My brain hurts, but I did this to myself! Métis: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood is a juicy but chonky read that demands quite a lot of one’s focus as Chris Andersen explores issues both contemporary and historical. While not for the faint of heart, this book definitely needed to be written, and I am glad I read it!
This book definitely favours the academic end of the non-fiction spectrum. Not only is it replete with juicy references, but Andersen wields those references with the confidence of someone taking part in a larger conversation with the literature. For someone like me who is entirely unfamiliar with this field, it was a little inscrutable—I am certain I missed on on several layers of meaning. Additionally, Andersen’s chapters are structured very much in the formal academic style of “here is what I will argue,” “now I am arguing,” “here is what I have argued” that doesn’t really appeal to me as a casual reader. This is not to dissuade any other casuals from reading this book—it is really very informative and eye-opening—but you deserve to know what you are getting yourself into.
I’m a little hesitant to discuss the actual arguments in this book simply because, if I am being completely honest, I am not sure I totally understood them all. (This is not so much a criticism of Andersen’s writing as it is my unfamiliarity with the field, how long it has been since I’ve read more academic texts like this, and my whiteness.) Andersen’s main thesis seems to be that the definition of Métis is muddied by the fact that it is used differently in different spheres of our society, often in ways that perpetuate colonial harms both to Métis themselves and to other Indigenous people. At its core, he insists, a definition of Métis should not be bound up in the idea of “mixed heritage” because this ultimately racializes Métis (and other Indigenous people) but must instead be linked to cultural connections. His writing provides not so much a way forward as a very detailed and precise examination of several of the pressing issues of defining Métishood through the lens of demography and judiciary. Of particular interest to me, which I will get to later, is the way that Andersen treats the idea of self-identification.
The value of Métis for me, as a casual reader, is simply that I don’t know much about Métis culture or history. I hear the phrase “First Nations, Métis, and Inuit” (often abbreviated to FNMI) in my work as an educator quite a bit. Yet that middle group—Métis—has always been rather a cipher to me. All we learned in school are the stereotypes Andersen carefully confronts in this book, i.e., that they are basically synonymous with the mixed-heritage folx born of unions between Indigenous people and Europeans involved in the fur trade. The fact that this literal grade-school-level understanding permeates our society up to and including the level of the Supreme Court is a little bit disturbing but should probably not be all that surprising to me.
Nevertheless, Andersen acknowledges that there are times when the Métis Nation itself has not been very clear on these distinctions. The unfortunate fact is that ongoing colonialism from the Canadian government provides the Métis Nation with an incentive to increase its membership, and to use statistics like those Andersen critiques from the National Housing Survey’s Métis identification questions, to allow it to access more funding and support for its members. This is something I think a lot of settlers like myself don’t really grasp, at least not initially, as we start to pick at the threads of colonialism we’ve been raised to ignore: if it seems like the concept of indigeneity is fraught with contradiction, this is mostly because Indigenous peoples must contend with the paradox of colonial structures defining them. Cross reference with the Indian Act, the band council structure, Status, etc.—all of these definitions of indigeneity in Canada are actually external and imposed on Indigenous people. Andersen is asking what a definition of Métis would look like if Métis people themselves could instead define it, without reference to colonial ideas—but this is a hard question, because centuries of colonial thought really make it difficult to interrogate the semantics involved, as we see in the chapter where Andersen tries to define what nationhood actually means in various Indigenous contexts.
So I think my main takeaway from this book is “shit be complicated.” I mean this not to be irreverent but merely as a reminder to myself and other settlers that, really, it doesn’t matter how many books I read on these subjects; I am never going to be an expert on these issues the way those with lived experience do—but at the same time, it is important that some of those with lived experience also have the opportunity and encouragement to engage with these ideas in a more academic realm, as Andersen does, for this is a valuable aspect of knowledge-keeping and knowledge-discovery. By this I mean that it’s pretty easy for any settler to find their “Indigenous friend” who will support whatever particular interpretation of indigeneity the settler wants to uphold (see: many of the high-profile “leaders” of groups like the Assembly of First Nations). This is a point Arthur Manuel explores quite explicitly in Unsettling Canada. So it is important for settlers not just to listen to the Indigenous people around them but also to engage with the wider academic discussion happening via Indigenous scholars.
Of course, in Canada (and I am given to understand, also in the US) there is an ongoing issue especially in scholarly circles of false claims to Indigenous heritage and indigeneity. Métis people are caught up in this because it is especially easy to claim one is “mixed” and therefore Métis. For this reason, Andersen explains why self-identification of one’s indigeneity can be complicated and often harmful if one cannot demonstrate connection to a community. It’s a complex issue, and Andersen expresses some sympathy for those affected by events like the Sixties Scoop and therefore unable to reconnect to their roots. And it isn’t an issue I can opine on. All I can say is that I think it is important to note that Andersen is less interested in adjudicating individual claims to Métisness as he is in establishing criteria for an overall cultural definition of the term. What remains to be seen, however, is the extent to which any organizations—Métis or colonial—have the will to pursue such a shift in terms.
Almost a decade ago now, I read A Fair Country by John Ralston Saul, who argues that Canada is a lowercase-m métis nation. I think it’s a sign of how far I have come in the intervening years, as I continue to learn and grow, that my initial criticism of Saul has only increased. Indeed, Andersen briefly mentions this book in his introduction as an example of how Métis identity has often been diluted or appropriated. This is exactly why I read Métis, for I feel it is important that we settlers grapple with these ideas as much as Indigenous peoples themselves. I’m not sure where I am going from here—I think I need to maybe take a step backwards and find some simpler introductions to Métis culture and history, because this book felt a little bit like diving into the deep end of the scholarly pool. But I know I need to keep learning, because the alternative is to perpetuate in my apathy the harmful definitions that Andersen seeks to unravel here.