The Storykeepers: Folklore & Family Tales from the Great Lakes Métis and French-Canadian Tradition
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The goal of The Storykeepers is simple: to tell the story of French Canadian and Métis culture in the Great Lakes in our own words –– through personal reflections, first-hand accounts, and family stories. The most vital part of this effort is your voices. We invite you to make a contribution to this project by sending us short essays telling about your connection to French Canadian and Métis culture in the Great Lakes Region. For more information contact the editor of this blog, James LaForest, through the comments section or at email@example.com.
The following is our growing archive of contributions to The Storykeepers
This inaugural story for The Storykeepers Project reflects the experience of many French Canadians in Michigan whose families have lost the simple awareness of their heritage. Discovery in this case has led to a profound change in the author’s life and a deep appreciation of previously unknown connections.—ed.
Sue Palmer’s contribution to The Storykeepers Project shows how French Canadian ancestry has often been obscured through the generations due to anglicized surnames. It also shows that having tangible reminders of our ancestry, even something like an old church record, can elicit strong emotional responses. In this case, digitized records of old family occasions revealed a new world of family history and helped shape a new sense of personal identity.—ed.
Genealogy is an important element of French Canadian culture. Genealogies back to the first emigrants began appearing in the 19th century. But as John Goulait writes, there are often roadblocks to discovering your heritage. And what happens when heritage is based partly on oral tradition or family lore? Can records legitimize identity or do they simply serve to verify our knowledge? French Canadians often have family stories that have long been difficult to prove, yet are increasingly verified through modern research and science.—ed.
JAMES LaFOREST for THE STORYKEEPERS #4 “FOR ST. ANNE’S DAY”
Among the pantheon of characters in the French North American narrative, St. Anne is firmly established as one of the earliest and most important. The grandmother of Jesus and the Mother of Mary, St. Anne was already an important figure among French Catholics, with one of the earliest sites of devotion to her found in northern France. St. Anne is the patron saint of Brittany where many early settlers embarked from, as well as of those who voyage by sea. Among the First Nations, St. Anne was quickly understood as ‘grandmother’ and acquired a deep and lasting significance among First Nations, Metis, and French Canadians alike.—ed.
Vivian LeMay, the author of The Last Lord of Paradise – A Family Saga of Early Michigan French Canadians, presents a reflection on childhood in the Detroit River Region. The experience she describes of having family on both sides of the river, many speaking French, is one of the unique qualities of the French Canadian experience in the region. Many generations of French Canadians have had family on both sides of the Detroit River and families often moved back and forth many times over the course of centuries, and continue to do so.—ed.
For many French Canadians today, even those born through the 1970s, growing up in large families was not an uncommon experience, due in part to adherence to the tenets of the Catholic church. Human nature being what it is, individual experience within large families is varied. In this contribution by Jesse LaForest, we encounter a range of experiences, with an emphasis on family ties and faith. And we see how traditional pursuits such as hunting and trapping, practiced by French Canadians in the region for centuries, continued on into the 20th century.—ed.
For many decades, popular culture did little to tell us the true story of history in North America, and in fact often presented erroneous, misleading, and stereotypical characterizations of historical figures. We often know an image, like the red-capped voyageur and his Indian maiden, but little else. In reality their lives were spent at the crux of history when new cultures were emerging and during what seems to us, times of constant struggle. Such is the case with Paul Drouillard’s ancestor, George Drouillard, whose skill and daring puts him in the pantheon of great explorers.—ed.
Historical Archaeologist Pat Tucker chanced upon the court case of Jean-Baptiste Beaugrand while researching another case connected to French Canadian history. This research culminated in an article for Michigan’s Habitant Heritage (Jan 2006) on territorial court records as a source for French-Canadian history, culture, and genealogy. The trial of Beaugrand and its connection to the legend of Sans Souci brings to light the extent to which folklore was integrated into the French-Canadian culture of early Michigan…and resulted in a surprising verdict in a murder case.—ed.
It is often difficult to understand the motivations of previous generations. For example, looking through a family lineage, surnames are not always fixed from one generation to another, changing for a variety of reasons. The same can be said for identity. Here is a story about re-embracing French Canadian identity in Ontario and, through an immersion program, choosing French as the language of daily life.—ed.
Writer and photographer Christopher Chagnon shares here an excerpt from his recent novel “The Dregs of Presque Isle.” Raised in Northern Michigan, Chagnon shines a light on the darker side of small town life through the prism of a French Canadian family living above their family owned funeral home. One of twelve children, his work is peppered with the Joual heard during his youth. In this excerpt he sets the stage with a particularly life-changing event. (Please be advised – contains description of embalming.)—ed.
Jeannine Sills, President of La Société des filles du Roi et soldats du Carignan (SFRSC) and native of The Soo, Ontario, reflects on history and how her own story, and that of her parents, echoes the travels and experiences of our early ancestors. She gives voice to the feeling many have of a deep connection to the Great Lakes region as a place we call home — and as a place where many of our families have lived for generations.—ed.
In a departure from our usual format of contributions from named authors, this week we offer a folktale known in some families and communities along the shore of Lake St. Clair. This story reflects a dilemma that many people face in researching and telling their family history. But at heart, it’s just a local tale and like all such tales, might tell us something about ourselves and our collective history. —ed.
This contribution from Mike Dubé vividly illustrates the challenges that francophones encounter in Ontario. While on the American side of the Great Lakes, the language of our forebears is all but gone, Ontario has a francophone population of around 500,000 people. Yet despite this, family dynamics, popular culture, and many other reasons may lead young people away from their heritage. Here is one story of a return to the language of youth, and a determination to pass on French and Franco-Ontarian heritage to the next generation.—ed.
For our special “Heritage Day edition” of The Storykeepers Project, storyteller, musician, and folklorist Genot Picor has shared with us the story of the ‘Haunted Sugar Cabin.’ Few things evoke French Canadian culture as readily as maple syrup…except for perhaps a good folktale involving spirits and visions in the night! It was a long winter in the thinly populated lands of New France. Many are the tales that our ancestors wove in the night, and happy are we who have inherited them.—ed.
Why a Cajun folktale? Life in the ‘French River World’ involved extensive travel – from Quebec and Acadia, to the Great Lakes, and beyond, including many voyages up and down the Mississippi between the centers of French life. Writer Beverly Matherne, a Louisiana native and longtime resident of the Upper Peninsula, brings to life these cultural intersections in the story ‘Théodule.’ In both English and French she offers her version of a tale she heard among speakers of Occitan in Southwest France. Filtered through a Cajun worldview, the character Théodule rings familiar to people marginalized because of their language and culture, an experience of Occitan speakers, Cajuns, and French Canadians alike.—ed.
GLORIA BAUER ISHIDA for THE STORYKEEPERS #16 “ORIGINS UNKNOWN”
In an age when so much information is available to us online, it can be frustrating to genealogists who encounter mysteries in seemingly simple affairs as the origins of a relatively recent ancestor. Gloria Bauer Ishida writes about one such mystery. Her story also illuminates an ‘intermarriage’ – between a French-Canadian blacksmith and an Alsatian immigrant and the challenges this may have presented, from language barriers to homesickness.—ed
The story of New France is closely bound up with the story of religion. Officially open only to Catholics, historians show that early New France also saw Huguenots trickle in quite regularly. However, Roman Catholicism remained the dominant faith. But with the 19th and 20th centuries French Canadians, like all groups, became more free to break with tradition. Susan Colby’s ancestors are an example of French Canadians changing their practice and moving to America for a greater freedom of religion. —ed.
MIKE LAFOREST for THE STORYKEEPERS #18 “CHERISHING FAMILY”
Readers will find three contributors to The Storykeepers Project named LaForest, including myself, Jesse LaForest, and now my brother Mike. Mike’s memories of growing up include a whole range of people and experiences that came well before my own birth. With large families like ours, it can be a bit like two generations of children in one! He relates in his contribution the importance of the wide range of family experiences he had in determining his connection to our heritage, especially the priceless time many of us were able to spend with our grandparents.—ed
The following has been collected and collated by Marie-Reine Mikesell with contributions from Virgil Benoit and Ralph Naveaux. Marie-Reine Mikesell is a longtime promoter and activist for French Canadian culture. She has kindly agreed to prepare a ‘brief history’ of the activities with which she and her colleagues have engaged over the past many decades. This special edition of The Storykeepers Project reflects well on the diversity of our heritage and the collaborative spirit that has animated it through the late 20th and into the 21st centuries. —ed
JEANNINE OUELLETTE for THE STORYKEEPERS #20 “A BEND IN THE RIVER”
Writer Jeannine Ouellette has kindly written our 20th entry to The Storykeepers Project. Jeannine is the author of the blog Les femmes de la route 11: Les Elles du Nord in which she focuses on the history of Franco-Ontariennes from Northern Ontario. In her contribution to this collection, she brings to life the turbulent era of the 60s and 70s as it reverberated in rural Northern Ontario. Yet it is a story that also reverberates with the joy of youth and a life proudly lived among her French Canadian community.—ed
The Storykeepers Project is an effort to collect personal accounts and family stories from French Canadian and French Metis life around the Great Lakes. Other collections such as the Marion Child interviews at the Monroe County Library and Dr. James Paul’s interview project at Kankakee Community College in Illinois, are valuable repositories of local history, genealogy, and folk culture. Although she was not involved in this interview, Bobbie Kohler, the great-great niece of Mrs. Tillie Marie Sancrant, is the ‘storykeeper’ of her oral history and has contributed it to our collection. It serves here to raise awareness of the Marion Child collection and the many ways of preserving family history. Excerpts of this 1958 interview have been transcribed below. The full interview is available in PDF format here: Tillie Sancrant Interview. Search the entire Marion Child collection for more interviews at the Monroe County Library.–ed.
Passing on family history and tradition to the next generation can be complicated by loss of memories, changes in culture, and shifting priorities in difficult times. But fading family narratives, like old maps, can sustain us even with their limited information, holding clues to the larger story of our families and communities. Dan LeBlanc, a native of Ecorse, Michigan and a tool and die maker by trade, shares his own family narrative which arose out of the vague memories of a previous generation only to be confirmed through the tools of modern research.–ed
All wars cause tremendous dislocation and upheaval, and The War of 1812 was no exception. Tracing his family roots to Frenchtown and the disastrous events of the Battle of Frenchtown and the River Raisin Massacre, George Schimming provides a harrowing view of another time. The French Canadian residents of the area, and the Kentucky recruits, were burned out, forced to flee, or massacred. Yet through the loss, there are stories of survival that echo across cultures and continents from conflicts throughout history.—ed.
Daniel Truckey, Director and Curator of the Beaumier Heritage Center at Northern Michigan University brings to light the issue of names in this latest contribution to The Storykeepers Project. For a variety of reasons, family names can become altered over time. And for French Canadians long accustomed to life under the French regime, the transition to British and American rule frequently brought with it consequences for their family names that strike at the heart of our personal and collective identity.—ed.
Indiana’s French past is at the heart of Great Lakes history. LaSalle reached the area of present-day South Bend in 1679. A trading post near Vincennes was established in 1702 by Sieur Juchereau, a year after Cadillac came ashore along the Rivière du Détroit. French Canadians and Metis from throughout the Great Lakes region can trace family history to this early settlement. Indiana native Joy Biggs discovered her own links to Vincennes’ storied past through small clues in unexpected places.—ed.
The exact origins of the term “Muskrat French” are, so far, lost to time. Research suggests that the term stretches back at least to the War of 1812. Anecdotes such as this one from Paul Skiles, which came down through his family, help to corroborate historical speculations. His insightful thoughts, and what such a term might have meant within his own family, are invaluable parts of an oral tradition unique to the Detroit River region that continues to be passed down through the generations.—ed.
My late aunt, Corrine (LaForest) Waldie, penned the following loving tribute to her father in 1987 for publication in Country Lines Magazine. This description of a father and his traditional lifestyle is emblematic of how my grandfather was described by everyone who knew him. His memory became for me a man who embodied ‘joie de vivre’ and whose very life was a tribute to his Métis, French-Canadian, and Indian ancestors. It is reprinted here, in an effort to safeguard such stories for the future, with permission from Michigan Country Lines and the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association. —ed.
Aunt Jane Goudreau, by many accounts, was larger than life and many decades after her death, her presence is still widely felt throughout the northern Great Lakes region. A pipe-smoking storyteller, her story is the story of Michigan, of the Upper Peninsula, of the Straits of Mackinac, and of the Native American and French-Canadian peoples she descended from. In this contribution by writer, genealogist, and ‘Aunt Jane’ relative Theresa Weller, we get to know Aunt Jane and her life on the Straits. Theresa retired to St. Ignace in 2013. She has 30 years experience in genealogy research and is a volunteer researcher with “Genie Girls” a local group dedicated to the area’s family histories. She is also the creator and administrator of the Facebook page Mackinac Area Genealogy and Family History. —ed.
The story of French-Canadians and Métis people is often one of movement – of crossing borders, both literal and metaphorical. Many of the contributions to this collection underscore this with accounts of immigration, visiting family in another country, moving back and forth across the international border for generations, changing names, changing religions. In this contribution, Cheryl Granville Johns shares her story of crossing borders and the ensuing idyllic experiences of childhood, experiences which in turn fostered a connection to her heritage and extended family.—ed.
Michigan’s foremost raconteur, Genot “Winter Elk” Picor, brings another insightful and entertaining tale to The Storykeepers Project. Drawing on the ages-old hunting traditions of the French-Canadians, Métis, and First Peoples, he reaches us on many levels with this sharp and funny tale of Great Uncle Étienne and his encounter with a changing world.-Ed.
Family stories and first-hand accounts are sometimes received skeptically. When the language of another era is used, the story may seem ‘romantic’ or possibly offensive, discrediting it in the minds of some readers. Yet this story of a childhood in Wisconsin at the turn of the 20th century describes aspects of social and economic history that are largely lost in the narratives we encounter today. The harvesting practices of late 19th/early 20th century Native Americans are documented in photos taken by members of the famous McCormick family of Chicago and held by the Wisconsin State Archives as well as by Russell Lee, a photographer employed by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. Nineteenth-century accounts and current scholarship describe conflicts that arose over berry harvesting in the American woodlands in the past.—Ed.
“A Little Piece of Ham” is a beautifully told story of a child’s relationship with her Meme, her aged grandmother. Ontario contributor, writer and artist Cyn Williamson tells the story of her grandmother’s later years and the lessons that she learned during the times she spent with her. A grandmother is a great gift, and this story brings that to realization in a delicate and loving story.-ed.
It is difficult to convey the profound sense of attachment that many ‘descendants of Nouvelle-France’ have to the shorelines, rivers, forests, and islands of our cultural landscape. Just as Franco-Ontarians, French-Canadians, etc. might describe their genealogy by recounting the journeys of their ancestors, we also sometimes describe our sense of place through descriptions of the physical landscape and our relationship to it. In this essay, Richard Teno writes about his family’s long presence in the Windsor area, along the Detroit River in view of Pêche Isle. In so doing he helps to preserve an often obscured and little-known history of an area that is central to the experience of Great Lakes French, Métis, and First Nations people. —ed.
French Canadian and Métis people have sustained our cultures throughout the generations by passing down family stories, history, and folklore by word of mouth. That oral tradition continues to be a feature of our family and communal life. In this rendition of “La Chasse Galerie” or “The Flying Canoe” by Genot Picor, he presents this traditional New Year’s story in an interactive way that reflects our oral tradition and provides a way for parents and grandparents to share the story with younger generations.—ed.
Red, green, British, American, French, Indigenous: the War of 1812 is a study in contrasts, a story of competing loyalties, a test of centuries-old alliances and family ties, an illustration of the power of the corporations of its day, and a measure of the French cultures that had emerged in the New World as they faced British and American domination. It was also a war in which peoples who were increasingly dispossessed and whose fortunes were caught in the middle, lost the most. Though under one rule or another, the French Canadians and Métis of the time could hardly be called ‘British’ or ‘American.’ This contribution to The Storykeepers Project by Art Duval of Penetanguishene, Ontario, destination for many of the Drummond Island Voyageurs, is an exploration of their uncomfortable middle ground. —ed
Curiosity. Stories. Exposure. Experience. Discovery. These are some of the many ways traditional culture lives on when conventional wisdom says it should end, is passing away, is gone. Many of the stories in this project have come from people who experienced the joy of discovery later in life, family traditions uncovered by seekers dedicated to uncovering family mysteries. In this contribution by Michigan native Caleb Kitson, continuity is experienced through story and tradition beginning as a young boy, even as a deeper connection to heritage and identity is found through the translation of one French word as an adult.—ed.
There are two traditions of French Canadian storytelling; the public and the private. The public tradition is performed as community entertainment. The private tradition was practiced in the home, usually with an adult spinning the story for the young ones in a relaxed, informal way. Prior to radio and television, the private tradition was also a form of entertainment and education for children. The themes of the stories frequently pitted good against evil, with lutin (goblins), loup garou or witches inhabiting the woods. Some stories warned of the seven deadly sins, while others intended to keep children close to the village. Not that long ago, the forests that surrounded the homesteads were so thick, a child could get lost after having wandered just a few hundred feet into the woods. The story “Mud Pudding” is also an original song with the same title. — GP
As part of the continuing effort of collecting stories about French Canadian and Métis life from around the Great Lakes, I offer my second contribution to the collection, based on the life of my grandfather. The “Woodsman” is a kind of archetype, which is firmly embedded in the North American psyche. It is, I believe, as much a way of thinking as a way of life. It harkens back to the earliest days of European settlement in North America. He was created during the era of first contact when old worlds collided, shared, merged, and created something new. —JL
Tommy Knockers was an old Welsh legend that was brought to North America by Welsh miners. Now, you might not have heard of Tommy Knockers ‘til now, but I’ll tell you who had. That was none other than Walt Disney himself, and it’s been said Tommy was the inspiration for the Seven Dwarfs of “Snow White.” —GP