As a child I knew nothing about the history of my own people. Living far away from any Métis community, my only connection to our past was my grandmother. One tough lady, my grandmother was a foster care and child abuse survivor who had been taken from her family too young to learn much about her people, their culture or their language. She knew just enough to tell me who we were. But that was all I needed to start my journey. Today, Métis people are fiercely proud of our history as a nation. As I began to reconnect with other Métis people, I soaked up the stories about the road allowances, the dark days after the 1885 resistance, the golden years hunting buffalo on the prairies. I heard the tales of our famous leaders: Louis Riel, Gabriel Dumont, Cuthbert Grant. For a while, the sheer novelty of having a history was enough to keep me busy.
After some time, though, I began to wonder: where were the Métis women of our past? The “great man” approach to history leaves little room for the stories of the women who were too often - in their day and ours - seen as inconsequential. Our foremothers were just as important in forming our history as their male counterparts were. Yet these women are too often missing from the histories that we tell.
Where in our nation’s story is Annie Bannatyne? A wealthy philanthropist at the Red River settlement, she helped to organize a group of women who raised $1,345.80 towards the founding of the Winnipeg General Hospital. When a Canadian writer insulted Métis women in the newspaper and then came to visit the Red River community, she slapped him in the face and whipped him with a riding crop. Louis Riel himself later publicly reproached the writer for his remarks, and some have suggested that Annie Bannatyne’s act of resistance may have been inspirational to Riel. he wife of Gabriel Dumont, Madeleine Wilkie Dumont, has long held a place in the oral history of the Métis people. She is remembered for being held in high regard by her husband, for her generosity (she adopted two children, having none of her own, and served as a teacher for children in Batoche) and for her actions helping the wounded after the Battle of Batoche in 1885. Unlike her husband, she spoke English, and sometimes traveled to Winnipeg alone to trade furs for him. The story of Métisse traders is one not often mentioned in our nation’s narrative!
And what of Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin? The first Native woman to graduate from Washington College of Law and a prominent member of the Society of American Indians, she reminds us that Métis history transcends the boundaries of settler nation-states. In her speeches and interviews, she often pointed out that in Indigenous societies, women have held higher status than women in White societies have.
I do not mean to idolize or deify these women in recounting a few notable stories. In fact, I mean to do the opposite — to bring their stories closer to home. Annie Bannatyne, Madeleine Wilkie Dumont, and Marie Bottineau Baldwin are our grandmothers: women who lived full, complex lives and contributed to the history of our people. Telling Métis history means looking directly at the complexity of these women’s lives, and remembering that there are many more women whose names we may never know - women who may have had just as much of an impact on our Métis nation.. It was only through looking for the documented stories of these women that I realized that Métis history is not just something “out there” in the documents and the oral tradition — it is also much closer.
My grandmother is Métis history just as much as Annie Bannatyne. She has lived through three-quarters of a century, and her story has much to tell us about Métis history. She is just as important as any of the more famous Métisses, because she has shaped me, my family and the others who have known her. I recognize now that it is women like her who are the core of Métis history. It is in their lives that we find the stories of our people.