by James LaForest
What did it mean to be Métis in the Great Lakes Region, historically? What form did historical métissage (the intermarriage and cultural mixing of First Nations/Native Americans, French and French Canadian, and Métis people) take? What impact did British and American (Yankee) military and economic dominance have on mixed-race individuals, families, and communities in the Detroit River region after the French era and as the fur trade diminished? What impact did Métis culture prior to the mid-20th century have on individuals who were members of Great Lakes fur trade families – people who were Métis or part of the kinship networks of Métis families which could be found originally in population centers such as St. Ignace, Green Bay, Kaskaskia, and Detroit? How did a multigenerational Great Lakes Métis culture pre-dating the Red River Métis survive into modern times?
Until recently questions such as these would have been deemed irrelevant to many contemporary scholars and genealogists who have claimed that there was no significant population of Métis in the Detroit River region or Pays d’en haut, no ethno-genesis to remark upon, and therefore no history or culture to study. Others have claimed that, essentially, Indian women forfeited their histories upon marriage to French and French Canadian men and that children from French/Indian unions were simply “French.” Eminent scholars have written that with the end of the fur trade, extensive French Métis fur trade family networks completely assimilated into the new regimes of their times. They would, according to some scholars, simply become an undifferentiated part of Irish, Swedish, German, Czech, Finnish, etc. populations which were then moving into the American heartland, with French Canadian and Métis cultures disappearing from history. A few families, some aver, moved Northwest and threw in their fortunes with the Riel and Dumont forces.
Other scholars have pushed back against such assumptions. There have been works suggesting a more complex relationship between the descendants of the French Métis fur trade families and the British/Americans than complete assimilation on the part of the former. Some writers have recognized attempts to revise history to suit contemporary politics. Some genealogists have looked at the families of the fur trade era with a wide perspective, understanding that in earlier times Detroit and Windsor were essentially one – that modern borders don’t eliminate historical realities. They understand that by focusing narrowly on Detroit, for example, you miss the wider world of French Canadians and Métis in the Great Lakes and the Illinois Country, forgetting (or ignoring) their mobility, their inter-connectedness, and their common culture.
In my publication “A Métis Family in the Detroit River Region and Pays d’en Haut” I explore the genealogy of one family that originated in the Pays des Illinois at Kaskaskia and its interconnectedness with the Detroit River region from about 1700 through the early 20th century. I trace multiple lines of descent that reveal a family history in which generation after generation married other Métis or First Nations people or people long associated with the culture so influenced by Indigenous people. I also show how mistakes or particular points of view have altered the identities of people who had an Indian parent or two parents with recent Indian ancestry and even more so, people with less Indigenous ancestry. This paper seeks to counter the perspectives of scholars and genealogists who have written French Canadian, French Indian, and French Métisup people into the margins of history, or out of history entirely.
For more information on this essay and others see my recent publication announcement.