-Written by S. Moen, OMFRC Member. Seen in the May-June 2016 edition of Feathers In The Wind.
What if I were to tell you that the Métis Nation was much larger than history allows us to perceive and has a much more complicated history than that ordinarily known? As I have discovered, Métis ethno genesis occurred in many places differing circumstances. We’re all taught in school that the Métis were comprised of Cree-French fur trading families out of East-Central Canada and that was it, but this is not the whole picture. Other peoples from across the Atlantic have been busy exploring and establishing trades with Indigenous populations and most having the desire to colonize Turtle Island. As they were doing this they brought not only themselves but also slaves. There is also evidence of pre-European Christian contact with the peoples of North Africa and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula.
Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick (Iroquois mixed blood heritage) has done extensive research on the subject of Muslim traders coming to North America prior to the Spanish Inquisition as early as the late tenth century. He has noted that Iberian Muslims traded, settled and intermingled peaceably with the Indigenous populations along the southern east coast of North America. Historical evidence demonstrates this influence in the matters of conduct, dress and dwelling styles, particularly of the Cherokee peoples. Also, the late Martin F. Dunn has done extensive research on Indigenous Mixed Blood communities and at the time of his work he coined the term “The Other Métis” delving into groups that arose in the US and Mexico. Most recently is the works of Brent Kennedy who notably delved into the Turkish heritage of some Melungeon groups and even visited Turkey in his doing his research.
After the Spanish Inquisition we have a number of Christian Europeans coming across the Atlantic to do business with the intention of colonization, and bringing along their slave populations. These slave populations consisted of a number ethnicities including Irish, West Africans and slaves from as far east as Turkey and even India. We also can’t forget the diseases and poor hygiene the Europeans brought, killing off multitudes of Indigenous populations and the many battles fought in the efforts of Indigenous peoples trying to protect their land. But here’s where things get complicated – there were a number of ways that Mixed Indigenous populations arose.
There was the usual way of Europeans marrying Indigenous people in efforts of making socio-political-economic alliances but also, these same Europeans also took many Indigenous people as slaves (Early colonists enslaved survivors from decimated populations through battle or disease). These Indigenous slaves intermarried with the other slaves many of whom were indentured and eventually earned back their freedom. Many retreated westward to be away from the colonizers but some actually became land owners and eventually slave owners themselves – even fighting in the Confederate Army. Although perpetuating whiteness did happen it wasn’t until the Indian Removal Act and the Racial Integrity Act were introduced that mixed marriages became increasingly less desirable. These pieces of legislation were a process that took some time and mixed marriages still occurred. As Indigenous peoples were forced away from their homelands they literally had to decide what colour they were going to be, if they had that privilege to do so, otherwise it was chosen for them – sometimes in court. Some Melungeons remained “unclassifiable” in a sense that they were listed as ‘white’ for voting, ‘Indian’ for school and black for other legislations. In the case of Mixed Indigenous peoples, some joined their cousins on reserves, some became black, some became white, some remained in their homeland hiding in the mountains while others slowly travelled in the general direction of the northwest – like the Métis in Canada. Along their travels they typically married and adopted other Mixed Indigenous people but sometimes married an immigrant all the while secretly maintaining their Indigenous Mixed culture.
One may ask, “how did they maintain their culture under so much pressure to assimilate and be subservient to the colonizers?” We have to remember the extensive travel and trade already happening. Aside from what we already know about the Métis in Canada and their network we have to realize they also travelled all around the US. Indigenous Mixed groups often were the interpreters and guides. Also, as pressure mounted as more people immigrated looking for land many mixed bloods hid in plain sight moving west as other settlers did often residing between white settlers and Indian Country. A well known trade route y’all may recognize is the Mississippi river which was full of Mixed Indigenous groups all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Most prominently, you might even already know, are the Cajuns and Creoles and further to the north up the Mississippi are the Kaskaskians whose main area was Illinois which interestingly enough was supposed to be devoided of all Indigenous groups also, Melungeons of Appalachia. What I have found is that between major migrations are what’s termed “isolates” which means the group remained in one spot for a few generations before moving on. During cycles of migration through the vast network and isolate communities this has maintained Indigenous Mixed cultures. However, some communities were not immune to assimilation. There had been around 200 Mixed Indigenous groups in the US alone prior to the Indian Removal Act and the Racial Integrity Act. Add to that Mestizos of the mid southern States and Mexico and beyond as far as South America and the Caribbean as well as Canada. Surprisingly many groups all working in the grand network. The fact is many of these Indigenous Mixed groups are still around and plan on staying around whether the colonizers like it or not and no matter how far we traveled from our points of ethno genesis. Currently, Métis of Canadian origins are recognized in Canada however, much work needs to continue in the US. Some groups like the Lumbees and Tuscarora have or are in the process of gaining recognition as Indians under US Federal Law however, many groups like the Melungeons are not recognized at either the State or Federal level as they do not wish to be recognized as ‘Indians’ but just as they are. This article is just merely introductory and Métis history is far more rich and complex than people realize and what could possibly be expressed in a short article.
(Editor’s note: The Métis Nation as referred to in this article is in reference to all Métis people)