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The Métis in Western Canada: O-Tee-Paym-Soo-Wuk

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The BeginningsThe People and Their CommunitiesCulture and Lifeways
Technology

"We should all be proud of being Métis as we are the progeny of the best of two peoples. The early explorers and fur traders were the strongest bravest most adventuresome of European males — the weaklings did not last long in this new world and soon returned to the lands of their origin. The ones that remained selected the strongest and most beautiful of Indian women as their mates, and we are the children of these unions."

- Adrian Hope (co-founder of the Federation of Métis Settlements and forming member of the Alberta Native Communications Society)

Native societies throughout what would eventually become Canada had different languages, customs, and spiritual beliefs. For example, there were five distinct Native societies that lived in or adjacent to Canada's prairie west. Correspondingly, these five Native societies were: Chipewyan, Cree, Ojibwa, Assiniboine, and Blackfoot. They spoke five distinct languages. In search for game, these people moved seasonally within defined territories. Some of these Native societies had alliances with each other; while others, such as the Chipewyan and the Cree, were enemies.

Trading among different Native groups existed long before the arrival of Europeans. For example, archaeological evidence indicates that the Assiniboine and the Cree traded fur hides and preserved meats for corn, bean, and squash with the Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa to the south. Complex trading patterns among Native allies often involved travelling over long distances by well-known waterways. Cooperation, sharing, generosity, and trading were essential to community building and survival. These trading sessions could last for weeks with ceremonies and gifts exchanged before the actual trading began.

While basic territories existed, it did not mean boundaries didn't shift or those Native societies were static and didn't spread into others territories. For example, the Assiniboine had originally been a branch of the Dakota Sioux. They separated from the main tribe sometime in the early 1600s. They made their way north, to the Lake-of-the-Woods area. Their neighbours the Objibwa gave them the name Assiniboine, which means "people who cook with stones" — after the Assiniboine custom of using hot stones to boil meat in hide bags.

Many Native societies viewed marriage or a union between a man and a woman as a means of forming economic kinship alliances. Generally, the man was expected to respect the woman's customs. With the family's consent, the alliance was confirmed by exchanging goods. Among the Cree, the man initially lived with the woman’s family, shared the products of his hunts, and stayed with them until he proved he could support the woman and their first born child. As indicated, trading goods and forming kinship alliances through marriage was not a foreign concept to Native societies. For many Native groups, the arrival of Europeans meant opportunities to increase their power and to trade for desired goods such as horses, gunpowder, firearms, awls, fabric, sewing needles, kettles, knives, and hatchets. As well, they could form kinship alliances. For Europeans, the fur trade and partnerships with Native groups meant that not only could they survive in an unknown wilderness, they could also profit from European's ravenous appetite for fur.

Supply and demand for mass-market consumerism was a new concept for Native groups but they proved highly adaptive. Natives were adept at playing fur companies off each other, adjusting to not just supplying furs, but also acting as middlemen and provisioners. For instance, "Home Guard" Cree sold game and fish to Hudson's Bay Company posts. One of the most illuminating examples of how Native groups adapted to the changes brought by Europeans and incorporated them into their own culture was the speed by which bands from the Cree and the Assiniboine shifted from making a living in a woodland environment to making a living in a grassland economy, with mounted buffalo hunting as their main focus.

To meet their needs, enterprising Métis adopted technologies from European and Native cultures. Aboriginal females passed on Native languages, kinship alliances, and wilderness survival skills to their Métis children. To their progeny, European men passed on French or English languages, in certain instances, a European education, and technologies such as firearms, the York boat, and the cart. By the 1800s, Métis were working as guides, post factors, clerks, freighters, canoe men and packers, interpreters, hunters, trappers, provisioners, labourers, merchants, woodcutters, gold miners, carpenters, masons, and farmers. To capture the independent trait of many Métis, the Cree named them o-tee-paymsoo-wuk, which means ‘their own boss.’

Métis clothing, modes of transportation, wilderness survival skills, food, and shelter provide concrete examples that illustrate how successfully the Métis merged Native and European technologies.

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Liens Rapides

Early Métis Clothing

Food

Hunting and Fishing

Shelter

Travel and Transportation

Written Language

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