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  • The Long Journey of a Forgotten People: Métis Identities and Family Histories
  • Bonita Lawrence (bio)
Ute Lischke and David T. McNab, editors. The Long Journey of a Forgotten People: Métis Identities and Family Histories. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. 2007. viii, 386. $34.95

This book is unique in a number of ways. It combines in-depth historical research on diverse Metis communities with individual explorations of Metis families. It refuses the divisions that situate Metisness only in the west by providing substantial attention to Ontario Metis communities. It provides information about the Powley decision and Metis rights. Finally, some chapters infuse historical explorations with spiritual understandings of the connections that keep the ancestors alive. As such, it is a valuable addition to the literature on Metis people in Canada.

The book imparts multiple views of Metisness while refusing attempts at definition - possibly in order to challenge the colonialist framework through which limiting definitions have been imposed on Metis peoples. However, by not including theoretical exploration of definitions, 'Metisness' risks losing meaning in a number of ways - particularly through the tendency of some writers to collapse 'mixed-bloodedness' into 'Metisness' and through the dichotomizing and distancing of 'First Nations' and 'Metis' (which accepts the very colonial dichotomies that limit our understandings of Metisness in the first place). The resulting confusion about Metisness resonates through several of the chapters where individuals delineate their histories.

The collapsing of 'mixed-bloodedness' into 'Metisness' is manifested most notably in Ute Lischke's chapter on mixed-blood writer Louise Erdrich. At times Erdrich is characterized by Lischke as having Metis ancestry (in addition to German and Anishinabe [Ojibway/Chippewa]; at other times Lischke refers to her as 'Metis'). While Erdrich has included the presence of Metis characters in a few of her novels, most of her books (included the children's novel characterized by Lichke as 'Metis') reflect Anishinabe histories, cultural contexts, and language. To categorize all mixed-blood Native writers who are not of Metis heritage as 'Metis' is to reduce Metisness to a purely racial definition - much as the colonizers did. This confusion is present in a number of contexts in this book.

The second tendency - to dichotomize and distance 'Metisness' from 'Indianness' - is mitigated to some extent by Karle Hele's excellent article on the effects of colonial interventions on the Sault borderlands Metis. Hele challenges the artificiality of a racial system that categorizes [End Page 576] the blue-eyed Chief Shingwaukonse as 'Indian' but refuses to include the Metis as Indians in their treaties. In doing so he effectively destabilizes the tendency to dichotomize 'Indian' and 'Metis' as irrelevant to one another. And yet even Hele prefaces his chapter by indicating that he will not be exploring 'First Nations' Sault history in his book, only Metis history (a profound weakness in the chapter).

Hele and the other writers who address Ontario Metis communities while ignoring 'First Nations' history are in a sense victims of an intellectual division of labour that is itself premised on colonial categories. Canadian historical research specializes either in 'Metis or 'Indian' history - and always through the lens of their relationship to the settler society rather than their relationship to one another. As a result, the amount of intellectual labour required to recover historical information on 'Metis' and 'Indian' communities together is a daunting task. The problem is compounded by a too-frequent lack of regard for oral histories as 'history' in seeking to understand the past.

When Metis people, in recovering their family and community histories, distance themselves from First Nations, they lose the ability fully to understand their own identities. It is one thing to map out the grid of historic Metis communities on the sites where white fur trade ancestors were stationed. It is another to overlay that grid onto the backdrop of 'Indian' history in the area, particularly the community histories manifested through the oral tradition. This is the only way in which Metis history makes sense as part of Aboriginal history, not just as white settler history.

In reading the accounts of Metis family and community histories in this book, at times there appears to be considerable confusion, particularly for...


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pp. 576-577
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