July 9, 2019

"The Whole Country was...One Robe"

by Barbara Pepper Rotness, MHS Research Center

We just received the book back from the conservator, nicely bound and protected from further wear and tear, it had been so well-used and perused. “The Whole Country was…’One Robe’”, the definitive history of the Little Shell tribe of Métis in Montana. And, the life work of Nicholas Vrooman, folklorist, historian and defender of Métis rights. With this one book, Nicholas made their complex history accessible to the rest of us. And, he continued making it accessible through presentations and interviews. And, through his genuine passion for and love of a culture not his own.

We were honored to hear Dr. Vrooman share a bit of his vast knowledge during a panel discussion this past April. Not nearly enough time to even scratch the surface, attendees stayed an hour after the discussion to talk with the panelists. Between the extensive experience and knowledge of both Nicholas and his partner on the panel, Al Wiseman, a Métis and Montana Heritage Keeper, the audience was mesmerized from beginning to long after the end.

[Image from the Humanities Montana website]
You can watch the video of the panel discussion here, and, you’ll see for yourself the passion and intelligence of a man who is no longer here to share his knowledge with us. Nicholas Vrooman died June 26, 2019, and there is now a void in this ‘whole country’.

The ‘under one robe’ part of the book's title refers to the fur trade days when vast buffalo herds roamed the plains and resources were plentiful; when the peoples sharing a space and time could learn from one another. The Métis, or, ‘mixed blood’, are the result of that coming together from two very different worlds: that of French, Scottish, and Irish, and, that of predominantly Chippewa, Cree, and Assiniboine. In addition to the intermarriages, the exchange of ideas and resources led to cross-cultural innovations like the red river cart. An ingenious combination of Native travois and Celtic cart, red river carts had no metal parts. They could be easily built and maintained and, at the height of their use, there were thousands of them on the plains. Now, there are, at the most, one or two original carts remaining.
[Red River Camp and Carts, c.1890, MHS Photo Archives 950-581]
The most innovative and beautiful combination of the two peoples that has survived is their language, Michif. It's not a babel of a language. The melding of a rural type of French with the Cree language created a lilting, rhythmic language that has a tidy simplicity of structure – all verbs are Native, all nouns are French.

Even their music is a blend of cultures. Heavily influenced by the Celtic side of their heritage, they took Irish fiddle music and added a syncopated beat. This film explains and demonstrates what that means.

And, of course, food became an amalgamation of two cultures. Bannack bread (or, Li Galette) is a type of Irish soda bread that is quick and inexpensive to make. And, it was portable and filling, something they could take with them on the red river carts. 
[Galette recipe courtesy of Reno Charette, MSU-Billings]

Instead of the buffalo robes of their earlier days and ways, the Métis now carry sashes woven with colorful threads. Al Wiseman pointed out what most people don’t know, that even Charlie Russell incorporated one into his own wardrobe. “Russell also used his sash to store his art supplies when he was traveling horseback. “All the breeds wear them,” he said.”* Black, red, white, green all have significance. Red is the blood of their ancestors, green the grass, black symbolizes loss and death, blue the sky, and white represents the clouds.
[‘Would you know me Bill?’ Charlie Russell watercolor, 1901, MHS 1986.06.07b]
As Nicholas commented, the story of the Métis is a difficult but beautiful one.

Currently, the Little Shells' tribal status is being reviewed in the U.S. Senate as part of a decades-long effort to become federally-recognized as a unique people and culture to be honored and protected. Vrooman, who dedicated years of his life to this fight, won't see the fruits of his labor, but his work and his impact will live on. So, too, will the Métis people, whose flag, with its infinity symbol, represents lasting life and hope. Today, we raise it high!