Metis in the United States

The Métis in the United States are a specific culture and community of Métis people, who descend from unions between Native American and early European colonist parents - usually Indigenous women who married French (and later Scottish, English ) men who worked as fur trappers and traders during the 18th and 19th centuries at the height of the fur trade. They developed as an ethnic and cultural group from the descendants of these unions. The women were usually Algonquian, Ojibwe, and Cree.


Paul Kane's oil painting Half-Breeds Running Buffalo, depicting a Métis buffalo hunt on the prairies of Dakota in June 1846.
Regions with significant populations
Related ethnic groups

In the French colonies, people of mixed Indigenous and French ancestry were referred to by those who spoke French as métis, as it means "mixture".

Being bilingual, these people were able to trade European goods, such as muskets, for the furs and hides at a trading post. These métis were found through the Great Lakes area and to the Rocky Mountains. While the word in this usage originally had no ethnic designation (and was not capitalized in English), it grew to become an ethnicity in the 19th century. This use (of simply meaning "mixed") excludes mixed-race people born of unions in other settings or more recently than about 1870.

The Métis in the U.S. are fewer in number than the neighboring Métis in Canada. During the early colonial era, the border did not exist between Canada and the British colonies, and people moved easily back and forth through the area. While the two communities come from the same origins, the Canadian Métis have developed further as an ethnic group than in the U.S.

As of 2018, Métis people were living in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana.[1]


"Métis" is the French term for "mixed-blood". The word is a cognate of the Spanish word mestizo and the Portuguese word mestiço. Michif ([mɪˈtʃɪf]) is the name of creole language spoken by the Métis people of western Canada and adjacent areas of the United States, mostly a mix of Cree and Canadian French.


With exploration, settlement, and exploitation of resources by French and British fur trading interests across North America, European men often had relationships and sometimes marriages with Native American women. Often both sides felt such marriages were beneficial in strengthening the fur trade. Indigenous women often served as interpreters and could introduce their men to their people. Because many Native Americans and First Nations often had matrilineal kinship systems, the mixed-race children were considered born to the mother's clan and usually raised in her culture. Fewer were educated in European schools. Métis men in the northern tier typically worked in the fur trade and later hunting and as guides. Over time in certain areas, particularly the Red River of the North, the Métis formed a distinct ethnic group with its own culture.


Between 1795 and 1815 a network of Métis settlements and trading posts was established throughout what is now the US states of Michigan and Wisconsin, and to a lesser extent in Illinois and Indiana. As late as 1829, the Métis were dominant in the economy of present-day Wisconsin and Northern Michigan.[2]

During the early days of territorial Michigan, Métis and French played a dominant role in elections. It was largely with Métis support that Gabriel Richard was elected as delegate to Congress. After Michigan was admitted as a state and under pressure of increased European-American settlers from eastern states, many Métis migrated westward into the Canadian Prairies, including the Red River Colony and the Southbranch Settlement. Others identified with Chippewa groups, while many others were subsumed in an ethnic "French" identity, such as the Muskrat French. By the late 1830s only in the area of Sault Ste. Marie was there widespread recognition of the Métis as a significant part of the community.[3]

Another major Métis settlement was La Baye, located at the present site of Green Bay, Wisconsin. In 1816 most of its residents were Métis.[4]

In Montana a large group of Métis from Pembina region hunted there in the 1860s, eventually forming an agricultural settlement in the Judith Basin by 1880. This settlement eventually disintegrated, with most Métis leaving, or identifying more strongly either as "white" or "Indian".[5]

Metis often participated in interracial marriages. The French in specific, viewed these marriages as sensible and realistic. Americans, however, viewed interracial marriages as unsound as the idea of racial purity was seen as the only option. Although it was legal, the result of these marriages generally resulted in the loss of status for the spouse of the highest social class, as well as for any children produced during the marriage. The French, however, seemed to motivate fur traders to participate in interracial marriages with Indian tribes as they helped to be beneficial to the fur trade business and also to spread religion. Generally speaking, these marriages were happy ones, that lasted and brought together differing groups of people and benefitted the fur trade business.[6][7]

Current population

Mixed-race people live throughout the Canada and northern United States but only some in the US identify ethnically and culturally as Métis. A strong Prairie Métis identity exists in the "homeland" once known as Rupert's Land, which extends south from Canada into North Dakota, especially the land west of the Red River of the North. The historic Prairie Métis homeland also includes parts of Minnesota, and Wisconsin. A number of self-identified Métis live in North Dakota, mostly in Pembina County.[8] Many members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians (a federally recognized Tribe) identify as Métis or Michif rather than as strictly Ojibwe.[9]

Many Métis families are recorded in the U.S. Census for the historic Métis settlement areas along the Detroit and St. Clair rivers, Mackinac Island, and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, as well as Green Bay in Wisconsin. Their ancestral families were often formed in the early 19th-century fur trading era.

The Métis have generally not organized as an ethnic or political group in the United States as they have in Canada, where they had armed confrontations in an effort to secure a homeland.

The first "Conference on the Métis in North America" was held in Chicago in 1981,[10] after increasing research about this people. This also was a period of increased appreciation for different ethnic groups and reappraisal of the histories of settlement of North America. Papers at the conference focused on "becoming Métis" and the role of history in formation of this ethnic group, defined in Canada as having Aboriginal status. The people and their history continue to be extensively studied, especially by scholars in Canada and the United States.

Louis Riel and the United States

Louis Riel had a significant impact on the Métis community in Canada, especially in the Manitoba region. However he did also have a distinct relationship with the Métis in the Unites States and was in fact at the time of his execution an American citizen.[11] Riel attempted to be a leader for the Métis community in the Unites States and contributed immensely in the defence of the Métis rights, especially those who occupied the Red River region throughout his life.

On October 22, 1844 Louis Riel was born in the Red River settlement known as the territory of Assiniboia.[11] He was born with British background however as the Métis are a mobile community he travelled a lot and had a transitional identity, meaning he would often cross the Canada and United States border. During the 19th century there were few American born citizens living in Red River altogether.

Riel greatly contributed to the defense of Métis justice, more specifically on November 22, 1869 Riel arrived in Winnipeg to discuss with McDougall the rights of the Métis community. At the end of the settlement McDougall agreed to guarantee a “List of Rights” .[11] That statement also incorporated four clauses of the Dakota bill of rights. This Bill of rights was the rise of the American Métis influence during the Red River Métis revolution and was an important milestone in Métis justice.

The following years was a constant battle between the government in charge and the Métis people that furthermore created conflict involving citizenship of Métis leaders, such as Louis Riel who was crossing the border without proper notice. This caused repercussions for Riel who was now wanted by the Ontario government. He was later accused for the Scott Death, a murder case who was decided without a proper trial and by 1874 there was a warrant out for his arrest in Winnipeg.[11] Because of the warrant accusations in Canada, Riel saw the United States as a safer territory for himself and the Métis people. The following years lead to Riel running from the Canadian government because of the murder convictions and this is when he spent most of his time in the United State. Riel struggled with mental health problems and decided in the following years that it was time to receive proper treatment in the American northeast from 1875- 1868. Once better decided to change his life by obtaining an American residence and decided to complete the journey of the liberation of the Métis people that he first started in 1869. With the help of the United States military, Riel wanted to invade Manitoba to obtain control. However, because of the lack of desire to cause conflict with the Canadian military the American military rejected his proposition. He then tried to create an international alliance between the Aboriginal and Metis people, which wasn't a success either. In the end his main objective was to simply improve the living conditions and rights of the Métis people in the United States. The failed attempts for Riel to defend the Métis community lead to further mental breakdowns and hospitalization, now in Quebec.[11]

Riel returned to Montana from 1879 to continue on his mission to defend the Métis community in the United States. Riel wanted the Métis and the Native people of the region to join forces and create a political movement against the provisional government. Both parties denied this profound movement and after yet another failed attempt to create a revolution he decided to officially become an American citizen and declared “The United States sheltered me, The English didn’t care/what they owe they will pay/! I am citizen”.[11] He then spent the next four years improving the conditions of the Montana Métis in any way he could.

Riel stayed in the United States from 1880-1884 fighting to obtain official residency from the American government but without success he finally departed for Saskatchewan in 1884. Riel concentrated his public life on improving the situation of the Montana Metis and had a big impact on the Métis people in the United States by attempting to address their rights and improve overall living conditions. The following years was a constant battle to obtain official citizenship from the American government. In the end, an American citizenship did not permit the protection from Canadian convictions. The American officials did not confirm his American citizenship because of fear of further conflict with the Canadian government and confirmed Riel's execution for treason in 1885.[11]

Notable people

Of Métis descent

See also


  1. Peterson, Jacqueline; Brown, Jennifer S. H. (2001). The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America. Winnipeg, Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-87351-408-8.
  2. Peterson and Brown, The New Peoples, p. 44-45
  3. Wallace Gesner, "Habitants, Half-Breeds and Homeless Children: Transformations in Metis and Yankee-Yorker Relations in Early Michigan," in Michigan Historical Review Vol. 24, issue 1 (Jan. 1998) p. 23-47
  4. Kerry A. Trask, "Settlement in a Half-Savage Land: Life and Loss in the Métis Community of La Baye," Michigan Historical Review Vol. 15, no. 1 (Spring 1989) p. 1
  5. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-06-01. Retrieved 2015-05-14.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  6. Fredrickson, George M. (March 2005). "Mulattoes and metis. Attitudes toward miscegenation in the United States and France since the seventeenth century". International Social Science Journal. 57 (183): 103–112. doi:10.1111/j.0020-8701.2005.00534.x. ISSN 0020-8701.
  7. Peterson, Jacqueline (1978). "Prelude to Red River: A Social Portrait of the Great Lakes Metis". Ethnohistory. 25 (1): 41–67. doi:10.2307/481164. ISSN 0014-1801.
  8. "Pembina State Museum - History - State Historical Society of North Dakota". Retrieved 2016-01-07.
  9. White Weasel, Charlie (1989). Old White Rice "The Great Chief" "Genesis of the Pembina/Turtle Mountain Chippewa". Belcourt, North Dakota: Self published. p. 5.
  10. Peter C. Douaud, "Reviewed Work: 'The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America' by Jacqueline Peterson, Jennifer S. H. Brown", American Indian Quarterly Vol. 11, No. 2 (Spring, 1987), pp. 159-161, University of Nebraska Press, Article DOI: 10.2307/1183704 (subscription required), accessed 12 May 2015
  11. Bumsted, J. M. (March 1999). "Louis Riel and the United States". American Review of Canadian Studies. 29 (1): 17–41. doi:10.1080/02722019909481620. ISSN 0272-2011.

Further reading

  • Barkwell, Lawrence J., Leah Dorion, and Audreen Hourie. Metis legacy Michif culture, heritage, and folkways. Metis legacy series, v. 2. Saskatoon, SK: Gabriel Dumont Institute, 2006.
  • Barkwell, Lawrence J., Leah Dorion and Darren Prefontaine. Metis Legacy: A Historiography and Annotated Bibliography. Winnipeg, MB: Pemmican Publications and Saskatoon: Gabriel Dumont Institute, 2001.
  • Foster, Harroun Marther. We Know Who We Are: Métis Identity in a Montana Community. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.
  • Peterson, Jacqueline and Jennifer S. H. Brown, ed. The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Metis in North America. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.
  • St-Onge, Nicole, Carolyn Podruchny, and Brenda Macdougall (eds.), Contours of a People: Metis Family, Mobility, and History. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012.
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