The joyful and vigorous notes of a half-breed ball sounded out Metis hospitality at the concluding feast of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) conference in Saskatoon, June 13-15, 2013. Maria Campbell, well-known Metis community worker and author, organized a staggeringly generous 10-course meal. She also summoned to Saskatoon a star-studded array of Metis talent from as far away as Ontario and British Columbia to perform for NAISA visitors to this territory and for local guests.
Known as aen ball Metif in Michif, this evening of traditional food, fashion, music, dance, and visual art blending into contemporary expressions of Metisness made abundantly clear the continuity and inventiveness of this lively culture and the warm, open-hearted nature of those Metis who are proudly contributing to its vitality today. The organizers used the occasion to teach Metis history and culture to locals and those who had travelled from Indigenous territories as distant as Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hawaii, Mexico, and the Sápmi territory in northern Scandinavia, not to mention various parts of the non-Indigenous world.
The printed program traced the roots of such balls to the feasting and dancing at the prairie meetings of the buffalo or York boat brigades. Sometimes the people danced “around a campfire, the dirt floor of a large log cabin or a frontier ballroom,” but the only requirements for a Half-breed ball were “a space, two or three or four fiddle players, and people who could ‘step,’” often until their moccasins were worn through. For “more than 200 years, all visitors including Chiefs, explorers, adventurers and traders . . . and a steady stream of lesser European Royalty were regaled with a ‘Halfbreed Ball’ upon arriving or departing a Metis community.” Although guests to the NAISA conference were welcomed by the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Native Studies, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary; the University at large; and various scholarly institutions, nothing matched the marvellous Metis community effort to teach all attendees something of the rich depths of Metis hospitality and culture before sending them off in high Metis style.
From the moment guests stepped into the hall of St. Paul’s United Church in Sutherland, our immersion course began. We were greeted by fiddle music and Metis people in traditional dress, many proudly wearing the gorgeously beaded clothes that gave the Metis the name the Flower Beadwork People. Everywhere were the multi-coloured sashes that have become national symbols. Campbell’s transcription of a Metis oral story, “La Beau Sha Shoo” (The Beautiful Song), in Stories of the Road Allowance People, tellingly reveals that in the aftermath of the Resistance at Batoche the Canadian army recognized these sashes as such by confiscating them:
dah soldiers dey catch up to dah peoples dat was running away
an dey take all dere guns an bullets. An dah soldiers
deh take dah sashes too.
Boy dats funny isn it.
Why would dey take dah sashes? (53)
As the feast went on, a multimedia pageant of song, dance, poetry, and fashion unfolded. Community members modelled Metis clothing across the years in a fashion show enabled in part by Jocelyn Pambrun. The pagent, which was co-scripted by Campbell and Indiginous artist and University of Manitoba Native Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies professor Sherry Farrell Racette, and narrated by Racette and Karon Shmon, Director of Publishing at Gabriel Dumont Institute, the pageant also featured readings of Gregory Scofield’s poetry, jigging, fiddling, and songs both traditional and contemporary.
The walls of the feasting hall, surmounted by banners with the infinity symbols of the two versions of the Metis flag and a giant Metis sash, had been turned into an art gallery for the evening. And what a stunning display it was! Among the works by 12 Metis artists were the exquisite paintings of Farrell Racette and Christi Belcourt with their variant visual echoes of beadwork style; incisive political collage by Jane Ash Poitras; a blue horse dream vision painting by Neal McLeod; and a fabulous fusion of traditional and contemporary in Cruz and Judy Anderson’s collaborative tanned-hide mural, whose graffiti-style rendering of Cruz’s first name turned out on close inspection to be composed of subtle beadwork done by his artist mother, also the curator of the ball’s gallery. Much of this visual banquet was on loan from the Gabriel Dumont Institute, one more indication that the event was a community-animated affair.
The feast began with 17-year-old Rajan Anderson-Dornan’s expert fiddle call to order, which was accompanied on keyboard by his mother, sociologist Dr. Kim Anderson. Campbell gave words of welcome, Rose Richardson offered an opening prayer, and meadowlark-voiced Krystle Pederson sang “Li Lord Selkirk at Fort William, or La Danse des Bois Brûlés.” Attributed to the Métis bard Pierre Falcon, this 1816 song is a rendering of a ball at which Metis men were “in a sense asked to dance to the tune of the colonizer” (Sinclair and Cariou 17) who, in the wake of the Battle of Seven Oaks, had just seized the fur-traders’ fort as part of an attempt to quell the unrest in Metis country. Those who know the lyrics would have appreciated the song’s place on the programme because the men “insist on dancing and playing music in their own traditional ways, despite Lord Selkirk’s objections” so that the ironic dialogue reveals “the Métis asserting their . . . autonomy in the face of a colonizing presence” (Sinclair and Cariou 17).
And the food, the food beggared description. The signature ingredients of the dishes were harvested according to protocol, and all we ate spoke both its freshness and the skill of its community cooks to our tastebuds. The wait staff, which included professors, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, served up a succession of treats, beginning with meatballs in savoury broth with unsweetened doughnuts—les boulettes et li beignes. Accompanied by young Dornan’s virtuoso take on “Isbister’s Waltz” and “Sicilian Rigadoon,” this first course was followed by baked whitefish with wild rice casserole and wild cranberry sauce, and then beaver loaf (now that’s a mean meatloaf!), beaver tail (surprisingly sweet and rich), muskrat paté (subtle and delicious!) with wild berry chutney and trapper’s bannock. Giving us some digestive space between these courses were the fashion parade that marked the emergence of the Metis people and the rise of Metis nationalism, and readings of Scofield poems by Anderson and film, television, and video producer and director Wil Campbell (yes, he’s Maria’s brother and also husband to Jocelyn Pambrun). We cleansed our palettes with wild lowbush cranberry ice, while operatic singer Gilbert Anderson performed a medley that showcased the classical, Cree, Scottish, and Irish components of the Metis repertoire. Then it was on to buffalo tongue, venison meatballs, and three sister salad, an elaborated melange of the corn, beans, and squash of central Turtle Island/North American Indigenous origin. This course was accompanied by the Red River jigging of Compaigni V’ni Dansi [Come and Dance Company] artistic director and Canada Council award-winner Yvonne Chartrand, partnered by the multitalented performer Joseph Naytowhow.
At other points in the program, Naytowhow’s acting and dancing skills were further showcased. He delightedly helped bring to life the famous picture of the top-hatted, moccasin-wearing Métis man with his two wives, Métis en compagnie de ses deux épouses (Library and Archives Canada C-046498). Then he did a star turn as independent Metis trader James Sinclair crashing a Hudson’s Bay Company party in order to present his beautiful young daughter, attired in a New York ball gown and long gloves. Oh, and moccasins, like her formally attired father. Graphic examples of métissage if ever there were any!
We segued to tortière with beet horseradish relish while catching glimpses of Metis history through the parade of clothing worn during the camps and settlement era. Then it was time for wapos [rabbit] du moutarde with baked bannock and a sampling of twentieth-century Metis attire. Pederson’s calling of Don Freed to the feast by singing his haunting ballad of the St. Laurent Metis, “When This Valley,” acknowledged some of the enduring pain of Metis history. A blueberry ice palatte cleanser was admirably accompanied by the display of the elegant lines and beadwork of contemporary Metis couture by Jennine Krauchi and by Modeste Mackenzie’s traditional broom dance.
A Metis friend at our table, June Scudeler, kept time as the meal progressed, announcing “Do you realize we’ve been eating for two hours?” Then it was two and half, and three, as we were treated to roast buffalo with roasted root vegetables and le grens (ground chokecherries, which provided a tangy way to get our fibre), and the best-tasting blueberry pie I have ever had in my life. The closing musical strains taught us first that when Arlo Guthrie adapted the traditional Metis ballad “Red River Valley,” he ushered “the halfbreed who loved you so true” to the wings and installed in her place a loyal cowboy. Next we learned that antiphony or the call-and-response genre is also part of the Metis vocal repertoire, here powerfully rendered by Cyndy Doxtator and a company of harmony singers.
And then came the chance to work off at least a few of the calories we’d consumed as we were invited to move to the auditorium for an old-time dance. Live music provided by Metis country star Donny Parenteau and two backing musicians was performed in front of tall panels bearing examples of Farrell Racette’s painting in the narrative tradition, and half-breed ball hosts and guests mingled in a new way.
Half-breed heaven, Scofield tells us in “I’ve Been Told,” can be initially recognized by the spirit of Gabriel Dumont “at the gate /calling ‘Tawow, tawow’ [Come in, come in, welcome] / toasting new arrivals” (12-14). Inside, the poet writes, you’ll find fiddles, swirling skirts, premier jiggers, “grannies giggling in the kitchen” (23) and “an endless brigade of happy faces” enjoying a seemingly endless party. I now have an even richer sense of what half-breed heaven looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels like, because in addition to what I’d already been vividly told by Scofield, the woman who currently lives at Gabriel’s Crossing and her generous community, invited me—along with over a hundred others—in for an evening’s visit!
I am grateful to Maria Campbell for helping me to identify some of the contributors to the Half-breed Ball and for parsing some of their relationships. Thanks are due, too, to Margery Fee, for her comments and suggestions.
- Campbell, Maria, trans. and transcriber. “La Beau Shaa Shoo.” Stories of the Road Allowance People. Penticton: Theytus, 1995. 50-65. Print.
- Falcon, Pierre. “Li Lord Selkirk au Fort William.” Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water. Ed. Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair and Warren Cariou. Winnipeg: Highawter, 2011. 17-18. Print.
- —. “The Dance of the Bois Brûlés.” Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water. Ed. Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair and Warren Cariou. Winnipeg: Highawter, 2011. 19-20. Print.
- Freed, Don. “When This Valley.” The Virtual Museum of Metis History and Culture. Web. 6 July 2013.
- Guthrie, Arlo. “Red River Valley.” Son of the Wind. Rising Son, 1992. CD.
- Scofield, Gregory. “I’ve Been Told.” I Knew Two Metis Women. Saskatoon: Gabriel Dumont, 2009. 128-30. Print.
- Sinclair, Niigaanwewidam, and Warren Cariou, eds. Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water. Winnipeg: Highwater, 2011. Print.
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