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The Complex Issue of Metis Identity


Métis dancers performing at the Ryan Keplin Summer Fest in Belcourt, N.D., July 15, 2015.
The Complex Issue of Metis Identity
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A debate over identity is playing out over a people most Americans have never even heard about.

The group are called Métis, a French word for “mixed.” They are the descendants of French animal trappers and native women during the 1600s in today’s Western Canada.

In time, the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of these couples married each other. Métis developed their own language, their own music, their own style of clothes, and their own kind of food. In other words, they developed their own culture.

Métis became known for the red sash they wore, jig dancing, as well as the Red River cart, used as transportation throughout the 19th century.
Métis became known for the red sash they wore, jig dancing, as well as the Red River cart, used as transportation throughout the 19th century.

By the early 1800s, the Métis had created a new political identity, too. It was centered in a colony in the present-day Canadian province of Manitoba. But some established settlements in the United States, too.

After the U.S. and Canada settled their borders, many American Métis were grouped with other native people and ended up on Indian reservations. Over time, some families have kept their Métis identity and culture. Others have lost it completely.

Jt Shining One Side, also known as Joyce T. Belgarde, didn’t learn about her Métis heritage until she went to college. “Michif (the Métis language) was spoken in the home, but my parents were products of Indian boarding school, where they were beaten for speaking other languages, so they didn’t want to teach us about that way of life,” she said.
Jt Shining One Side, also known as Joyce T. Belgarde, didn’t learn about her Métis heritage until she went to college. “Michif (the Métis language) was spoken in the home, but my parents were products of Indian boarding school, where they were beaten for speaking other languages, so they didn’t want to teach us about that way of life,” she said.

In Canada, the government officially recognized Métis in 1982 as one of three aboriginal groups. They received the same hunting, fishing and land use rights as the First Nation and the Inuit.

But these days, a record number of people are claiming Métis identity, both in Canada and the U.S. Many of these claims, said anthropologist Kade Ferris, are not true. He said some use the word “Métis” to mean they are mixed race Native and non-Native. But, he said, the term really describes being part of a particular culture or nation.

Others are only looking to use the tax breaks and land use rights given to the “real” Métis, say members of the Métis National Council.

A Métis man and his two wives, artist unknown, circa 1825-1826
A Métis man and his two wives, artist unknown, circa 1825-1826

In 2017, the Canadian government signed a nation-to-nation agreement with the Métis Nation and has promised $516 million over 10 years to support housing, health and educational needs.

In the U.S., Métis are working to relearn their language, Michif, and continue to celebrate their history and culture in festivals and other events. But they are not trying to gain independent recognition.

Rosalyn LaPier is a Métis writer and member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. She said separating Métis from Chippewa or Cree would be impossible because their cultures are so combined.

“But we know who we are,” she added.

I’m Susan Shand.

Cecily Hilleary reported this story for VOA. Susan Shand adapted for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

descendantn. someone who is related to a person or group of people who lived in the past

jig v. a dance, hopping to music

aboriginal adj. of or relating to the people and things that have been in a region from the earliest time

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