‘Creole’, ‘Métis’, and the Politics of Identity: Commentary on Lucy Eldersveld Murphy’s “Great Lakes Creoles”


Great Lakes Creoles: A French-Indian Community on the Northern Borderlands, Prairie du Chien, 1750–1860
by Lucy Eldersveld Murphy, Ohio State University
ISBN: 9781107674745
September 2014
Cambridge University Press Studies in North American Indian History



Commentary by Sebastien Malette, Ph.D.

A great deal of discussion is currently taking place about the recent monograph, Great Lakes Creoles: A French-Indian Community on the Northern Borderlands, Prairie du Chien, 1750-1860 by Lucy Eldersveld Murphy. As this field of study is of great interest to me personally and academically, the following are my thoughts on the work which, among other things, exemplifies well a growing malaise when it comes to the use and suppression of the term “Métis” due to current politics and pressures, which in my opinion is affecting scholarly research.

First, I find that this book is excellent. It is a great source of historical information on very influential Métis and Canayen families of the Midwest (Prairie du Chien in particular), with deep kinship ties extending from East to West. To a careful reader, this book also shows many traits of the distinctiveness of open-ended and fluid Métis identities still associated with the Great Lakes region by many of their descendants (especially in Ontario), who refuse rigid dichotomist categorizations of their “Half-breed” heritage. Arguably, the Great Lakes and Midwest region has created different kinds of Métis identities, which indigenization appears to refuse top-down, a posteriori and homogenizing sociological categories, often conflated in recent scholarship on Métis identities with nationalist criteria. I would argue these criteria are derived from European Romantic grammar establishing what ought to be regarded as a real “people” (Herder among others). Scholars like Chris Andersen and Adam Gaudry, among others, are known for promoting these ethno-nationalist criteria, which insist on the nationalistic moment of the Red River Métis to arrogate the exclusive legitimacy over Métis peoplehood.

Interestingly, although the author sometimes adopts this Western-centric line of argument (p. 293), Lucy Murphy is careful to make a distinction that reinforces our view that “Métis” of the Midwest had a different way of experiencing their distinctive identity:

Sociologist Chris Andersen cautions scholars against using the term Métis for groups of peoples who did not identify themselves in that way. In some respects, the people of the Prairie du Chien adopted the thinking of their Native relatives and assigned identities based upon kinship, lifestyle, and culture, not race. (p. 14. My emphasis)

As Murphy tells us, “kinship,” “lifestyle” and “culture” defined the distinctive “Half-breeds” of Prairie du Chien and the Midwest; not this nationalistic reinterpretation of Métis identity increasingly made of arbitrary cut-offs that are now instrumentalised by a few activists to negate the heritage of the other Métis across North America. In short, the coalescence of “Métis” identities (or “Half-Breeds” if the documents are written in English) do not have to be singular nor geographically bounded and historically reified in passéist interpretations of specific events tied to Red River. It is however alarming to see a number of scholars adopting that neo-nationalist rationale, without any further critical engagement with its assumptions.

As many reviews already did an excellent job covering this book, I will simply flag two issues that will further exemplify my critique of the nationalist doctrine currently pressuring authors on their usage of the term “Métis.” Firstly, although the author recognizes the complexity of the “Half-breeds” or “Métis” heritages, she nevertheless adopts a rigid nominalist category when it comes to the usage of the term “Métis,” which seems to push her to favor the term “Créole” in her book and title. The question is why? As stated above, I suspect that this is the result of pressure exerted from a very few vocal Red River nationalist scholars to not use the term “Métis” for any populations outside the Red River milieu (for example the work of Chris Andersen, quoted by Murphy on different occasions). We can therefore interrogate Murphy’s preference for the term “Créole” over “Métis,” especially when referring to the French-Indian population of Prairie du Chien as her subtitle makes clear. Furthermore, there is at least one telling example in which the whole “French-Indian” population of the Midwest is being described as “Métis” interchangeably, this as early as 1918, namely the work of Louise Seymour Houghton, Our Debt to the Red Man: The French-Indians in the Development of the United States (Boston: Stratford Company, 1918).

Clearly, the terms “Créole” and “Métis,” even in the region examined in Murphy’s study, do not necessarily mean the same thing. As the author recognizes, “Créole” is a term that predominantly describes “White” European peoples, but born in America, and therefore different from recently arrived settlers directly from Europe. It is also fair to say that there can be overlapping experiences in the complexities of real lives and fur trade kin systems, which often included “French-Canadians” and “Half-breeds” (among others). But to boldly assert that the “Créole” populations in the Midwest did not suffer racism as an “outside group” because their identity was not constituted around racial features remains a strange affirmation (p. 11); especially when the term “Créole” is applied simultaneously to “White” peoples of Settler descent (but born in America), while Murphy employs it to describe populations/individuals recognized predominantly for (1) their French-Indian métissage, (2) some of whom insist on their métissage as a vector of their distinct identity, (3) a distinctiveness also reflected by a series of political differential treatment—most explicitly with the “Half-Breed” tracts of Prairie du Chien setting the “Half-Breeds” of that region apart both from the “Indians” and the “Whites.” This assertion of an identity constructed without any reference to ethnic features is especially strange when evidence suggests the contrary, that Métis populations of the Midwest did in fact lost their “White” status per métissage, which, paradoxically, is the object of pride for the “French Half-Breeds”:

Havard 1

I therefore doubt the appropriateness of using the term “Créole” to identify what constitutes a predominantly French-Indian people associated with Prairie du Chien (“Métis” really, when we consider Riel’s historical description of such people or Houghton’ historical treatment of the term); except, of course, if we use the term “Créole” as this catch-all moniker for all “habitants” of the Midwest (and Prairie du Chien in particular), in which case I ask: why bother with the French-Indian connection in the first place?

Another point of contention in line with my first critique is Murphy’s adoption of the distinction between little ‘m’ versus big ‘M’ Métis at page 18, which is linked with a justification that one needs to be aware of Métis identity as conditional for such ascription. There we can see the tip of a more profound malaise that may well explain the preference for the term “Créole” instead of “Métis” by Murphy. Personally, I reject this distinction, which to me is more the product of recent Red River politics and néo-nationalism, wherein pressure is brought to bear on scholars to adopt this conflation between ethnogenesis of Métis communities and identities, with grand nationalistic expressions, this according mostly to Eurocentric sociological grammar of what constitutes peoplehood/nationhood. To assume that the term “Métis” should apply only to the Red River Métis makes no sense from a historical standpoint, especially when we know that other appellations were commonly used, including simply “French”:

French Half Breeds

It is my understanding that this distinction is borne out of a form of acute revisionism based on post-1983 politics involving Metis groups battling for recognition, which is now applied to historical work. To suggest that some are ‘small m’ metis because they would be only Métis by ancestry, versus ‘big M’, is to endorse implicitly a racialised logic from the outset, depriving many people of their cultural existence, whom I believe we should assume as simply “Métis” (because we speak of whole human beings here, and the adjectival form is certainly diminishing when it comes to experienced heritage that is not simply racial.) Here I suggest that we should be comfortable in ascribing a Métis identity to the “French-Indian” people of Prarie du Chien, especially when such heritage conforms to the definition offered by Louis Riel himself on the Métis peoples:

Riel Quote.jpg

Riel’s definition should not be interpreted as suggesting that Métis are just a product of mere “ancestry” or mixing. Ancestry is part of diverse valuations by which individuals and communities understand and situate themselves culturally, and I dare to say politically; to suggest otherwise risks doing violence to Indigenized ways of understanding what constitutes peoplehood, as per Métis/Half-breed cultures. Furthermore, Riel’s definition does not necessarily force us to endorse a racist theory on Métis identity (which one would have to wash away with political formula); Riel’s definition could be interpreted as depicting the merging of two kinship systems and cultures, which became the source of new Métis identities precisely distinct because of their irreducibility to any homogenizing or dichotomizing enterprises that would ask us to be either “White” or “Indian.”

Clearly, when it comes to Prairie du Chien, the presence of a Treaty in 1825 and tracts reserved for the predominantly French “Half-breed” suffice to show that a group of people of Métis heritage were treated differently on the basis of their ethnicity (which always include cultures and policies by default), and this on a collective basis. In fact, if we were to apply Chris Andersen’s ethno-nationalist approach to the entire Western Prairies, we can suspect that not a lot of ancestors would be able to claim a “pure” Métis identity per his own standards—that is if we were to ask them for rigid and written proof of their collective-awareness strictly tied to their past usage of the term “Métis.” Per evidence, we know that self-identifications even in Red River went by different names and were not homogenous over time. So why should we police other “Half Breed” or “French-Indian” communities in the Midwest with a different measuring stick, forbidding the use a term that reflects well such French-Indian distinctive heritage per Riel’s inspiration and definition?

In conclusion, let me offer a comparison to best illustrate the problem we face: when the majority of French-Canadians in Québec decided to become “Québecois” as part of forging this new regional and national identity, did they suddenly forbid all other French-Canadians (and their descendants) across all of North America to use the “French-Canadian” ethnonym? The answer to that question should be illuminating. Clearly, the onus of this regional differentiation was placed on the Québécois, and not on all French-Canadians to find themselves a new identity.

So why would it be different for the various Métis peoples vis-à-vis the Red River Métis nation? Why this sudden need to arrogate an ethnonym used on the East coast as early as 1760 by Bagazier? Is it because the Red River Métis suddenly charged this term with a new political significance, thus creating the “Red River Métis Nation”? Then why not own that regional denomination and political distinction? There is no reason to strip all other Métis descendants and ancestors of the term “Métis” to make this point salient, as there is no need to portray anyone’s ancestors as lacking proper awareness of their distinctive heritage. We must indeed come to grip with the violence that such distinctions may carry.

Setting these two points aside, this is an excellent book. Murphy’s work helps stimulate further discussion beyond these touch semantic decisions, which are loaded with political undertones and hard to avoid one way or the other. It is an important contribution to our evolving understanding of traditional French-Indian cultures in the Great Lakes and the American Midwest (here we personally dare to say Métis, and capitalized). We can only hope that our present discussion will help scholars to move beyond the distinction between little “m” and capitalized “M” Métis, which can be truly offensive to the heritage of many other Métis who found themselves on the receiving end of being described as these “a-political” descendants of somehow “fake Métis,” hence mere biological ones.

Dr. Malette is a scholar of Métis and French-Canadian heritage with the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. He is co-author of the forthcoming work Songs upon the Rivers: Buried History of the French-speaking Canadiens and Métis from the Great Lakes and the Mississippi across to the Pacific from Baraka Books, October 2016.

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