Celebrating Métis culture


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May 06, 2023

Celebrating Métis culture

Métis families from throughout Montana and a few from North Dakota and Alberta

Métis families from throughout Montana and a few from North Dakota and Alberta gathered in Choteau on June 2-4 to celebrate the music and culture of this distinct group that traces its history to the intermarriage of Cree and Chippewa Indigenous peoples with French, English, Irish and Scottish immigrants during the days of the fur trade.

Métis people live throughout Montana and North Dakota and in Alberta and two other Canadian provinces.

The Métis Music and Art Fest celebrated the Métis language — which is an amalgam of Native American, French, English and Celtic words; brought people together to dance, fiddle, tell stories and demonstrate animal calls; and offered workshops on how to make pemmican as well as the plants Métis women used through the centuries; and had old-time fiddling and jigging contests.

The Michif Heritage Keepers nonprofit organization put on the festival in Choteau for the sixth year. Board member Kathy Moran said she was very pleased with the program, held again at the Choteau Pavilion. The turnout was great, including a mix of Choteau Métis people and other community residents along with a contingency from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in Belcourt, North Dakota, along with guest speakers and at least one musician from Canada.

Moran said she added the story-telling event to draw the audience into the program, and that was a great success. "They had so much fun," she said. "It was a perfect weekend."

One of those who attended was Sherry (Peebles) Doxtator, who grew up on the Peebles ranch west of Choteau said the Métis heritage is part of the Teton Canyon heritage. "It's been a four-generation friendship. This is Choteau's heritage and I like history," Doxtator said, adding that several Métis women, including Elaine Wiseman, were her classmates in high school. "Marvelous neighbors, marvelous people," Doxtator said as she listened to the music.

Another Choteau resident who came to the three-day event was Barbara Larsen, an upright string-bass player who loves old-time fiddle music and has played with Native American groups in Great Falls and Browning as well as playing with area musicians in Choteau.

Larsen said music is a language that transcends words and she has greatly enjoyed playing with the Little Shell people in Great Falls and the Blackfeet in Browning.

"I feel very honored that they just took me under their wing and treated me wonderfully," she said.

The event featured a panel of Métis elders who shared stories and helped younger people connect with their cultural roots. One of the presenters was Choteau's Alfred Wiseman, who gave a presentation on the miniature Red River carts that he makes, sharing the history of this particular brand of transportation that the Métis in Alberta, Canada and Montana used.

"As all of us know, we’ve lost so much of our culture in many, many different ways," Wiseman said. "Really all of us elders of every culture, we are the library for our youth."

Wiseman said making two full-sized carts and many of the tiny carts allows him to keep this tradition alive and show the new generations how their families used the carts to carry everything they owned in the old days.

The tall, two-wheeled carts were initially drawn by oxen teams and later by horses. They initially had solid wooden wheels and gradually evolved to have wooden spoked wheels, all assembled without any metal.

Many of the early railroad tracks were laid over the top of Red River cart tracks, he said.

Wiseman said he learned much of his culture's history from family and elders, and said that Choteau is a cultural hotspot for the Métis and Blackfeet cultures. Along the Rocky Mountain Front there are buffalo drive lanes, eagle trap pits, ceremonial sites, buffalo jumps and rock cairns that might mark the location of a good campsite or where medicinal plants grew.

He encouraged people to visit the Métis house at the Old Trail Museum. Wiseman and others outfitted the house in 1990, drawing on stories from elders to furnish it with the items commonly used by Métis families who quietly settled in cabins in the mountain valleys west of Choteau. Thrifty and ingenious, the Métis invented items to make their lives easier and "were engineers in their own way," Wiseman said.

"I try to keep up on the old ways. I know it's fading fast, but we shouldn't let it die," he said.

Two Métis men from Lethbridge, Alberta, attended Choteau's festival to see family members and make new connections as they also work to make sure the Métis culture is preserved.

Elder Roderick McLeod, 86, of Lethbridge said this was his second time attending the festival in Choteau and he believes it is important for Métis on both sides of the border to get together regularly to exchange ideas and stories.

Alberta, he said, has the largest population of Métis in Canada, making up one-third of the indigenous population of Canada. Every year in Alberta, the Métis have an assembly that draws 300 to 500 to attend.

The Alberta Métis are the only land-based Métis groups, he said, adding that they have seven reserves that are self-governing through councils under provincial rules.

McLeod said he gives presentations on Métis history and culture at the Lethbridge university and in schools, and gives private history lessons as well.

Last year, he said, he found a new cousin at the Choteau Métis festival and was looking forward to seeing him again on Saturday.

Walter and Laura Bastinelli are Pennsylvania residents who spend summers in Choteau, where Laura, whose maiden name is Carrier, grew up. Laura said coming to the Métis festival and listening to the elders is important to her and her family, including her sons.

She said she remembers the cabin in the mountains where her grandmother, Olive Gray, was raised, and where they would have picnics and campouts. She said she remembers basket dances (where ladies brought picnic baskets that men bid on) and falling asleep while the grownups were all still dancing.

Coming to the Métis festival makes her feel connected to her culture and she always learns something new. "I love hearing the stories," she said.

Troy Bannerman of Lethbridge just recently discovered that his family was Métis. He is now the coordinator for the Lethbridge Area Métis and came to Choteau last week to see how this festival was organized.

His organization sponsors several community events, including a New Year's celebration, a graduation program and a celebration on National Indigenous People's Day in Canada.

His family discovered that his grandfather was a Métis after his grandfather's death. His father, Bannerman said, encouraged his family to become active in their new community and they plunged in.

Coming from a family that didn't grow up in the culture, Bannerman said, he learned in school about indigenous genocide, but it didn't click for him until he started being active in the Métis community and then he realized how much the culture has lost.

While not a formal presenter, Monique Giroux, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Music, Culture and Politics with the University of Lethbridge, came to talk with people for her genealogy and musicology work and to play traditional Métis fiddle songs. She traveled with Suzanne Steele, Ph.D., a poet, artist, librettist and scholar who has written a Métis opera that will premier this fall in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Giroux and Steele are collaborating on the Red River Jig Network Research Project with the University of Lethbridge.

One of the best-attended events of the festival was a one-hour language program put on by a delegation from the Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt, North Dakota. Elder Albert Parisien Sr. works at the college as a language consultant and is working with his community to preserve the Chippewa/Cree and Michif (or Métis) languages.

He and his wife, Beverly, both master speakers, brought a group of language apprentices, who are learning the Michif language. They spoke to the group reciting the days of the week, calendar months, numbers and colors, and sharing the joys and challenges of learning a new language.

Laisse Allery, the program director, said the work to preserve the languages has been funded through a one-year federal grant, and she is applying for a three-year extension on the grant to continue the work, which includes classes, workbooks, a Facebook page and outreach to cultural festivals and language conferences.

Bert Parisien, who is Albert and Beverly's son, said their reservation has 40 fluent speakers and good interest among younger people in learning the language, which can be spoke with many different dialects. "We have some good building blocks, we just need to preserve the traditions," he said, adding, "It's really interesting getting to relearn this. I was part of the generation that was starting to slip away from the traditions."

He said he has four children, the youngest of whom is 22, and they are picking up the language faster than he is. "This program really, really helps, especially to get these younger ones," he said.

Apprentice Myles Burnell said some other resources are the "Chippewa/Cree Language" by Ida Rose Allard and "The Mitchif Dictionary of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa-Cree," by Patline Laverdure and Ida Rose Allard. Plus, he said, there is a Michif Lessons app that he uses on his phone. "That's a really helpful tool," he said.

Apprentice Ron Allery, who recited the story of "The Three Little Pigs" in Michif, said they are also trying to get Mitchif language lessons into schools. As fluent speakers pass away, the language is being lost, he said. "We are trying to bring it back and to make it part of the school curriculum," he said, adding that his 9-year-old granddaughter is picking the language up very quickly.

"The Michif Cree is a unique language," he said. "I’d like to see more people speak the language, it's part of our heritage."