Unwritten Histories

The Unwritten Rules of History

Hurtful Histories: Louis Riel and Why Accuracy Matters

Header Image Louis Riel

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I was recently talking about the Louis Riel podcast episode from Stuff You Missed in History. This blog post is based off of that original Twitter essay.

Special thanks to Krystl Raven, Catherine Ulmer, and Melissa Shaw for their help reviewing this blog post, and also to Krystl Raven and Adam Gaudry for reading recommendations on this subject! Finally, a big thank you to my friends on Facebook, who insisted that I needed to write this post.

As I was getting ready for bed the other night, I received a notification that a podcast that I occasionally listen to, Stuff You Missed in History Class, had a new episode. I clicked over to see what it was, and immediately felt uneasy. The subject was Louis Riel. Not that there is a problem with the subject, but in most cases, the history of Louis Riel is handled poorly.

I do want to make it clear here that I’m not trying to pick on Stuff You Missed in History Class. To be fair, the hosts of the show do not claim to be historians. And the show is not intended to be academically rigorous. It is for entertainment value, though the hosts do try their best to be accurate and provide a list of their sources.

However — and it is a big however — I believe that they failed in their due diligence to ensure that they accurately and fairly represented this particular subject, especially given the sensitive and political nature of it. And I know they can do better; I’ve listened to some great and well-sourced podcast episodes from this show (like their series on Redlining or their “Unearthed” episodes!) But, if you’re using a public platform to explain and disseminate information about history, the onus is on you to present your information accurately and fairly.

This blog post is not a re-telling of the history of Louis Riel. Rather, I focus on some of the major errors in the podcast episode and the ramifications of these mistakes. You may think that this is just another historian griping about some non-historians being inaccurate about random obscure facts that no one else cares about, but perpetuating certain dominant historical narrative can do great harm.

 

Ix-nay on the Oyden-bay.

Let us start with the sources. The very nature and scope of one’s historical inquiry hinges on the sources we use and the questions we ask of them. Right off the bat, I I’m disappointed that this episode cites  Joseph Boyden’s Extraordinary Canadians: Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont. Aside from the fact that Boyden is an author, not a historian, but he has also been accused of being an imposer: An Anglo-Canadian who has been claiming to be  to be Indigenous.  While a detailed discussion of passing, cultural appropriation, and white privilege merits its own blog post, for now, I’ll refer you to Shady Hafez’s fantastic blog post, “10 Reasons why Joseph Boyden is a Problem and Should Go Away” for a detailed explanation.  Using Boyden as a reliable source to talk about Louis Riel is like a slap in the face to all Métis. Seriously, do not go there.

The other sources are also not ideal, though none are quite so insulting. Mostly, these are out-of-date or unreliable sources. As my husband put it, even Tom Flanagan would be an improvement here. They’ve pretty much missed all of the big sources on this, most of which are very easy to find.*

*Missed in History does cite the George F.G. Stanley article on Riel from The Canadian Encyclopedia. The article has been recently updated by noted Métis scholar, Adam Gaudry, and the updated version does address many of the same issues as this blog post. Also, don’t read Tom Flanagan’s work on Riel. Trust me. Be sure to scroll to the end of this blog post for a list of recommended sources on the topics addressed in this post.

 

Capitalization Matters: Métis vs. métis

The second serious issue appear in the introduction to the podcast. The hosts try to contextualize the story by explaining the history of the Métis. Problem is, they conflate the Métis Nation with individuals of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry in the Maritimes. They specifically mention “Métis” as descendants of local Indigenous peoples and “fishermen.” Omg, no. There is a difference between “métis” and “Métis.” The former is an older French term to refer to people with mixed heritage, and can refer to many different groups of people. The latter, always with a capital “M,” refers to distinct Indigenous people. The people of the Métis Nation are the descendants of the children of mostly French fur traders and Indigenous women (often Anishinaabe or Cree). These children then intermarried and developed their own distinct culture and community. This may seem like a trivial difference to some, but this is absolutely not the case, especially given the current political climate, particularly regarding the Daniels Case, debates about Indigenous DNA, and the ridiculous and harmful emergence of the “Mikinak” community in Quebec.

 

Agency and the Colonial Gaze: Indigenous Women in the Fur Trade

Immediately afterwards, the hosts make a third and very grave mistake: they claim that Indigenous groups on the Canadian Plains “gave” brides to  fur traders in order to secure alliances. This is a gross misrepresentation! The Indigenous peoples of the Plains, specifically the Cree, the Anishinaabe, and the Ojibwa, have no history of “giving women.” Rather, individual women entered into marriages with fur traders of their own free will, often for specific purposes. Moreover, the Indigenous women in these relationships were highly valued as equal partners and fellow workers in the fur trade. Without these women, and their daughters after them, the fur trade would not have succeeded.

So saying that Indigenous women were “given” to fur traders denies their agency, and relegates them to the status of passive victims.  Denying these women their agency, or ability to make choices, is perpetuating colonialism. What do I mean by that? If we read 18th and 19th century accounts of the fur trade, there are very few if any references to Indigenous or Métis women. This is because of something called the “colonial gaze,” where Indigenous people were deliberately written out of history in order to justify the European conquest of North America. This goes double for Indigenous women, who were left out of the records because they were Indigenous and female. If we replicate this problem, by either ignoring or misrepresenting the experiences of Indigenous women, then we are guilty of perpetuating the same system that tried to make them invisible in the first place! Am I saying that it was all sunshine and rainbows? Absolutely not! But these women were real people, who often had to make the best of very difficult circumstances, through their hard work and dedication. They deserve our utmost respect and admiration.

 

Who Owned Rupert’s Land?

The next two big issues are interrelated: the hosts mention the HBC “owning” the territory called “Rupert’s Land.”   It is more accurate to say that HBC was granted trading rights to all of the lands that drained into Hudson’s Bay. This was not a matter of ownership. Did they have tremendous powers in the area? Definitely! But it didn’t actually belong to them. And it certainly wasn’t theirs to sell to the newly created Dominion of Canada in 1870.  When we use language that describes HBC “owning” Rupert’s Land, we legitimize and validate the actions of the HBC and the Canadian government as well as their claims to the land. Further, and more problematically, we ignore and harm the ongoing work of Indigenous peoples in this area and elsewhere in the Americas who are fighting for recognition of their lands and rights, while also calling on the Canadian government to honour the promises they have made through treaties. The Canadian government was well aware that they were making an illegal purchase. That is why immediately thereafter, they began negotiations for a new series of treaties with Indigenous peoples, which are now known as the Numbered Treaties, largely to cover their own behinds.

 

The 1885 Resistance

Then there is the mischaracterization of the 1885 Resistance, sometimes called the North-West Rebellion. Again, this is a long and complicated history that deserves its own blog post. But basically, this was an uprising of Plains Cree and Métis warriors* after decades of deliberate starvation, mistreatment, and broken promises. Was Riel involved? Yes, but mostly as a figure-head. When we focus on Riel when speaking about 1885, we completely misrepresent what really happened. 1885 was about the deliberate disempowerment and subjugation of the Plains Indigenous peoples — including Métis — and about how they fought back. It is a story of resilience and survival in the face of impossible odds. And in the end, the Canadian government only partially succeeded. The Cree and Métis are still here and they are still fighting.

 

*While for the sake of simplicity here I am using terms like “Cree” and “Métis” as general categories, they were and are anything but. The reality both then and now is that identity is messy, and the lines between these two groups were not as clearly drawn as are generally depicted. Many individuals in both groups were connected by lines of kinship and community.  Further, these are not homogenous categories either. A significant proportion of the Plains Cree, particularly those under the leadership of Pîhtokahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker) and Mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear) advocated for a peaceful solution.  Thank you to Sarah York-Bertram and Sheila for their help in clarifying this point.

 

Louis Riel and Canada150

Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, is the suitability of discussion the topic of Louis Riel in connection with Canada 150. I’ve already talked in detail about the problems with Canada 150, so I won’t restate them here. But I would remind you about why this is a problem:

Last November, the official Twitter account for the Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs posted the following:

 

 

To which Ryan McMahon aptly replied:

 

Conclusion

I want to make it clear once again that I’m not trying to pick on Stuff You Missed in History Class. I’ve listened to the podcast for many years, and particularly enjoy their episodes on new discoveries and on historical mysteries. Moreover, they are saying many of the same things that high school teachers, journalists, and history buffs, both with and without podcasts, have been saying for years. But that’s why we need historians.

When most of us think about history, we think about the dead and the past. But the reality is that history is inextricably linked to the present. The Indigenous peoples of Canada, including the Métis, are still here and are still dealing with many of the topics that I discussed today.  Most of these are problems that were created within the settler colonial regime. If we are ever to move beyond this messed up system, we need to be honest and accurate about what really happened in the past, as well acknowledge the ongoing settler colonial project of which we all are a part.

There is a dictum regarding research into Indigenous peoples: “not on or about us, but with and for us.” This means that all research, including history, should not be done “on” or “about” Indigenous peoples, as if they are not longer here. Rather, it is the responsibility of all non-Indigenous people, especially those who do research in this area, to work towards acknowledging these historical injustices, making restitutions, and creating new partnerships in good faith. Better yet, listen to Indigenous people! They’ve been telling non-Indigenous people about all of this for years! To do otherwise is to replicate the mistakes of our forbearers.

 


Reading Recommendations:

  • Howard Adams, Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View (Calgary: Fifth House, 1989). Revised edition.
  • Bob Beal, R.C. Macleod, Prairie Fire: The 1885 North-West Rebellion (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1984).
  • Jean-François Bélisle and Nicole St-Onge, “Between Garcia Moreno and Chan Santa Cruz: Riel and the Métis Rebellions,” in Tolly Bradford, Chelsea Horton, eds., Mixed Blessings: Indigenous Encounters with Christianity in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016), 102-118.
  • Jennifer Brown, Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014). Reprint.
  • Sarah A. Carter, Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy (Montreal: MQUP, 1990).
  • James W. Dashuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013).
  • “Feature Section: Reflections on the Daniels Decision” Topia 36 (Fall 2016): 7-57.
  • Graphic History Collective, “Remember|Resist|Redraw: A Radical History Poster Project.”
  • Adam Gaudry, “A Métis Night at the Opera: Louis Riel, Cultural Ownership, and Making Canada Métis,” May 18, 2017. Blog post.
  • Adam Gaudry, “The Métis-ization of Canada: The Process of Calling Louis Riel, Métissage, and the Métis People as Canada’s Mythical Origin,” Aboriginal Policy Studies 2, no. 2 (2013): 64-87.
  • Ryan McMahon, Colonization Road (2017) Film.
  • F.G. Stanley “Gabriel Dumont’s Account of the North West Rebellion, 1885, ” CHR 30 no. 3 (September 1949):249-269. (This is edited and translated from dolphe Ouimet et B.-A. T[estard] de Montigny, La vérité sur la question métisse au Nord-Ouestbiographie et récit de Gabriel Dumont sur les événements de 1885 (Montréal, 1889)
  • Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-1870 (Winnipeg: Watson & Dwywer, 2011). Reprint
  • Chelsea Vowel, Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Issues in Canada (Newburyport: Portage and Main Press, 2017).
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2 Comments

  1. I also find the term “rebellion” and even “resistance” problematic. Both delegitimize the Cree and Métis as nations, and conveniently peg the Indigenous warriors as disillusioned citizens of an already sovereign nation (Canada). It furthers the narrative they are “our” Indigenous peoples, as David Johnston so wrongly put it. I guess what I’m getting at is why can’t we call 1885 what it really was — a war. Why can’t the opposing forces that clashed at Batoche in 1885 both be seen as sovereign nations fighting against one another for their own interests (and livelihoods)?

    • Andrea Eidinger

      June 29, 2017 at 9:40 am

      Oh, I absolutely agree, and this is a great point. The currently accepted term in academia right now is resistance. My sense is that this term is preferred to war, the Cree fighters in particular were a breakaway faction. This was less the case with the Métis fighters, though they were acting as a local community rather than on behalf of the Métis Nation as a whole. But, as you point out, this framing is inherently problematic. I wish I had an answer for you. 🙁

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