Metis Culture & History

…and Information for the Chartered Metis Community in Cranbrook

Metis Culture and History

This page was created for the Métis Youth and community of the Cranbrook area to give them a place for information on coming cultural events and opportunities. This is a non-political site with a mind on growing pride in the Métis culture.

The Métis Nation emerged from within the Métis Nation Homeland during the seventeenth century as a result of the French and English fur trade. At that time, Canada did not exist as a country and the provincial governments we know today in western Canada would not exist for another 200 years.

The Métis Sash

The Sash is a finger woven belt made of wool approximately three metres long. Traditionally it was tied at the waist to hold a coat closed, including being used as a scarf or rope.

Today, the sash is still worn by the Métis people. Métis women occasionally wear it over the shoulder, while others wear it the traditional way, around the waist & tied in the middle, with the fringes hanging down.

The colour variations of the sash include; Red, which is the historical depicted colour for the Métis Sash; Blue & White symbolizing the colours of the Métis Nation flag; Green signifying fertility, growth and prosperity and; Black, symbolizing the dark period in which the Métis people had to endure dispossession & repression.


The Métis Flag

Métis resistance fighters prior to the Battle of Seven Oaks first used the flag in 1816. It is the oldest Canadian patriotic flag indigenous to Canada. The Union Jack and the Royal Standard of New France bearing the fleur-de-lis are older, but these flags were first flown in Europe. As a symbol of nationhood, the Métis flag predates Canada’s Maple Leaf flag by about 150 years! The flag bears a horizontal figure eight, or infinity symbol. The infinity symbol represents the coming together of two distinct and vibrant cultures, those of European and indigenous North America, to produce a distinctly new culture, the Métis.

The flag symbolizes the creation of a new society with roots in both Aboriginal and European cultures and traditions. The sky blue background of the flag emphasizes the infinity symbol and suggests that the Métis people will exist forever. The Métis flag has two variants: the more popular blue flag, and the red flag. Nobody knows why the early Métis chose these two colour patterns for their flags. However, conjecture seems to indicate that the Métis created the blue and white infinity flag because these were the colours of the North West Company, the fur-trading firm which employed most of the French Michif speaking Métis. The blue Métis infinity flag bears a striking resemblance to the blue and white flag of St. Andrew, the national flag of Scotland. The blue and white colours of the Métis flag are also the traditional colours of French Canada, as seen on the provincial of Quebec. That the creators of the infinity flag may have had some Scottish and French Canadian input when creating their flag is not surprising, because these two groups dominated the North West Company and had the most Métis descendants. However, the flag was uniquely Métis and was recognized as such.

Métis employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company may have created the red Métis flag. The traditional colours of the fur trade giant were red and white. The Métis used neither the blue and white, nor the red and white flag during the two great resistance movements of 1869-70 and 1885. During this period, the Métis used flags that contained French Canadian and Catholic religious symbols. The Métis infinity flag was temporarily forgotten, and remembered only in oral tradition. With the rebirth of Métis pride and consciousness, the flag was brought back. Today the flag remains a potent symbol of Métis heritage.

Gabriel Dumont Institute

Red River Métis Cart

According to the journal of North West Company fur-trader Alexander Henry (the younger), the carts made their first appearance in 1801 at Fort Pembina, just south of what is now the United States border. Originally, the carts were small horse-drawn affairs, with three-foot solid wheels cut from large trees, carrying up to 450 pounds.

Later, larger wheels with four spokes were used and gradually the red river carts with their huge, spoked wheels evolved, carrying nearly twice as much. Some had "tires" made of shaganappi (green rawhide).

In 1878 Harper’s Magazine carried a description of the red river cart, written by reporters who visited the territory:

It is simply a light box with a pair of shafts, mounted on an axle connecting two enormous wheels. There is no concession made to the aversion of the human frame to sudden violent changes of level; there is no weakness of luxury about this vehicle. The wheels are broad in the felloes (rims), so as not to cut through the prairie sod. They are long in the spokes, so as to pass safely through fords and mud-holes. They are very much dished so that they can be strapped together and rawhide stretched over them to make a boat. The whole cart is made of wood; there is not a bit of metal about it, so that, if anything breaks, the material to repair it is easily found. The axles are never greased and they furnish an incessant answer to the old conundrum: “What makes more noise than a pig in a poke?”

Each wheel was said to have its own peculiar shriek, announcing the coming of a train from a great distance. (Grease or oil would have only mixed with the dust, wearing down the axles.) As it was, a cart often used four or five axles on the trip to St. Paul from the Red River settlement. Harness was made from a buffalo hide, often in one piece. Carts moved single file, except when in danger from Indians, when they traveled several abreast. Each driver controlled five or six carts strung out behind him, each ox tied to the cart ahead.

Métis Resource Centre

MÉtis Clothing

Métis clothing originated with the coming of the fur trade and the clothing used by the Coureur des Bois. The Coureur des Bois combined First Nations and European styles of dress into a new adaptation designed for the fur trade travels.

A most distinctive element of Métis dress was the sash. The first sashes originated in the Quebec village of L’Assumption. From this location, they became popular trade goods in both Quebec and among the Métis in the West. From this origination, the Métis began their own sash creations in the Red River area. As the Métis migrated west and south from Manitoba, they transported the Métis sash with them as a distinctive symbol of their culture.

The typical sash is made of brightly coloured wool and is worn as a wrap around the midsection of the torso. One traditional use of the sash was to keep a coat closed. The fringes on the sash served not only a decorative purpose, but served as extra sewing thread while traveling. It was common for the sash to contain both a hunting knife and a fire bag. When not used as a wrap, the sash could serve a variety of functions from scarf, washcloth, towel, saddle blanket, rope, or tourniquet.

Traditional Métis dress also included three kinds of coats. One was the capote, or capot crait-rien. The capote was a shoulder season garment with a hood, and was commonly constructed from a Hudson’s Bay blanket. The other distinctive coat was the buckskin jacket. Many buckskin jackets were produced for sale by Métis women and included extensive beadwork and fringes. The third design of coat was the Red River Coat. This hide coat design was adapted from the Cree apparel, and included a more European cut, epaulets, and the ever-present Métis beadwork floral patterns, quillwork, and embroidery.

Another article of Métis clothing that was decoratively beaded were leggings. Leggings, called mitasses, were worn over pants and were made of leather or velvet. Their decoration included both beadwork and embroidery.

Métis hats and caps were also distinctive in their design and artwork. They were often made of either fur skins and/or cloth. Decoration included quill work and beadwork.

Métis footwear often included moccasins, which were adapted from those worn by the Plains Indians. Métis moccasins came in a variety of designs and typically included classic Métis embroidery and beadwork.

The Métis gift for clothing decoration was evident in the multiple bags they used for carrying gun powder or tobacco. A classis design was the bag carried on the shoulder called an Octopus pouch.

Buffalo Hunt

With the westward expansion of the fur trade in the late 1700s and the beginning settlement of the New World , many changes occurred. The fur bearing animal population in the eastern territory had been sharply reduced and the market demand of furs in Europe had dropped dramatically. It was during this time that the horse was introduced on the prairies: causing a dramatic change in the lifestyle for the Indian and Métis peoples. The horse opened up the possibility of following the buffalo and increasing hunting territories. Hunters no longer needed to herd the buffalo into pounds and enclosures or run them over cliffs. The hunters could now chase the herd and shoot from horseback and increase the number of animals they could harvest. Dogs and cariolles gave way to horses and Red River carts as the means of transporting larger quantities of goods.

The Métis Nation became a dominant force on the plains during the late 1700s and way into the 1800s. They were a highly organized body of people. They enacted laws, rules and regulations around the buffalo hunt which later became the “Laws of the Prairie” and the beginning of law enforcement in the area, subsequently adopted by the North West Mounted Police. The initiation of these laws brought the Métis Nation the solidifying process of self-government.

The hunt involved organizing hundreds of men, women, children, Red River carts and horses for the westward journeys extending hundreds of miles to where the buffalo grazed. On the return trip, tons of processed buffalo meat and hides had to be transported. The buffalo hunts provided the Métis with an impressive organizational structure and by 1820 was a permanent feature of life for all individuals on or near the Red River and other Métis communities.

There were usually two organized hunts each year: one in the Spring and one in the Autumn. The buffalo hunts of this time were carried out through almost militaristic precision and the combined force of a Métis hunt was larger than any other force of its time.

After the first day of travel through the dust raised by 1,240 carts and 1,630 Métis; camp was made. The first organizational meeting for the hunt would be held and a President would be selected. A number of captains were nominated by the President and the people jointly. The captains then proceeded to appoint their own policemen, the number assigned to each not exceeding ten. Their duty was to see that the Laws of the Hunt were strictly carried out. Guides were responsible for the camp flag that remained raised until it was time to settle for the night. At the end of the day the captains took charge. At night the carts were placed in the form of a circle with the horses and cattle inside the ring. It was the duty of the captains and their policemen to see that this was rightly done. The Métis buffalo hunters camped in tipis. The difference between a Métis tipi and their Indian cousins was a lack of decoration. All camping orders were given by a flag signal. Each guide had his turn of one day. When the buffalo were spotted, all the hunters were drawn up in line, the President, captains, and police being a few yards in advance. No one would proceed until the President gave the signal, waiting for the buffalo to be in the best location possible. A priest sometimes went with the hunt and mass would be celebrated on the open prairies.

The Métis fiercely guarded their customary rights to hunt and trade freely throughout the Prairies. Besides being an important food-gathering activity and a commercial endeavour, the hunt was a social occasion that brought together families who saw each other only a few times a year. Every Spring and Autumn, as many as 1,600 people would gather at Pembina, on the Red River , to elect a provisional government. Mounted scouting parties maintained order within the temporary community, enforcing compliance with the strict Laws of the Hunt and providing protection from attacks by rival groups, such as the Dakotas .

The hunting technique used by the Métis differed considerably from that of their Indian ancestors. Instead of driving bison off cliffs or into pounds and enclosures, they used horses and firearms. Creating a stampede, the hunters ran their horses into the herd and selected the animals they wanted to kill, firing point-blank at full gallop. An experienced hunter on a well-trained horse could down ten to twelve bisons in a two-hour run. Buffalo hunting expanded across the Prairies in the 1840s.

The 1840 hunt (begun in early June), covered 250 miles in nineteen days before the first buffalo were spotted. The party included 620 men, 650 women, 360 children, 586 oxen, 655 cart horses, and 403 ‘buffalo runners’ (fast horses). In other words, more than one-third of the Red River settlement packed up their belongings and set off on a dangerous expedition that would last for months. By the time the hunt ended on August 17th, it had captured over a million pounds of meat and hides-all of which had to be transported back to the Red River settlements.

The meat fed Métis families, white colonists and fur traders. Once back at the Red River, the Métis returned to their individual river lots to take up other activities, including: trapping, hunting, transporting good for the fur companies, gardening, farming, fishing, harvesting wild rice, building carts, making clothing, collecting lime, limestone, maple sugar, salt and seneca root.

The Plains Indians also hunted the buffalo and as the herds declined, conflict erupted between the Indians and Métis. In the mid-1840s and in 1859 the Métis successfully fought the Sioux for control of the hunt in what is today North Dakota. The Sioux retaliated by setting prairie fires which drove the buffalo away and kept the Métis out. Eventually the Métis and the Sioux concluded these problems with a peace treaty.

Red River hunters recognized two grand divisions of buffalo, those of the Grand Coteau and Red River, and those of the Saskatchewan . Other ranges of immense herds existed beyond the Missouri towards the south, as far as Texas and Mexico .

Some who participated in the northern hunts preferred to stay out on the Prairie in winter camps: these men and their families were known as hiverants. Roughly thirty such settlements have been found in Alberta , Saskatchewan and Montana . Their small villages consisted of about forty or fifty rough hewn, flat sod roofed cabins. These villages became more settled year round after the rebellion in Manitoba and the dispersal of the Métis there.

Among their many other names, the Métis were also known as the “Buffalo Hunters” . During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Métis Nation established themselves as the processors and suppliers of Pemmican to the new world. The nation’s gross national product from this source was larger than either fledgling nation of Canada or the United States.

Although the Métis sustained themselves in a variety of ways (such as fishing, trapping for furs, practicing small-scale agriculture and working as wage labourers for the Hudson’s Bay Company) they were first and foremost buffalo hunters. The buffalo herds were their major source of subsistence and trade goods. Every summer, and again in the fall, hundreds of Métis families with their Red River carts, horses, oxen and dogs set out for the buffalo plains of North Dakota. These buffalo hunting expeditions were carefully organized and became the foundation of Métis government. A leader of the hunt was selected, scouts were chosen and rules were arranged before the expedition ever set forth.

The great size of these hunting expeditions has drawn comment. Alexander Ross, a resident of the Red River settlement, writing in 1856, felt that the camp of the 1840 hunt covered an area equal to that of a modern city. This particular expedition contained 620 men, 650 women, 360 children and 1,210 Red River carts. This hunt was by no means the largest Red River hunt ever assembled.

The North American Plains buffalo was a creature ideally suited to the central grassland areas of North America. They wandered in huge herds (estimated in the millions) north-south or east-west. Their range of territory was anywhere the grass grew. The buffalo was considered a very sacred animal by all Aboriginal people of the Plains. The buffalo was their main source of food, clothing, household articles, and in the case of the Métis, their livelihood.
All parts of the animal were used and many parts had many uses:
Containers, Shields, Buckets, Moccasin, Soles, Drums, Splints, Mortars, Cinches, Ropes, Sheaths, Saddles, Blankets, Stirrups, Bull Boats, Masks, Parfleche, Ornaments, Lariats, Straps, Caps, Quirts, Snowshoes, Shroud
Cradles, Moccasin, Tops, Winter, Robes, Bedding, Shirts, Belts, Leggings, Dresses, Bags, Quivers, Tipi, Covers, Tipi, Liners, Bridles, Backrests, Tapestries, Sweatlodge
Headdresses, Pad, Fillers, Pillows, Ropes, Ornaments, Hair, Pieces, Halters, Bracelets, Medicine, Balls, Moccasin, Lining, Doll, Stuffing, Amulets, Bridle, Decorations
Fleshing, Tools, Pipes, Knives, Arrowheads, Shovels, Splints, Sleds, Saddle, Trees, War, Clubs, Scrapers, Quirts, Awls, Paintbrushes, Game, Dice, Tableware
Arrow, Points, Cups, Fire, Carrier, Powderhorn, Spoons, Ladles, Headdresses, Toys
Meat, Wrappings, Buckets, Cups, Basins, Canteen, Bowls, Containers
Medicine, Switch, Fly, brush, Decorations, Whips, Toys, Jewellry
Tallow, Soap, Hair, Grease, Cosmetics, Cooking, Medicines
Masks, Medicine, Prayers, Rituals, Sun, dance, Decoration
Glue, Thread, Arrow, ties, Cinches, Bow, strings
Glue, Rattles, Decorations, Rituals, Spoons
Ornamentation, Toys, Doll, Decoration, Rituals, Masks
Pemmican, Sausages, Jerky, Blood, pudding, Soup
Pouches, Bags, Medicine
Fuel, Diaper, Powder

Comb, Choice, Food

Hide, Preparation, Tanning
Rattles, Containers
Sewing, Bow, Strings
Blood, (Red/brown), Gall, (Yellow), Stomach, Contents
Preshaped moccasin

No wonder Aboriginal people thought this animal was sacred and little wonder their lives where impacted and almost destroyed by the decline and eventual extermination of the Plains Buffalo.

Métis people were very familiar with the way of the New World and how to capitalize on the needs of the people. They had been brought up and created through the fur trade.

The Métis had forged and changed the very presence of the companies entering this arena and had opened their own trading company in the 1700s (The NorthWest Company). It’s not surprising that the Métis dominated in the Pemmican trade in the late 1700s and into the 1800s: beginning with their organization of the buffalo hunt and institution of Laws of the Prairies.

Interested in applying for Métis Citizenship or other programs?

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