Discover the Rich Culture and Crafts of Alberta’s Métis People

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Métis culture

This article is proudly presented by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Ly Raine, a Cree woman with a shaved head and a beaded belt around her waist, welcomes me into the Indigenous People’s Experience at Fort Edmonton Park. Here, Canada’s First Nation cultures are beautifully showcased, marking a significant step towards reconciliation. Ly explains that over 50 indigenous voices, including elders and historians, were consulted throughout the creation of this space, influencing everything from the architecture to the artwork. It serves as an educational starting point for travelers interested in learning about Canada’s three indigenous communities: the Inuit, First Nations, and the Métis.

As I explore the exhibits, I follow a river projected onto the floor, immersing myself in state-of-the-art displays that bring to life the lunar cycles, seasons, and captivating stories projected onto tipis. Knowledgeable custodians are available in each section to answer questions and share insights. Shannon Cornelsen, a Plains Cree attendant with short black hair and a purple Stetson pinned to it, tells me, “It would take a year of knowing an elder to acquire this information.” She further explains that many of their family members were survivors of residential schools and are present to discuss their experiences. Shannon concludes, “This place is an act of decolonizing education. Thank you for being here. This is how we heal.” It exemplifies Alberta’s growing support and revitalization of indigenous culture.

Uncovering the Métis Heritage

On my journey north from Edmonton, signs along the roadside point me to farms selling Taber corn and peaches. Gleaming silver silos dot the flat fields. As I approach the meeting point of the prairie and the vast northern boreal forests, I arrive at Métis Crossing—a newly established indigenous cultural center and a 40-room lodge situated on the banks of the Red River. It proudly stands as Alberta’s first of its kind.

Métis Crossing lies along the Old Victoria Trail, once a bustling trading route connecting Fort Edmonton to Fort Garry in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The Métis, known as Otipemisiwak or “The People Who Own Themselves,” trace their heritage back to the 17th century, when European fur traders formed unions with First Nation women, resulting in the Métis community. Today, they number around 587,000 and have developed their own distinct laws, language (Michif), faith, and music. The Métis were independent individuals who traded fur and pemmican—a mixture of powdered dried meat, berries, and lard—while often serving as interpreters and guides for European newcomers. It was only in 2016 that their unique indigenous rights were officially recognized by the Canadian government.

Every aspect of Métis Crossing showcases Métis craftsmanship and culture. From the architect, Tiffany Shaw-Collinge, who designed the building, to the chef creating indigenous-inspired dishes featuring bison and bannock bread, to the hand-sewn quilts adorning the beds—everything reflects the Métis heritage. The staff organizes various workshops, including dugout canoe trips, basket-weaving, beading, and more, aiming to educate guests about their rich culture. Lilyrose Meyers, a kokum (grandmother) and knowledge-keeper, shares her mission with me as we sit in one of Métis Crossing’s classrooms. She patiently teaches me how to tuft strands of moose hair and work with porcupine quills, allowing us to decorate a sac à feu—a small pouch filled with tobacco that the Métis offer to nature during foraging.

Lilyrose can trace her Myers surname back to Hamburg, Germany, in the 1700s. On her other side, she proudly declares herself to be the great-great-granddaughter of Chief Black Powder from Manitoba. She explains, “We welcome approximately 50% tourists and 50% Métis here. Many Métis visitors come to rediscover their roots and learn about their identity. Walking on the same land as their ancestors helps them reconnect with their history.” She deftly sews a porcupine quill onto the pouch and reflects, “History cannot always be found on the internet; you have to stand on the land, beside the river, and listen to the wind in order to truly feel it.”

Two moose-hair tufts, framed by delicate porcupine quills, are meticulously sewn onto the sac à feu. With a smile, Lilyrose remarks, “We take immense pride in our workmanship, even in the details. I pass down these skills, hoping that one in a hundred will carry them on, preserving our craft for future generations.”

She guides me to the dining hall, where an impressive albino bison stands as the centerpiece. “I was the one who blessed it before the sacrifice,” Lilyrose proudly states. “The meat was donated to Métis settlements.”

The albino bison comes from the adjoining Visions, Hopes, and Dreams at Métis Crossing Wildlife Park. This partnership between rancher Len Hrehorets and Métis landowners aims to reintroduce 5,000 Plains, White, and Wood Bison to their traditional lands. Lilyrose tells me, “The last time bison, or ‘bufloo,’ roamed freely here was in 1865. Every spring and fall, there would be a hunt and a grand Métis gathering. However, hunting restrictions and changes to the landscape from prairie to bush ended those traditions. Witnessing the return of the buffalo is an essential link to our ancestral past.”

Lilyrose introduces me to our guide, Weida Johns. We climb into her dusty 4×4 to explore the park before sunset. Weida opens a gate and leads us to a herd of bison. “Their fur is as soft as cotton balls,” she remarks, “and they don’t moo like cows; they grunt like pigs.” We roll down our windows and listen to a milky-colored mother and calf nuzzling each other. Weida jokes, “Here, we have various shades of white—much like us Métis!” She drives the car towards a paddock where the larger Wood Bison graze. A group of North America’s largest mammals peacefully munch on the grass, their brown backs contrasting with the massive hump of fat between their shoulders. Weida explains, “Their sturdy necks enable them to dig through the snow to find food in winter,” as the bison emit disgruntled huffs from their woolly mouths.

Exploring the Power of Plant Medicine

After a westward drive lasting five hours, I meet Matricia Bauer, a Cree knowledge-keeper, outside Jasper Museum. The town is dim due to a forest fire that has disrupted the power supply, and locals gather at the sole functioning hotel, pouring cups of coffee. Matricia, wearing an olive-green fedora that flattens her hair, remarks, “We’ve made things convenient but complicated. When the supermarket is closed, people don’t know how to feed themselves.” She proudly explains that she didn’t rely on stores this year, instead hunting elk, growing vegetables, and gathering herbs. Matricia believes there is sovereignty in being able to provide food and medicine for one’s family.

Matricia is a drummer, singer, artist, and expert forager. She mentors young women in her community to preserve the tradition of passing down knowledge. Additionally, she offers fireside chats and plant walks to visitors. As we ascend a hill behind the museum, she shares her passion for plants. “I’ve always had a deep connection with plants,” she tells me while caressing some broad leaves. “This is ‘white man’s foot,’ or plantain. Many consider it a weed, but it’s abundant with seeds for stews and baking, and its leaves are edible.”

She continues our walk, pointing out snowberries, known for their antiseptic properties when used as an eye wash, and clover, a useful remedy for colds. Matricia also highlights kinnikinnick, a plant that serves as a kidney medicine. “In indigenous culture, we strive to align mind, body, and spirit—a different approach to healing,” she explains. “Unfortunately, colonialism and racism have diminished the value of our knowledge. It has always been there, but it hasn’t been respected as it should be.” As we reach the meadow where it meets the vast forest of Jasper National Park, Matricia grins and says, “Welcome to the ‘wood-wide web.’ The trees communicate with each other, and we converse with the trees about our problems.” Gazing at the swaying treetops, I begin to comprehend the deep connection Matricia and others feel for these bark-clad companions. I recognize the vital role knowledge-keepers like Matricia and Lilyrose play in revitalizing respect for ancient traditions. Thanks to their wisdom, Métis culture has a chance to flourish and stand tall, just like these enduring trees.

How to Experience It
Rooms at Métis Crossing start from C$150 (£90) per night, including breakfast. Indigenous experiences begin at C$32 (£20).
Matricia Bauer’s Wapakwanis Plant Walk costs C$45 (£27) per person, and advance booking is essential. Visit warriorwomen.ca for more information.

For further details, visit travelalberta.com.

This article was published in the June 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) with the support of Travel Alberta, Métis Crossing, and Warrior Women.

To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine, click here (available in select countries only).

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Métis culture

What is Métis Crossing and where is it located?

Métis Crossing is an indigenous cultural center and lodge situated on the banks of the Red River in Alberta, Canada. It serves as a hub for showcasing Métis culture and heritage.

What is the significance of the Métis people?

The Métis are a distinct indigenous community with mixed European and First Nation ancestry. They played a crucial role in Canadian history as fur traders, interpreters, and guides. Today, they have their own laws, language, and cultural practices.

What can visitors experience at Métis Crossing?

Visitors to Métis Crossing can engage in a variety of indigenous experiences and workshops. These may include dugout canoe trips, basket-weaving, beading, and learning about Métis crafts and traditions. The center also offers accommodations and authentic indigenous-inspired cuisine.

How does Métis Crossing contribute to cultural preservation?

Métis Crossing is committed to preserving and revitalizing Métis culture. They showcase Métis craftsmanship, promote knowledge transfer through workshops, and provide a space for Métis individuals to connect with their heritage.

What is the role of knowledge-keepers at Métis Crossing?

Knowledge-keepers like Lilyrose Meyers at Métis Crossing play a crucial role in passing down traditional knowledge and cultural practices to future generations. They provide valuable insights into Métis history, crafts, and spirituality.

Can non-indigenous visitors participate in activities at Métis Crossing?

Absolutely! Métis Crossing welcomes visitors from all backgrounds. Non-indigenous individuals have the opportunity to learn about Métis culture, history, and traditions through various educational experiences and interactions with knowledgeable staff.

How can I plan a visit to Métis Crossing?

To plan a visit to Métis Crossing, you can book accommodations directly with the lodge. Additionally, you can inquire about the indigenous experiences and workshops they offer to ensure an immersive and enriching experience during your visit to Alberta.

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