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Métis people were bridges between white and Native American communities

The Métis cultural community of Pembina formed out of fur trade dynamics and influenced Minnesota during its territorial birth.

The term “métis” [\mā-tē(s)\] has more than one meaning.

One references a person with bi-ethnic ancestry (métis means “mixed” in French) and is usually written with a lowercase “m.” For example, in Minnesota before statehood, having one Dakota parent and one Scottish parent made one métis. Government officials kept special census records, like the “Sioux Métis rolls,” of bi-ancestry persons.

An unidentified Métis fur trader of Native American and French ancestry, ca. 1870.
Minnesota Historical Society
An unidentified Métis fur trader of Native American and French ancestry, ca. 1870.
Another meaning of the term identifies present-day members of the Métis Nation of Canada. This specific bi-ancestry group practices distinct ways of life. People representative of both groups — the métis and the Métis Nation — were involved in the fur trade era in pre-territorial Minnesota and around the Great Lakes.

Mothers of Métis and bi-ancestry children of the Great Lakes region came from the Dakota and Ojibwe nations as well as the Menominee, Potawatomi, Meskwaki, Sauk, Ho Chunk, Odawa, Cree, and Assiniboine. Scottish, Irish, French, and British fathers lived during the French, British, and American periods of colonization. They were coureurs de bois (French or métis traders), voyageurs, artisans, merchants, soldiers, officers, and government workers. Additionally, some bi-ancestry children had one Black parent and one Native parent.

Historical accounts describe marriages of men with African ancestry with Native women. James Thompson (eventually freed from slavery) married a Dakota woman in 1833. Joseph Godfrey escaped slavery and married a Dakota woman named Takanyeca in 1857. Pierre Bonga, a free man, married an Ojibwe woman, and their son George Bonga married Ashwewin, who was Ojibwe as well. These men lived and died in close association with their wives’ communities.

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Marriages with Native women allowed the men to build bonds with their wives’ extended families. These husbands tapped into new economic opportunities, accessed hunting areas, influenced trading and benefited from the many skills and kinship ties of their Native wives. The women themselves also gained social status, influence, and access to resources. Some of these marriages were á la façon du pays, French for “according to the custom of the country.” In some cases, the European and American colonial powers legally recognized marriages as well as divorces. Some fathers were committed to raising their bi-ancestry children; others abandoned them.

Historically, métis lived with complicated identities. In pre-territorial and territorial Minnesota, bi-ancestry people acted as translators, guides, teachers, farmers, traders, missionaries, and entrepreneurs. The métis were able to use different parts of their identity in order to survive day to day. This made for a variety of life stories.

Jane Lamont, the Scottish and Dakota granddaughter of the Dakota leader Mahpiya Wicasta (Cloud Man), lost both her parents before she was 19 years old. She was at first a teacher, then chose homesteading and marriage to the nephew of the missionary Samuel Pond. On the other hand, Mary Taliaferro Woodbury, another métis woman, lived with her children in St. Paul. She lost her husband, a soldier, in 1863, then moved her family to a reservation in 1887 or 1888 to live with her Dakota relatives.

In the 1820s, the number of bi-ancestry families and children in Minnesota soared. This began to change in the mid-to-late 1800s, when the need for the métis as go-betweens declined. At this time, métis faced increasingly negative reactions from society for being persons of dual ancestry. Social options for the métis became more limited. Some tried to join mainstream, Euro-American ways of life (at least outwardly). Others moved with Native relatives to reservations.

Native nations often looked after their bi-ancestry relatives. Pelagie Faribault, a woman of multi-ethnic Dakota ancestry, received land through an 1820 treaty with the Dakota. Roughly between 1830 and 1851, the Lake Pepin region contained land set aside by treaty for bi-ancestry families. Much of it was lost to white colonists or exchanged for land certificates (scrip) in other locations. A draft of a U.S. treaty with the Pembina and Red Lake Ojibwe — written in 1851 but never ratified — included a sum of money for dual ancestry relatives.

MNopedia logoVarious bi-ancestry families usually lived near fur-trading sites from the late 1700s into the 1800s. Many raised children next to each other. Some lived near Fort Snelling and in Mendota, Prairie du Chien, and, later, Lake Pepin (on the Mississippi River). Many of them knew the Red River and Pembina Métis and often interacted with them.

International and state borders shifted during the 19th century so that the Pembina Métis community was sometimes in Canada and at other times in Minnesota, Dakota, and Iowa Territories. Minnesota played a geographically important role to the culturally distinct Métis in Canada. The distinct Plains Red River Métis, or “La Nation,” routinely traveled on oxcart routes starting in the 1820s. These routes went through what is now Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, Fort Snelling in St Paul, Pembina in North Dakota, and the Red River Colony in Manitoba, Canada.

These Métis traded and conducted business of various kinds. Minnesota Territory, before statehood, actually included Pembina. Pembina also had a Minnesota Territorial representative, Joseph Rolette, who had married into a culturally Métis family.

Brigades of Métis hunters with ox-drawn wooden carts went after buffalo until the mid-19th century. The hunting of buffalo sometimes caused conflict with nearby Native American nations. A form of seasonal food gathering continues to the present day in Métis communities.

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Louis Riel, the famous leader of the Canadian Red River Métis, visited a relative in Minnesota in 1878 and, for a short time, lived in St. Paul. He approached John Ireland, the city’s Roman Catholic Bishop, and asked for help in resettling “Canadiens” to the United States. Some were probably Métis.

Ireland did not help Riel. In 1885, the Canadian government ordered his death for his role in organizing Métis armed resistance. The French Canadian town of Gentilly, Minnesota, mourned the execution as a symbol of the oppression of French speakers.

In the Red River Valley and Pembina, Métis intermarried and passed on a culture combining what their parents had brought from their own backgrounds. Certain symbols persist in the present day as markers of Métis life. Brightly colored sashes and the sash dance, floral beadwork, and the infinity symbol flag are symbols of Métis culture. Métis music and dance traditions include jigging, fiddling, and tunes such as the Duck Dance Fiddle Song. Some Métis families celebrate Easter and maple sugar season with specific foods, like crepes with maple syrup. Linguists recognize the French Métis language and Michif as official languages spoken in the United States and Canada.

As of 2017, Canada and the United States maintain different métis policies. Canada formally recognizes some Métis groups as having legal rights. The United States does not view métis peoples as a distinct group. Nonetheless, métis people in several states have formed organizations based on cultural heritage and métis rights.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.