The Métis are unique to Canada, born of the union between women of the First Nations and European men during the fur trade. They acted in a variety of roles during the fur trade, such as middlemen between the cultures they were tied to, making them some of the most valuable employees and allies for the trading companies. The Cree name for the Métis is “o-tee-paym-soo-wuk”, meaning, “the people who own themselves”. This name encompasses the spirit of Métis independence.
Lac La Biche has roots as a Métis community that primarily spoke Nêhiyawêwin (Cree “Y” dialect) rather than French or Michif. Between 1763 and 1821, Métis freemen lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle around the area, often working as farmers, hunters, fishers, trappers, and seasonal labourers for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Alberta is the only province with Métis settlements, which are areas of constitutionally-protected land designated for the Métis. Two of these settlements are in our region—Buffalo Lake and Kikino, both of which received designation as an official settlement in 1938. Kikino received its name from the people living there; Kikino means “Our Home” in Cree. Although land was set aside at Buffalo Lake in 1938 under the name of Caslan, it was not populated until 1951 due to lack of access. People moved there from Kikino, North Buck Lake, the Lac La Biche Mission area, and other Métis settlements. By the 1960s, only eight of the original twelve settlements remained.
Although the settlements were legally created in the 1900s, many local Métis families have been present in the region since the 1700s. Many came as free traders, not under contract with one specific fur company.
The first documented appearances of the Desjarlais family begin with Joseph Desjarlais (b. 1745) and his wife, Okimaskwew. Two of their children, Joseph Desjarlais Jr. and Baptiste “Nishecabo” Desjarlais, was born at Lac La Biche in 1796 and 1787 respectively. He continued to live in the area, marrying Josephte Cardinal in 1844.
Joseph Soldat Cardinal (b. 1766), also known as Matchi-Pa-Koos, and Louise Frobisher were in the region several times before permanently settling in the 1820s. Later in life, he asked the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to set up a mission in the region for the several hundred Métis and Cree living there. In 1844, he guided missionary Jean-Baptiste Thibeault to Lac La Biche to find a suitable location. Notre Dame des Victoires was founded in 1853.
Joseph Ladouceur (b. 1777) came from Quebec and married Josephte Cardinal. Their children eventually moved to the Plamondon area to trap and farm. One of their sons, Joseph Ladouceur Jr., became an independent trader. Josephte Cardinal later married Joseph Desjarlais Jr.
“Culture entails all your ancestral beings, whatever they had going for them. You can try to relate the stories down and on and on.”
Métis culture is largely shaped by their dual heritage, with a blend of Aboriginal and European influences shown in traditions, language, and art. For example, the official language of the Métis, Michif, is a mixture of Nêhiyawêwin (Cree “Y” dialect) and French. However, most in the Lac La Biche region spoke Nêhiyawêwin.
The Métis flag shows a white infinity symbol on a solid coloured background. Historically, the red flags represented working with the Hudson’s Bay Company and blue with the North West Company. The flag was a gift in 1814 from Alexander Macdonnell of the North West Company and was used in 1816 by Métis resistance fighters during the Battle of Seven Oaks. The infinity symbol has several meanings, including the perpetuity of the Métis people and the union of Aboriginal and European cultures. Today, the blue flag is used by the Métis National Council and the red flag by the Métis Nation of Alberta.
Introduced by Scottish and French fur traders, the fiddle is the national instrument of the Métis. Fiddling was accompanied with guitars by 1940s, but was historically accompanied with stomping and tapping. Fiddles were expensive, so many Métis handcrafted their own instruments. Tunes were learned by ear. Some famous tunes are Red River Jig, Duck Dance, Drops of Brandy, St. Anne’s Reel, Whiskey Before Breakfast, and Maple Sugar. Where there are fiddlers, there are dancers as well. Jigging is influenced by First Nations pow wow steps as well as French, Scottish, and Irish steps. There are two parts to jigging—basic step dancing and fancy jigging steps. There is also a constant competition on who can outdo the other between fiddler and jigger. Jiggers have to match the tempo of the fiddler, with the fiddler increasing his speed throughout the dance. Our region has been home to the Silhouettes Square Dancing Club and the Kikino Northern Lights Dancers.
The Métis are famous for their intricate, usually floral beadwork. The Métis are thought to have introduced beadworking to several First Nations groups. Beadwork is present on many things, such as jackets and bags. Examples of beadwork can be found everywhere. Even Métis “fire bags” ( also called “octopus” bags), which were used to carry flint, ammunition, tobacco, and pipes, were richly decorated with beads.
“My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”
The iconic Métis sashes, called ceinture fléchée or Assomption sashes, were historically used by voyageurs travelling through Canada and made in Assomption, Quebec. There were several uses for these sashes—washcloths, tumplines, rope, scarves, tourniquets, bridles, and sewing thread among others. Sashes were tightly wrapped around voyageurs’ waists to provide back support and prevent hernias, one of the leading causes of death among voyageurs. The colours and meanings of the threads used to make sashes are slightly varied, but there are two sets of generally accepted meanings.
- In the first, blue, white, and blue refer to the colours of the Métis flags, black is for the period of Métis suppression after 1870, and green and gold represent fertility, growth, and prosperity.
- In the second, blue represents the strength of the Métis spirit, red represents blood shed fighting for Métis rights, white represents the connection to the Creator, black is for the period of Métis suppression after 1870, yellow represents prosperity, and green represents fertility.