My life began when I made my first pair of moccasins. There was something about the shoddily sewn caribou hide that made me feel so free; running down the trapper trails so far ahead that my father would call out, despite the fact that it might warn the animals in the area. My mother would simply smile. She had done the same when she was my age, had felt the same freedom once. I liked to think she had passed it down to me, like she had passed down the knowledge of making moccasins, but as I grew older I realized it was not the case. It was on my tenth birthday that I realized it had been taken from her.
We had passed a small Cree village while hunting the beaver- they were getting scarcer nowadays, forcing us to go deeper and deeper into the bush to find the animals that provided the highly prized fur. My eight year old self didn’t understand why it was more valuable than caribou or ermine, and my father tried to explain it.
“Their furs are very good for making hats,” he said, but still it didn’t seem to me that the beaver was any more useful than the deer my moccasins were made of. Could you make moccasins out of beaver? Either way, the large demand for beaver fur made the animal our main source of income, and had brought us to this small Cree camp. We were invited to stay for a meal, which we accepted graciously, my mother speaking in a language I only knew parts of. I had never seen her happier- she seemed to know many of the inhabitants of the village, even embracing one that she addressed as her brother, while my father spent much of the time there trading. I remember my confusion as I was whisked away to see someone I was told was my grandfather. He was a large man, regal in his bearing. My mother did not smile around him. My curiosity was only stated after we left the village, walking a good ways before we stopped to make camp for the night.
“You grandfather is the chief of that village,” my mother explained as we collected kindling. “One day your father and some other fur trappers came to the village, looking to trade with my people. We didn’t get as many traders coming to our village back then as we do now. Everyone is moving west, and soon my people will have to as well.” She shook her head. “Your grandfather thought it would be wise to secure some relations with them. Your father was not married and I was of age.”
“Did you want to?” I asked.
She paused. “Your father is a good man, but back then I thought a dead man would have been better.” I looked down at the moccasins I was wearing. I had thought of them as wings, letting me fly as high as the eagle, but my mother wore the same and she was tethered to the ground.
* * *
Two years later my father gave me his voyageur belt, along with a promise to teach me the French language. “The language of a civilized young lady, not the strange mix you speak now,” he said, suggesting what sounded like a beautiful possibility. One day, I could be like the pretty young women I would occasionally see at the trading posts, all grace and poise. I was excited; like my moccasins, it felt as though so many new doors had opened for me.
My excitement lessened over time though. The lessons were long and boring, and much more different than the freedom I was used to in my youth. It was useful though, knowing the language. I could communicate with other traders, and I began to understand the conversations they would have with my father around the fire. Conversations about how the fur trade was slowly moving west, how the Northwest and Hudson’s Bay Company had merged. Knowing the French language also allowed me to run errands at the trading posts for my father, and I began to meet workers at the trading posts that, like me, had mothers with skin darker than their fathers. Sometimes other white men would come in, scowling when they saw these people. “Dirty half-breeds,” they’d mutter under their breath. Occasionally it was directed at me. It was at these times that I wished I had never learned French.
* * *
When I was fifteen my mother and father decided that their days on the frontier were over, and moved our family south to one of the farming colonies. I missed the forests up north, but it was less lonely than the trapping trails had been. I took a job at the local trading post, my experience in the area making up for my blood, although I still received the occasional offensive comment. I wasn’t forced to go to the small one room school, so when I wasn’t working my father taught me how to ride. Soon I became a familiar sight on the edges of the town, a flash of brown as I rode through the fields. Sometimes neighbours would ask me to take messages to the town over, and I would secretly read them on my way over. It became my main source of information, those letters. They were mostly trivial things, such as whose crops were doing well that year or well wishes to family, but one day I found something much more interesting. A man named Louis Riel had just returned to the town of Red River, back from his studies in Montreal, and had brought with him some unrest. The letter described a dispute between some land surveyors and him, but other than that I could only speculate. I delivered the letter, hanging around the town for as long as I could before heading back.
That night at dinner my father mentioned a familiar name.
“Louis Riel?” I asked, not thinking.
“Yes, he has been causing quite the show down at Red River. How do you know of his name?” My father asked suspiciously.
“I heard some men talking about it when I went to deliver a letter today Father,” I answered quickly. My father’s eyebrows furrowed, but he accepted my explanation.
“Humph. Well yes, he is the man I am talking about. Studied in Montreal I heard, and now look at the chaos he’s causing. That man needs a good wife to keep him in check. Speaking of husbands and wives,” he said, turning his attention back to me. “I think it’s high time we’ve started looking at getting you one.”
The thought of a husband scared me. When married I would not be able to ride or work at the trading post, but rather would have to stay a home, doing the housework and minding the children. “Maybe now is not the best time? Perhaps we should wait another few years.” I said shakily, nails digging into my palms as I waited for my father’s reply.
“In a few years you will be old. You have a better chance now. I’ve been talking to Mr. Loyer, and he has a son who is also currently looking for a wife.”
My breath caught in my throat. I tried to hold back a sob as I stood up from the table, appetite gone. “P-please father, you can’t.”
“Sit down girl, this is for your own good,” he said angrily, shouting after me as I disappeared into my room, slamming the door behind me.
I remember crying myself to sleep that night. It marked the beginning of the most chaotic part of my life, and the most unpleasant as well. I fought with my father almost every day and with my mother as well- I had thought that she might feel some sympathy for my situation, having experienced something similar, but she sided with my father on the matter. Never had I felt more alone. To comfort myself I followed the ever growing story of Louis Riel. I thought of myself as him on many occasions, my own battles the echoes of his, but in the end both stories only had death- of Louis himself, and of my freedom.
* * *
I married Jules Loyer exactly one year later, on the eve of my birthday. A couple days after the wedding we moved west, to start a farm in one of the newer colonies, but also because life in Manitoba was becoming increasingly dangerous with the ever growing number of white settlers. My mother and father stayed behind, an event that I did not know how to feel about. Living so far from what I had called home was lonely though- I did not know anyone in the town, but eventually I met an old woman who lived in the farmhouse next to us- her name was Emelie Beaumont, and she spent most of her time sewing beads onto hide, creating amazingly intricate floral designs on anything from moccasins to saddles. She taught me how to make my own in her fragmented French, and the day I finished my first design I also learned a new word.
“Your mother and father were different skins, yes?” She said. “Mine as well. Metis is what people with such blood are called.”
Metis. The word sounded strange on my lips but felt like sewing the last bead in place as I had just done. It fit perfectly, and made something beautiful, something that was not French and not Aboriginal, but rather was a thing of its own.
Just like me.
A year later our first child was born. We named him Alain Loyer, after Jules’ father. Emeile Beaumont died a couple of months after, and I spent much of my second pregnancy practicing the beading she had taught me. When our second child was born we named her Emelie. I taught her the art that her namesake had taught me, hoping that the skill would be passed down in our family, just as our blood was. I taught her how to ride, how to make moccasins, how to speak French. And, of course, I taught her the name of our people.