An Introduction

Hey, I didn’t mean to cause a big scene / Just give me an hour and then / Well, I’ll be as high as that ivory tower / That you’re livin’ in

— Garth Brooks, Friends in Low Places

I want to talk about my Métis family. I hesitate to do this publicly. Simply, I don’t want my family stories appropriated and showing up in someone’s art, curation, or identity statement on an Indigenous hire application. Someone who I took graduate seminars with, or who came to one of my talks or read all my work, before they even mentioned they were “Métis,” at that. I’m not being big-headed. Having your identity appropriated into someone’s art or knowledge production is a pretty common experience for NDNs in post-secondary institutions and art. But I want to share this now because I want to start an open conversation about what it means to be Métis and why addressing Métis pretendians in art is a matter of cultural sovereignty and heals harms that colonial institutions continue to cause.

Both my parents are Métis. My father is an Ironstand but his mother, my grandma Gertie (pictured above as a child with her mother, father, and siblings), is a Demeria (same line as Desmarais but a different adaptation of the spelling of the name) from around current day Brandon and Winnipeg, Manitoba. She is also a McKenzie on her mother’s side. Grandma Gertie is the original Métis af mad auntie, even though the Indian Act made her a member of my grandfather’s Rez: Valley River (at the time). She is no longer with my grandpa and, frankly, doesn’t have much nice to say about prairie Nish men (but neither do I so, truly, I was born this way). I am Métis because of my Grandma Gertie and my mom. Often when comparing family stories and backgrounds, claimants will stymy specificity of connectedness and default to a “we are all related somehow it just matters how far back you go” stance. I don’t agree. I think we should be specific and our ability to be specific is what makes us Métis. I think the “we are all related” stance is what leads to problematic epistemological slippages about Métis “right” to land and a few relatives several generations back defining Métis selfhood. What’s exciting about these family lines, to me, is that some of them don’t exist in records. They live in auntie’s stories or in family trees and Scrip stored in shoe boxes at the bottom of closets. Not just one Scrip found on a website where they sell DNA kits. Numerous, endlessly connected Scrips, photocopied here and there, by this auntie or that auntie, and the stories that connect them. Métis peoplehood could never be defined through records alone. As my mom said to me once about this kind of perspective to being Métis, “You can’t just run away with the good stuff.”

Let’s start with Grandma Gertie. When Grandma Gertie tells the story of who we are, it never fits easily in the mouth like the fancy university Natives like. When she tells the story of who we are, she lists numerous family lines, stories, and peoples that, all together, make up the story of the Morgans. Please don’t conflate this with the romanticized narratives of so-called “eastern métis.” In fact, awas. We can recognize the fragility of identity claimants’s narratives without negating the sovereignties of Cree kokums whose stories make us an Indigenous peoples to begin with.

My family is a long story that my grandma is always telling. My grandma has that old knowledge, that good knowledge, that you could never find in a university. She might not consider herself a sovereign member of any Nation. But she is part of a Métis peoples: families who have a shared history, knowledge, and experiences that defines them as a peoples. Métis families who know each other. To me, this is the biggest mistake identity claimants make when trying to defend their careers and the appropriation of our knowledges (and honestly why Métis politics are an absolute mess right now but that’s another conversation): Métis peoplehood is not just pretty sashes and beading. It’s not culture alone. It’s not blood(myths). It’s about where, and who, you are from.

Thanks to Paul Seesequasis and the Indigenous Archival Photo Project who digitized this photo in 2022. It was the first time I had ever seen a photo of my McKenzie kin.

I was quite triggered this weekend to see one of my most revered cultural inheritances, an object that I am related to, trotted out for an exhibition and conference composed mostly of white spectators in Saskatchewan. Kilometres from where my family fought the battle I will describe below. In the territories we lived as road allowance peoples. Just south of the forest my kokum and aunties lived in for decades. In the same city as my mother’s house (more on her Métis family below). Yet none of our family or community was involved in waking up and trotting out this ancestor into a colonial institution, an object that should be repatriated, if anything. The exhibition was curated by someone who I did not recognize. When I asked who this curator was, and how they related to these objects that they called “grandmothers,” the answer showed a complete lack of knowledge around Métis peoplehood, specifically around place, belonging, and land in the territories where they work. I take my responsibility to protect my peoples and the stories my Grandma Gertie shared with me very seriously. Naturally, I was livid.

From my relatives, I learned that Métis peoplehood is years of endless humour found in debilitating poverty. Métis peoplehood is contending with intergenerational trauma from gendered colonial harm: indentured servitude, rape, and “Red River wives” left when trade companies shut down, without supports and at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, with the future generations of our people in their care. In that sense, Métis peoplehood is ingenuity. It’s the most hardcore aunties you’ll ever meet. It’s bush wives and trappers who lived in forests until the government forced them into cities (like my McKenzie aunties above). As my uncle says, Métis peoplehood is “being a man of the land.” He’ll then turn it back on me and ask, “What kind of man are you?” It’s fraught. It’s complicated. Sometimes it’s violent. But it’s so goddamn beautiful you’ve probably never seen anything so real (a quote from Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance). What I do know, however, is that it’s not white people in galleries crying to other white people about “reconnection” to “grandmothers” that don’t even recognize them.

Métis is a kinship structure, not records. But, if I was looking at my Métis selfhood based on records, which most claimants in art and academia are doing to attain jobs and notoriety, even then, we are Métis af. My mom is a McKay. My mom’s family hails from around current day Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. I don’t talk as much about this line because, well, we weren’t the most well-liked family. Google the McKays, and the first hit you’ll undoubtedly get is my uncle Gentleman Joe. We were part of the families the fought Gabriel Dumont’s people at Duck Lake (and had to go on the run after). The lateral politics are complex but this is what it means to be part of Métis families. These are my most assimilated Métis relatives. McKay was a cop until his family went on the run. And still, in every census document, in every article talking about them, they are proudly Métis.

Archival news article about Gentleman Joe McKay (1935).

My mom is Métis af, in the image of her ancestors. There are about a million little temporalities that I could use to define how my mom shows us we are Métis and I don’t even care if they don’t make sense to The Outsider. Métis is your brothers chasing down your mom’s abusive ex and filling her fridge with meat, though they haven’t spoken for months. Métis is calling all the Elders over from surrounding apartments for dinner. Métis is finding laughter in everything. Métis is always telling your story. It’s your uncle’s weird accent when he gets too drunk: a mix of Irish and east side Saskatoon. We didn’t assimilate. We didn’t choose whiteness, which was also a real possibility for some of these lines that we need to name. We need to confront the narrative of “hiding in plain view,” and reframe this as a choice and a privilege that some of us didn’t have (those of us who maintained knowledge of our family lines and culture; but all the enduring racism and poverty that came with it too). I will even go one step further to say that, without evidence, if you are broadly blaming Residential Schools or sexual abuse narratives for your families’s “loss of cultural knowledge,” that is innately hurtful to people like myself who do have family members with those experiences. I know the difference between Native families who assimilated into whiteness and Métis families who never could. Do yous? Because defining Métis as records and not kinship, not about who and where you are from, is how the government defines us; that’s not how we define ourselves. As Katherena Vermette wrote in The Strangers, the latter is exercised by people who “only say they’re Métis when there’s something to get for it.”

I want to be careful here because reconnection is absolutely real! I’m not talking about people who were removed into foster care, adopted out, pushed out because of inequitable band policies or Rez politics, or are reconnecting for a living relative like their mother. I’m talking about people whose parents didn’t experience the unique temporalities of Indigenous peoples, such as anti-Indigenous racism, or maybe don’t even identify as Indigenous—who perhaps live upper middle class or economically privileged lives in white-dominant communities, relatively separate of Indigenous communities—often “reconnecting” through their work and post-secondary journey in institutions such as academia, art, and publishing, often in ways that directly benefit their career.

Throughout this introduction, I tried to be transparent without risking giving away the secret sauce, so to speak. If you are Métis enough to take funds or a position on that status, you should be Métis enough to step forward and tell the story of who you and your family are as Métis peoples, without relying on records or a few names without the context of your family stories. I challenge Métis curators, artists, and academics to release similar statements and make their identities known in their work, especially those benefiting from public funding such as chairs, awards, Indigenous arts funding, and Indigenous positions in academia and art. Frankly, if you are Métis, you shouldn’t hesitate to do this because it’s the most essential basis of kinship and peoplehood we have. If you can’t define who you are, maybe it’s time to reconsider the space you take up in that conversation and your reasons for doing that work. Who do you speak over? Whose aunties do you deny? Who do you gatekeep? Are you afraid if we were there, with our ancestors, we’d ask for their rightful repatriation instead of the white spectatorship that was planned for them? What violences do you overlook and misunderstand because you don’t have the appropriate cultural knowledge to step into a role you thought you were owed on blood(myth) alone? I’m done pretending that there isn’t a crisis of appropriation in “Indigenous art.” From now on I will be asking, where are you from and who are these “grandmothers” you claim? What kind of man are you?