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Voyageur Re-presentations and Complications: Frances Anne Hopkins and the Métis Nation of Ontario
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Voyageur Re-presentations and Complications:
Frances Anne Hopkins and the Métis Nation of Ontario

Represented through the paintings and descriptions of travelers to the Great Lakes during the nineteenth century, the voyageur was a spectacle of unbounded strength and romanticism. With his dark skin and clothing that combined European tailoring and Native detailing such as beadwork, he became a form of "other," a symbol of the unions between European men and Native women, a visual reminder of a group that was largely considered in-between—the métis.1 Identities for this group of people oscillated in this time period; in the historical record they were often referred to as voyageur, Indian, half-breed, mixed-blood, and savage. Colonial images, created by those who traveled to this region, such as the British artist Frances Anne Hopkins, are complex negotiators between colonialist and colonized, and embody a multiplicity of desires and agendas that move through time.

The Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO) currently uses the painting Shooting the Rapids (1879) (Figure 1) by Frances Anne Hopkins as a visual representative on their website and other publication material, in addition to reenacting the voyageur lifestyle at gatherings such as the Annual General Assembly. In this essay, I will examine why the MNO uses this image to assert their presence. Frances Anne Hopkins, a non-Native woman, depicted métis voyageurs in the nineteenth century to document her time in Ontario and to create a souvenir of the exotic peoples and places she encountered. Contextualizing this painting in relation to scholarship on métis identities in the nineteenth century, [End Page 100] Frances Anne Hopkins's agenda, and my interpretation of why the MNO uses this imagery, will shed light on the complex work that this image commits today and the complications inherent in using colonial imagery for Native assertions of identity.

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Figure 1.

Frances Anne Hopkins, Shooting the Rapids, circa 1879, oil on canvas, Library and Archives Canada/Credit: Frances Anne Hopkins fonds/C-002774.

My analysis builds on the work of postcolonial scholars such as the professor of English literature Beth Fowkes Tobin. Her insights on eighteenth-century images of Native and non-Native officials is illuminating to my work, for her critical analysis of colonial imagery and re-reading for strategies of resistance. Tobin argues:

Because art simultaneously reflects and shapes social, economic, and political practices, paintings can be invaluable to those seeking to understand the past, particularly the politics of a specific cultural landscape. Drawing and paintings are sites where the tensions and contradictions of colonialist doctrines and practices were negotiated, more or less successfully, on an aesthetic level. Paintings, as in the case with all cultural production, are not merely reflections of larger social and economic forces; they participate in the production of meaning, in the dynamic construction of identities, and in the structuring within discursive fields of particular positionalities.2

Through examining Hopkins's painting in detail, the aim of this essay is to reveal the multiple agendas that inform colonial art production and shed light on the complexities of métis identities in the Great Lakes through colonial imagery, both in the nineteenth century and today. [End Page 101]

Complexity of Métis Identities in the Great Lakes in the Nineteenth Century

There is a dearth of scholarship on métis culture within the Great Lakes, which can be explained by several factors. In the area of visual culture, the lack of material culture identified as métis from the Great Lakes area in collections is a problem—probably because "material" is mislabeled, as a result of the reluctance of many people to identify themselves as métis due to the racism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This lack of identification in museums could also be due to the tendency of Euro-Canadian and Euro-American anthropologists and other cultural workers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to identify Native material in terms of categories that conveyed cultural "purity" rather than the category of métis, which conveys the mixing of Native and European heritage. Another factor that contributes to...