A podcast by the Library and Archives of Canada titled, “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Métis Nation”, explains that “following the Métis resistance at Red River in 1869 [to] 1870 and in Saskatchewan in 1885, it became unwise and sometimes dangerous to publicly self-identify. As a group, Métis survived largely by being invisible, a tactic that existed until the 1960s.”
In a video for the 100 Métis project, which aimed to put a spotlight on Métis identity and experience, Jayme Menzies, a Métis from Manitoba, says, “I grew up being regaled with stories or tales of [my family's] upbringing, all of which have very obvious tidbits of the Métis culture in them, but if you asked my mother and my [grandmother] if they were Métis, they would deny it still. Unfortunately they grew up in a time when they were encouraged to deny that blood in their culture.”
Like with the Flower Beadwork People, it was often more beneficial for Métis to identify with either our Native or European heritage, rather than own the beauty of our blended blood.
Nothing less, nothing more
Since the inclusion of Métis as a distinct Aboriginal peoples within the Canadian Constitution in the Daniels Decision of 1982, more Métis have begun to wear our heritage proudly. However, for many people – Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike – Métis identity remains a mystery.
The other week, my friend told me I should take a DNA ancestry test to see how much “real Native” blood I have in me. I had to laugh. My blood is both ancient and completely new. 23andMe cannot tell me who or where I come from. As Vermette writes, “we are nothing less / than the whole stretched-out sky / nothing more / than the loose hair that dances in it.”
That is what it means to be Métis.