College of Arts and Science Indigenous Studies graduate researcher Kate Gillis hopes her research will paint a picture of how women helped to establish the Métis community. (Photo: Submitted) 

Exploring the contributions of Métis women in the establishment of a distinct people: USask research

University of Saskatchewan (USask) College of Arts and Science graduate researcher Kate Gillis is exploring the contributions of Métis women in the establishment of Métis people from the Red River region (now Manitoba).

Historically, the stories of the first Métis women have remained largely unknown. It is estimated that the first generation of Métis women were born between 1775 and 1790 to families consisting of European fur-traders and Indigenous women. Some may also have moved to the area alongside their fathers or husbands. 

“Within the larger discipline of Métis studies, the roles of women have often been overlooked,” said Gillis. “Scholars in more recent years have begun to rewrite the narrative, including both the historical and contemporary stories and voices of Métis women.” 

Gillis said it is necessary to explore the ways in which women were integral to the establishment of a collective identity in the 19th century to allow these women to be recognized for their contributions. 

“The common narrative has been dominated by stories of ‘great men’ and ‘climactic events’ which focus on colonial principles of individualism, capitalism and patriarchy,” said Gillis. 

“In recent years the inclusion of community-engaged histories, oral histories, studies of cultural practices, and the inclusion of women’s voices have complicated the traditional historical narrative. And yet, despite these advancements in methods and approach, the role of Métis women in the foundational community of Red River—where my family comes from—remains largely unknown,” she said. 

Recent historical explorations revealed outsider males have been found to have settled in their wives’ home communities rather than the other way around. This finding may provide clues to help researchers identify the influential figures and actions at the heart of a distinct Indigenous people. 

“What is unique about this project, is the utilization of the Cree worldviews of wahkohtowin (kinship) and otipemisiwak (the people who own themselves),” said Gillis of the research design. 

“Partnering these concepts with an Indigenous feminist framework creates space to examine both the collective and individual roles women played within the establishment of a nation.” 

To further explore the roles and connections of women in the establishment of the Métis identity, the research team will collaborate with the Provincial Archives of Manitoba, the Société Historique de Saint-Boniface and Hudson’s Bay Company Archives located in Winnipeg, to reconstruct the genealogical connections in the Red River region.  

Gillis hopes that by painting a picture of the kinship connections between individuals in the Red River region, family trees will emerge that can identify key matriarchal figures that were central to the development of the Métis people. 

The work will be supervised by Dr. Allyson Stevenson (PhD), who serves as the Gabriel Dumont Institute Chair in Métis Studies. 

“Creating a space for women within the larger history acts as a means of reconnecting with relations and resisting the colonial narrative that has been written on their behalf,” said Gillis. 

The preservation of accurate records pertaining to women and other marginalized people was often not a priority, and it can be difficult to locate stories of Métis women specifically. Despite the project’s challenges, Gillis emphasizes the need to work on piecing together these stories, as they can provide an understanding of how communities and identifies form—facets of life everyone can relate to regardless of ancestry. 

What has motivated me to initiate, and continue this work is my family, and the women who have not been able to ‘see’ themselves in the popularized narratives. I am inspired by both my ancestors, who did not have the opportunity to share their stories, and my future generations, who will continue this fight.” 

Funding for the research was provided by the Métis Nation of Alberta, the Gabriel Dumont Institute, and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 

This article first ran as part of the 2021 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the USask Research Profile and Impact office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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