Carry the Fire : Portez le feu

By James LaForest

Canoe Party around a Campfire / Groupe de voyageurs. Frances Anne Hopkins. 1870. Library and Archives Canada.

I started advocating for French Canadian and Métis cultural revival in earnest in 2013, drawing on the work of writers and historians who had been fostering interest in our heritage for decades. For several years, I was very concerned about the survival of my family’s culture. But for now, I am no longer concerned about the survival of French Canadian and Métis cultures in the Great Lakes. No, I haven’t given up. It’s not that I now just ‘accept’ what for some has been conventional wisdom ­– that it’s been gone for good for a long time. No! To the contrary.

I am no longer concerned because I see clearly now what I did not see ten years ago in the states around the Great Lakes: that individuals and organizations are aware that tapping into our extensive history and heritage in the region is a key element of the cultural tapestry of the region, one of it’s greatest assets. From the expansion and relocation of the Michilimackinac Historical Society’s Fort du Buade Museum in St. Ignace, Michigan to the extensive development of the River Raisin National Battlefield in Monroe, Michigan, from the designation of Ste. Genevieve National Historic Park in Missouri to the installation of a sculpture of early leader François Bissot, the Sieur de Vincennes, in Vincennes, Indiana and finally the creation of Detroit’s St Anne Rendezvous, there are many reasons to feel secure in our future.

One thing that these events have in common, in addition to their shared histories, is that they did not rely on social media to make it happen. Cultural activists worked over many years to make dreams become reality. All of those who care about the future of our cultures owe them a great debt, for their work helps to ensure a continuity of culture down to the next generation.

This realization has reinforced my own waning interest in social media and it makes me wonder, how do we all keep in touch if/when Facebook starts charging fees? How do activists who create events and educational tools voluntarily walk away something so powerful? To be sure, we have all utilized social media as a tool, but it was not the reason for our successes. Success has come about due to the energy on the ground to turn into reality the concepts that we knew would be great for building community.

It begs the question, what is the efficacy of relying long-term on social media? Consider that we’ve managed to survive as self-aware, regional micro-cultures for a long time without these tools of modernity. The revitalization that has taken place over the past several years goes beyond our keyboards. It’s due to more interest in cultural ownership and a renewed awareness of French Canadian and Métis heritage and history among people around the Great Lakes. It’s emanating from people’s sense of themselves.

In my view, we are experiencing within our community (the real one, not just the virtural one) a renaissance of cultural identity. I base this on the success of the French Canadians and Métis of the Great Lakes and Upper Louisiana Facebook forum, the successes of the many programs and events listed above and the many others not listed, and perhaps most importantly, the many questions I have received over the years that can be boiled down to: What do I do to express my culture? I am proud of my heritage – how do I tap into it on a local level? Where do I find it?

These questions have come from people around the Great Lakes in private messages. I don’t always have a good answer. It’s not easy to say: it’s there – over there! That group with the canoe, those guys in plaid, the hunting tradition, the meat pie your grandmother made, the altar society ladies, and the schoolkids learning about sashes and crepes. Yes, that’s it. That’s all culture. Our culture. It’s the forts and the church, the place names across the region and the rendezvous.

Social media outlets are never going to tell you that your heritage is a great thing. In fact they’re likely to do the opposite. Likes and smiley faces are not a replacement for cultural pride and affirmation of your existence. Genealogy and DNA databases are not culture, even if genealogy is a marker of our cultural experience (Tanguay, Denissen, Drouhin, etc). I have always been motivated in my own work by a sense that we all deserve to tap into our cultural identity, if we want to. We are free to have as much pride in our French roots as in our Kaskaskia roots, in our Scots ancestry as our Cree.

Most everyone carries multiple cultural ties. I am American, Catholic, French Canadian, and Métis, with a variety of other ancestries. I am a Michigander. But when it comes to defining myself in ethnic terms, I am proudly and unambiguously tied to these aforementioned historical and familial cultures. Our right as free peoples is to associate with whom we feel affinity. Our obligation is to ensure that freedom is not taken away, or lost by virtue of complacency. Today, we are often told that claiming pride in our heritage, particularly if we are of European heritage, is a negative thing to do. French Canadians might be accused of pride in colonialist crimes for simply affirming our heritage. Métis people are often accused of cultural appropriation.

This phenomenon of recrimination is propelled by the same technology that should empower us. But a cultural project that relies solely on technology is inherently temporary, woefully ephemeral. Bridging the gap between our virtual communities and our flesh and blood lives, to strengthen a proud and stable cultural identity we want to see our children claim, is the hard work of people willing to imagine and create. People willing to tell the story, even if they have to first learn it themselves. People willing to carry the fire, even when it seems to be on its last flicker.

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