Mixed Blood Stories
Each of the four adolescents in this novel relates historical and cultural events which take place during their youth. Angeline describes the development of the Métis people as a political group in Canada. She portrays their struggle for self-government and hints at the attacks which follow their election of representatives. In 1869 during her 15th summer, the British-controlled Ottawa government destroyed the Métis effort.
Angeline’s grandson, Gilles, describes his choice of Chicago street-life in the 1920s where he is threatened with incarceration in a reservation school or life in the French-Indian colony in Illinois. A generation later in 1968, Gilles’s daughter, Elisabeth, describes her participation in events surrounding the Chicago Democratic Convention. Lastly, Elisabeth’s daughter, Anne, describes her family’s efforts to assist Native American youth in the 1980s and a visit to Medicine Lake, a sacred site of Native American people.
Angeline’s mother is a member of the Cree, the largest Native tribe in Canada. They are of Algonquin heritage and closely related to their southern neighbors, the Ojibwa, who gave them the name Cristino, which was then shortened to Cree. Until confined to reservations, they occupied extensive territory in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Assinibaia, and Saskatchewan. They believe that all living beings in the world possess a spirit and that the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis, are the dancing spirits of dead relatives. Most believe that death occurs only in body and that the dead join the ancestors who continue to share their spirit with living beings.
Angeline’s father was a Métis, a mixed-blood of French, Cree, and Assiniboin heritage. The Métis culture developed in the 18th and 19th centuries in what are now the central and western parts of Canada. The group was a cultural mélange of French and Scottish hunters with Cree, Assiniboine, Ojibwa, and Saulteaux women. This culture included a distinct language, called Métis or Michif, a diverse economy, and a unique lifestyle and philosophy. Not surprisingly, Métis were tolerant of other racial groups. Many were risk-takers of a physical nature, a trait encouraged by the harsh geographical conditions in which they lived. Love of music and dancing, especially “jigging,” a mixture of French two-step and Cree and Ojibwa dancing, was common. The Métis tradition of exercising, even their horses, to the music of the jig may have inspired the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride, a dance with horses.
The Métis were also well known for their skill with languages. Many spoke Michif, French, English, and a number of Native dialects. They were widely used as interpreters. Métis or Michif integrates plains-Cree with French and is spoken in at least two versions, one described as “plain,” the other as “fancy.” A key philosophical value involved their perspective on raising their youth. Educating and sharing responsibility and equality with youth is an important social value of the Métis. Elders act as mentors and guides for young people and encourage them to take risks.
Louie Riel was the elected leader of the Métis at a very significant point in their history, 1858. For approximately a year, he led an elected assembly in Red River, Manitoba. In Canada, much has been written about his life, whereas in the United States and throughout the rest of the world, little is known about him. In 1869, he was exiled from Canada by the Ottawa government after the Métis government was overthrown. He fled to the United States along with other Métis. He secretly returned to Canada several times and in the 1870s led a number of Métis in a bid for self-government in Alberta. As I describe, he was caught, tried for treason, and hung in 1885. He is buried in Red River, Canada.
Gilles’s story begins in 1927 with a journey by train to the French Indian Colony in Western Illinois, where his grandparents live. In this section, I have tried to accurately relate many aspects of Métis culture in the United States.
The Métis people of Canada and the French-Indians of the Midwest share many similarities. Both groups initially developed as a result of unions between French fur traders and Native women. These relationships are frequently described as existing between powerless, passive Indian women and French fathers driven by passion. Their progeny, the mixed-bloods, often derogatorily referred to as “half-breeds” or “bad-bloods,” were believed to have acquired the worst traits of each race, including ignorance, alcoholism, and unmitigated risk-taking.
Dr. Thorne, in her extensively researched volume, The Many Hands of My Relations, counters these myths with well-substantiated descriptions of romantic and economic unions where mixed-blood individuals, both men and women, fulfilled the role of middleman in fur, agricultural, and liquor trade for generations. She reveals how they established strong family networks that influenced political and economic change in their geographic areas.
One difference between the Métis in Canada and the French-Indian mixed-bloods in Illinois is that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries mixed-bloods in the U.S. were “encouraged” to attend Native American schools (as revealed in Gilles’s story) and to move to Native American reservations “for their own good.” In Canada, natives were sent to reservations, but their mixed-blood relatives were not allowed to accompany them. The Métis in Canada continue to fight for rights, currently related to fishing and hunting, and access to reservations.
Elisabeth’s junior year in high school, 1968, was a year of extreme political unrest in the United States. In January of that year, the government launched the single largest offensive, employing a total of 542,000 troops in Vietnam. On April 4th, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and on June 5th, Senator Robert Kennedy. Following this, the Democratic Convention took place in Chicago in August. After riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, Chicago’s Mayor, Richard Daley, gave the police specific instructions “to shoot to kill any arsonist and to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting.”
On Thursday August 22nd, the first day of the Chicago convention, Dean Johnson, a 17-year-old Sioux Indian from South Dakota was shot and killed by the Chicago police on Wells Street. A memorial march was held that evening.
Days of unrest and protesting followed. Political demonstrators were clubbed, beaten, and maced by the Chicago police. At a September 9th press conference following convention week, in a now famous slip-of-the-tongue, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley described the policeman’s role: “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder.” The Walker Report, released in December of 1968, and based on a Chicago study team’s evaluation of statements from more than 3000 witnesses, 180 hours of film, and 12,000 photographs, termed the events of Chicago during the convention week “a police riot” and identified how “spontaneous acts of aggression by individual police officers were responsible for the violence on the streets.”
Although the Sioux boy Dean Johnson’s death is referred to in Dean Biobaum’s online chronology of the events in Chicago, his memory and place in history have largely been forgotten. Three months after his death, the American Indian Movement (AIM) developed by urban-experienced youth was founded in Minneapolis as a self-defense organization. In this section I have recounted many memories of that frightening summer evening.
On the way to Medicine Lake, Annie and her mother meet with a mixed-blood adolescent, Sarah, who has been arrested for a violent crime. Sarah is fictional, but her story parallels that of many girls.
Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice report that Native Americans are imprisoned at a rate of almost 40% higher than the national average. Rates of violent victimization for both men and women are also higher among Native Americans than all other races. The rates of violent crime experienced by Native American women are nearly 50 percent higher than that experienced by black men. There are no comparable statistics for mixed-bloods. It is difficult for Native American and mixed-blood youth, especially girls such as Sarah, to obtain the type of medical and psychological evaluations and care that they need to prevent both victimization and unfair incarceration. Sarah’s story is one of many and reveals the importance of conducting evaluations which take psychological and cultural factors into account, and provide help for Native youth.
Following the evaluation of Sarah, Annie and her family travel to Medicine Lake. The waters of Medicine Lake are embedded in a volcanic basin more than a million years old. Within a startling landscape made up of the largest collection of lava tubes and caves in North America and surrounded by obsidian mountains covered with hemlock, this lake provides a home for eagles and other wildlife. For more than ten thousand years, the Medicine Lake Highlands have been the site of native spiritual and cultural practices. The Native American peoples called the Ahjumauri (Pit River), Modac, Shasta, Klamuth, Karok, Wintu, and other more distant tribes have visited this area and believe that it is a sacred place.
The story of the Creation told by Sarah’s grandmother, a tribal leader, reveals the power that many native people find here. Historically, many tribes have joined together to worship at Medicine Lake. It has been a place of unity. Today, many native peoples are united in a struggle to protect Medicine Lake from damaging development, most recently geothermal projects. In 1999, the entire Medicine Lake caldera was designated a traditional cultural district by the National Register of Historic Places, but the cultural and environmental threats have continued, including the destruction of spiritual sites and construction of power plants.
For centuries, Medicine Lake has united Native Peoples. It is with this spirit that I chose Medicine Lake as the destination for Gilles’s last journey with his family. The Métis understand the importance of coming together as a family and value the importance of spirituality for all people.