We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.

Review

Contours of a People: Metis Family, Mobility, and History

By Nicole St-Onge, Carolyn Podruchny, and Brenda Macdougall, Editors

March 6, 2014

Review By Scott P. Stephen

Self-conscious litanies of intellectual genealogy are common in volumes such as this. Although Nicole St-Onge, Carolyn Podruchny, and Brenda Macdougall have their own courses to chart, they are quick to acknowledge their debt to Jennifer S.H. Brown and Jacqueline Peterson’s 1985 volume, The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Metis in North America, which laid many of the interpretive frameworks for subsequent research. Not only are historiographical discussions useful for those new to the subject, but family (and thus family history) is one of the conceptual foundations of this book, along with geography and mobility, family-defined Metis cultures, and world views.

The authors show considerable spatial and temporal mobility, ranging in focus from the Great Lakes to the Pacific coast, and from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries. They include legal, labour, and linguistic history; histories of space and of place; boundaries both tangible and intangible. Jacqueline Peterson revisits her seminal article, “Many Roads to Red River,” and challenges her own earlier conclusions: she now denies the emergence of a Metis group consciousness or identity in the Great Lakes. Étienne Rivard examines Metis concepts of place and identity within oral narratives; Peter Bakker maps the connections between new languages and new identities; and Chris Andersen explores the complex ways in which historical identities are reflected in modern communities and in legal relations. Only Metis material culture is conspicuous by its absence from this wide-ranging and thought-provoking collection of articles.

Of particular interest to readers of this journal is the chapter, “Métis Networks in British Columbia: Examples from the Central Interior,” by Mike Evans, Jean Barman, and Gabrielle Legault, with Erin Dolmage and Geoff Appleby. The Metis of British Columbia have not been well understood, except as families on the fringes of the historic Metis Nation. Scholars have usually defined the Metis through shared historical experiences: those experiences have mostly been centred on the prairies, but here the authors illustrate two family networks centred west of the Rockies, those of Jean Baptiste Boucher and of Peter Skene Ogden.

Metis dynamism challenges our notions of defining group identities, particularly when so little of the written documentation upon which we traditionally rely was produced by the subjects of our inquiry. In his chapter, “Against Spatialized Ethnicity,” Philip D. Wolfart suggests that historians of the Metis have been trying to fit square pegs into round holes. The physical and social mobility of the Metis fits poorly within spatialized understandings of the geographical organization of the world and has proved notoriously difficult to “map.” Metis communities were “aspatial,” similar to communities in “pre-modern” Western Europe: the boundaries of their world were social rather than geographic, defined by systems of social obligations. Or, to put it another way, scholars may not need to “think outside the box” as much as to redefine “the box.” That is exactly what the editors and authors of this volume have set out to do.

Contours of a People: Metis Family, Mobility, and History
Nicole St-Onge, Carolyn Podruchny, and Brenda Macdougall, editors
Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. 482 pp.$24.95 paper.