The Metis Cultural Renaissance
“My people will sleep for one hundred years, and when they awake, it will be the artists who give them back their spirit.”
Such were the prophetic words of Metis revolutionary Louis Riel on July 4, 1885, after receiving news in prison that unequivocally portended the suppression of his North-West Rebellion (namely the defeat of Cree Chief Big Bear, his last remaining ally, at the Battle of Loon Lake). Roughly four months later, he was hung for high treason.
“My people will sleep for one hundred years…”
That the first part of Riel’s prophecy was fulfilled is not especially remarkable. Since their beginnings (which, according to an old joke, occurred nine months after the first European set foot in North America; the Metis are a nation born of French and Scottish fur traders and Indian women), the Metis had tasted discrimination from both whites and First Nations alike. This prejudice was amplified as a result of the North-West Rebellion- a conflict in which the Metis people, along with their Indian allies, fought against the Canadian government for better treatment. Following the death of Riel, their political and spiritual leader, and their collective defeat as a nation, Canada’s Metis people, understandably, figuratively fell asleep. For a century, the Metis were ashamed of their heritage, and passed themselves off as white, or became treaty Indians, when they could. Many so-called half-breeds were embarrassed to speak their mother tongue, and over time Michif, a once-prolific language spoken by French-Cree Metis, fell into obsolescence and Bungi, an English dialect spoken by Orcadian/Scots-Cree Metis of the Red River, all but disappeared entirely. Although a handful of Metis artists such as fiddler Andy de Jarlis struggled to keep the culture alive, the latter part of the 19th and most of the 20th century was a dark time for the Metis people.
“…and when they awake, it will be the artists who give them back their spirit.”
What is much more remarkable, and perhaps a little eerie, is that the second part of Riel’s prediction came true. Nearly a century after Riel’s clairvoyant proclamation, in 1982, the Constitution Act was passed, recognizing the Metis as one of Canada’s three aboriginal peoples, along with the First Nations and Inuit. Bolstered by their new status, the Metis people began to embrace and take pride in their heritage. The huge cultural resurgence that ensued might be termed the Metis Renaissance. As Riel had predicted, this cultural awakening was charged by Metis musicians, dancers and other artists promoting their traditional craft. Foremost among these artists were John Arcand (dubbed the “Master of the Metis Fiddle”) and Calvin Vollrath (a Metis fiddler; considered by some to be one of the best fiddlers in the world).
Today, as a direct result of the cultural resurgence, Metis ancestry is a source of pride rather than a cause for embarrassment. Numerous Metis music and dance camps resultant of the renaissance- such as The Hills are Alive Music and Dance Cultural Festival near Elkwater, Alberta, the John Arcand Fiddle Fest south of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and the (regrettably now defunct) Emma Lake Fiddle Camp (the first fiddle camp in Canada) in Emma Lake, Saskatchewan- help to ensure the longevity of the Metis culture. Other legacies of the Metis cultural resurgence include the Metis Fiddler Quartet (a Metis-style string quartet from Winnipeg) and LearnMichif.com (a website designed to re-proliferate Michif, the language of the French-Cree Metis).