Métis people made up the majority of permanent inhabitants at Red River Settlement. It was ‘normal,’ therefore, for individuals to have familial antecedents that allowed them to self-identify in a variety of ways — well beyond the mere mixture of ‘European’ and ‘Indian.’ The terms people might use to describe themselves would vary depending on the language they were speaking at any given time as well as the context in which any self-description was taking place.

At Red River in 1869–1870, when speaking English, most Métis apparently preferred to use the terms Native and Native-born to self-identify. The term ‘Half-breed’ was used in English-language government documents in the nineteenth century. It was sometimes used by people of Red River Settlement amongst themselves, or in an ironic way with outsiders.[i]

When speaking French, the term used was Métis, which figured in French-language documents (although it was invested with negative connotations at times, it is now considered a name of honour).[ii] When writing French, the configuration Métis, with the appropriate accent was normal. Occasionally, when publishing French-language documents and newspaper articles at Red River, the accent might be missed — principally due to a shortage of the necessary type-blocks used in printing presses.[iii]

If speaking Michif, a Métis person might identify as Michif; while speaking in Bungee they might identify as Bungee.[iv] In North America there were hundreds of Aboriginal communities, each with its own approach to naming affiliation in accord with cultural custom, language, and dialect. To name only a few examples: In conversation, people of mixed Aboriginal and non-North American heritage who were highlighting that heritage, to differentiate themselves from relatives or group members who did not share the heritage (or to indicate differences from group outsiders), might refer also to themselves as:

  • ᐊᐱᐦᑕᐃᐧᑯᓯᓴᐣ — also spelled Apihtohkosan/ Apihtawikosisan/ Âpihtawikosisân/ Abittawokosian/ Apeetogosan/ Apitow Coosan (Cousin/ Cousine), which term originally implied a ‘half relative’ in Cree (the common trade language in the West).[v]
  • Aiabitawisid/ Aiabitawisidjig (plural), meaning “A half-breed man or woman.”[vi]
  • Ootipayimisoo/ Otepaymsuak/ Otipimisiwak/ Otipemisiwak, meaning their own boss/ the people who own themselves/ Free people/ Gens de libre/ Hommes Libres.[vii]
  • Akpayeća, meaning “to be lighter than its proper color, as a child that will yet darken … mulatto.”[viii]
  • Wissakodewikwe, meaning “half-breed woman, (or half white and half Indian origin); half-burnt-wood-woman.”
  • Wissakodewinini, meaning “Half-breed man, half whiteman and half Indian, (from a white father and an Indian mother, or vice versa); half-burnt-wood-man/ Woodsman/ Bois Brule.”[ix]

[i] As the decades of the nineteenth century passed, children in families with ties to both First Nations peoples and overseas peoples were increasingly referred to by non-family members in other, racialized terms that in effect underscored a not-quite-entirely English status. See Gwen Reimer and Jean-Philippe Chartrand, “A Historical Profile of the James Bay Area’s Mixed European-Indian or Mixed European-Inuit Community,” prepared for Department of Justice Canada (14 March 2005),  xii. Gwen Reimer and Jean-Philippe Chartrand, “Documenting Historic Métis in Ontario,” Ethnohistory 51, no. 3 (Summer 2004), xii, 571–574. Great Britain, Colonial Office, Papers relating to the Red River Settlement viz. return to an address from the Honourable House of Commons to His Royal Highness The Prince Regent, dated 24th June, 1819 ([London: s.n., 1819]), 2, 7. The name ‘Country-born,’ became somewhat popular among Canadian historians after a study by John E. Foster, “The Country-Born in the Red River Settlement, 1820-1850," Ph.D. diss. (Edmonton: University of Albert a, 1973), although it does not appear to have been a particularly popular term among Métis at Red River in 1869–1870. Foster cites (page 4 n. 4) one instance of usage by a non-Métis clergyman in 1857. The term ‘mixed-blood’ likewise does not appear to have been used often by Métis (if at all), although it was used by other people of the time. See A. Ramsey, quoted in “The Winnipeg Revolution,” New Nation (4 March 1870), 1.

[ii] Some Canadian historians have asserted that ‘Half-breed’ was a term for English-speaking people and that Métis was a term for French-speaking people. That notion is incorrect. ‘Half-breed’ and Métis were cross-linguistic synonyms. In English, distinctions of cultural or economic affiliation were made by saying ‘English Half-breed’ or ‘French Half-breed’ (or Scottish~, Swiss~, Sioux~, etc.). In French the same practice was applied when qualifying affiliation: as in Métis Français, Métis Anglais, Métis Écossais etc. Of course bi-lingual (or multi-lingual) people could switch back and forth between languages, in which case the word ‘Half-breed’ might appear in an otherwise entirely French-language sentence (and vice versa, with the word Métis in an English-language sentence.)

[iii] See notice, New Nation (15 April 1870), included in New Nation 15 Apr.Provisional Government of Assiniboia site.

[v] See Edwin Arthur Watkins, ed., A dictionary of the Cree language, as spoken by the Indians of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territories (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1865), 130, 189. The term is now regarded as synonymous with ‘Half-breed’/ Métis. See “Métis,” Word search, Nehiyaw Masinahikan Online Cree Dictionary, http://www.creedictionary.com/search/?q=metis&scope=0&submitButton.x=26&submitButton.y=10 (accessed 4 January 2012); and Gérard Beaudet, Cree-English, English-Cree Dictionary: Nehiyawe Mina Akayasimo-Akayasimo-Mina Nehiyawe-Ayamiwini-Masinahigan (Winnipeg: Wurez Publishing, 1995), 193, 336. See also Yvonne Boyer, “First Nations, Métis and Inuit Health and the Law,” 10; and Brenda Macdougall, One of the Family: Metis Culture in Nineteenth-Century Northwestern Saskatchewan (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 8, on the “meaning and sentiment” of “wahkotoowin.”

[vi] See Baraga, Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language, 16.

[vii] Watkins, Dictionary of the Cree Language; Beaudet, Cree-English, English-Cree Dictionary, 127.