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MODULE 2:

CULTURE OF THE RED RIVER METIS

 

Click here for a definition of the Metis people

Way of Life of Red River Metis in the 1860s

In early days in Manitoba, great herds of buffalo wandered across the prairies. Early Aboriginal hunters followed the buffalo and used all of the animals' parts to help them survive. Not only was the buffalo a source of food but the hides were used for clothing and shelters, and the bones for weapons and utensils. All parts of the buffalo were useful and valuable.

The Aboriginal People(s) and Metis built their homes in settlements. Their cabins were made of peeled logs with dirt floors. Usually they had two rooms. The river provided their water and the trees their firewood. Their furniture was also made from the local trees. They also had a few utensils for cooking such as a kettle, a frying pan, a stew pot and a boiling pot with a lid and a hanging handle. They also had tin cups, plates and a few spoons and forks.

Exterior of Cabin
Interior of Cabin
Winter Sled Pulled by Dogs

They would also have equipment for hunting, fishing and trapping. Snowshoes and sleds pulled by dogs were used for winter travel.

Some had a few chickens for eggs and cows for milk and butter.

They also collected raspberries, wild cherries, strawberries, bush cranberries, and roots, the most common called the prairie turnip. In the spring they traded for maple sugar from the Ojibwe in what is now Ontario. Herbs were also gathered for flavouring food and for medicines.

Clothing was hand made from leather and decorated with fur and porcupine quills. The Metis also traded goods for bolts of cloth.

Metis Man and Women

But many Metis also became buffalo hunters. Like the Aboriginal groups, they used the buffalo to provide their families with the things they needed to live. They made pemmican from the meat by mixing it with berries and fat and drying it. This mixture would last for a long time without spoiling. In those days, this was very important because there were no ways to keep food cold and prevent it from spoiling in those days. The Metis used the pemmican for themselves but they also traded it to the fur trade companies to use when the companies' men went on long trips.

After 1801, when the Metis hunted the buffalo herds, they travelled in Red River carts which were made entirely of wood. Each family had its possessions on a cart and they followed each other in a line like a train. The wheels would squeak as they turned. Each night the settlers would set up camp.

Buffalo Hunt
Buffalo Hunt Camp
In Camp
Red River Cart Train

Louis Goulet described what it was like to go on a Red River cart train to the Prairies. This is a translation from his original French:


"Without a word of a lie, those days of my childhood and adolescence were so beautiful, I wouldn’t hesitate to say they were the most exciting years in all Metis history. We had the virgin prairie, with all the buffalo we could use, and no competition from the Indians since they were pacified. The old-timers who’d lived through the old days and the wars on the prairies were still with us and those old boys really knew how to cast a spell in the evening around a campfire under the stars, telling us stories one after the other. The general tone was pleasant and light-hearted, never vulgar because there were women and old people present and the Metis have always shown great respect for them. There was always a heavy dose of mysticism and superstition, with stories of ghosts and other frightful things like that.


The evening began with a feast. People outdid themselves to see who could serve the best meal. During the feast, there’s a big singing contest and after that would come the dancing. Talk about every kind of reel and jig you can imagine! Fiddles, drums, accordions, guitars, jew’s harps and mouth organs… At a shindig like that it was always a contest to see who could play the best, who could dance the best, who could sing the best, who could wear through his moccasins first, who’d be the first to cripple up with cramps in the legs… I often think the Red River Jig [Oayache Mannin] was invented on evenings like that when sometimes the only instrument was an Indian drum."

[Charette, Guillame, Vanishing Spaces (Memoirs of a Prairie Métis). Winnipeg: Editions Bois-Brûlés, 1980. p. 42-43.]

The Metis still enjoy visiting and story-telling.

Metis Instruments and Dancing

Military Organization of the Buffalo Hunt