The concept of Metis (Μῆτις) in ancient Greek culture represents a form of practical knowledge, cunning intelligence, and adaptability, essential for navigating complex and unpredictable situations. This essay explores the striking parallels between the ancient Greek concept of Metis and the historical Métis people of the Red River Settlement in Canada. We demsotrate that the Métis people exemplify characteristics of Metis knowing, as they skillfully adapted to their changing environment by integrating elements from both Indigenous and European traditions. In spite of the etymological and historically disparate origins of the Métis People and Metis knowing, this essay will draw on James C. Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” (1998) and Fred Shore’s “Threads in the Sash: The Story of the Métis People” (2000), to analyze the serendipitous and uncanny ways in which the Métis people embody the spirit of Metis knowing in the ancient Greek sense.
The Ancient Greek Concept of Metis
Definition and significance of Metis
Metis, in ancient Greek thought, represents a particular type of intelligence, skill, and cunning. It is often associated with practical wisdom, resourcefulness, and adaptability in navigating complex and uncertain situations. Metis is characterized by a deep understanding of the world and the ability to make effective decisions in the face of changing circumstances. This concept of knowing is not merely theoretical knowledge but also includes the ability to apply that knowledge in real-world situations.
Drawing from James C. Scott’s “Seeing Like a State,” we find that Metis is contrasted with the idea of “episteme,” which represents a more formal, systematic, and abstract form of knowledge. While episteme is important, it is Metis that enables individuals and societies to adapt successfully to their ever-changing environments, building resilience and capacity to thrive in uncertain times.
Metis in Greek mythology
In Greek mythology, Metis is personified by the goddess of the same name, who is often portrayed as the embodiment of wisdom, prudence, and cunning. She was considered the first wife of Zeus, the king of the gods, and the mother of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war. Metis played a significant role in helping Zeus overthrow his father, Cronus, by providing him with the necessary strategy and cunning to succeed.
The story of Metis and Zeus is emblematic of the importance of Metis in ancient Greek thought. Her role in the myth demonstrates the value of this form of knowing in achieving success, navigating complex challenges, and overcoming powerful adversaries.
Relevance in contemporary discussions of knowledge, expertise, and decision-making, with reference to James C. Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” and the Métis people’s pemmican trade
The concept of Metis remains relevant in contemporary discussions of knowledge, expertise, and decision-making, as exemplified by James C. Scott’s “Seeing Like a State.” In his work, Scott critiques the limitations of top-down, centralized planning and the reliance on formal, systematic knowledge in policy-making and governance. He argues that these approaches often fail to account for the complexities and diversity of human societies, leading to unintended consequences and even catastrophic failures. Instead, Scott advocates for the importance of incorporating Metis in decision-making, emphasizing the value of local knowledge, adaptability, and practical wisdom. This approach aligns with the ancient Greek understanding of Metis, highlighting its continued significance in navigating the complexities of modern society.
In the context of the Métis people, as explored in Fred Shore’s “Threads in the Sash: The Story of the Métis People,” we can see the embodiment of the spirit of Metis knowing in their history and culture. Examples of this can be found in their development of the pemmican trade, and grassroots organizational structure. Capitalizing on traditional knowledge of the buffalo hunt and pemmican making, the Métis people incorporated European weaponry and found inroads for trade by adopting and adapting to the cultures and languages of both Indigenous and European communities. This ability to navigate complex social, economic, and political landscapes, synthesize diverse knowledge systems, and adapt to changing circumstances exemplifies the enduring importance of Metis in contemporary life.
The Métis people’s grassroots organization also played a crucial role in their ability to resist top-down controls imposed by the Crown. As a citizen-led initiative, the Métis people cultivated strong ties with various Indigenous and European communities, fostering mutually beneficial relationships and facilitating trade. Their grassroots nature allowed them to remain adaptable and responsive to the needs and priorities of their diverse constituents, which is a key aspect of Metis knowing.
The Métis People of the Red River Settlement: A Historical Overview
Origins of the Métis people
The Métis people are a distinct Indigenous group in Canada, arising from the intermarriage and cultural blending of European fur traders, primarily of French and Scottish descent, and Indigenous peoples, mainly from the Cree, Ojibwe, and Saulteaux nations. These unions began in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, as European fur traders arrived and established connections with Indigenous communities in what is now Western and Central Canada.
Over time, the offspring of these unions developed a unique culture that blended Indigenous and European traditions, beliefs, and languages. The Métis people became known for their expertise in hunting, trapping, and trading, as well as their distinctive clothing, music, and dance. As Fred Shore discusses in “Threads in the Sash,” the Métis identity emerged from the interweaving of these diverse cultural threads, reflecting the spirit of Metis knowing in their ability to adapt and thrive in a changing world.
The Red River Settlement and Métis culture
The Red River Settlement, located at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in present-day Manitoba, Canada, became a major center of Métis culture in the 19th century. Established by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1812, the settlement attracted a diverse population of European settlers, Indigenous peoples, and Métis families.
The Métis people played a crucial role in the economic and social life of the Red River Settlement. They engaged in agriculture, hunting, and the fur trade, and their deep knowledge of the land and its resources made them invaluable partners in trade and commerce. The settlement became a cultural melting pot, where the Métis people continued to develop their unique blend of Indigenous and European traditions, customs, and languages.
The Red River Resistance and the Role of Métis leader Louis Riel
As the Red River Settlement grew and tensions between European settlers, the Canadian government, and Indigenous peoples increased, the Métis people found themselves at the center of political and social conflict. In 1869, the Canadian government attempted to annex the settlement without proper consultation with the Métis inhabitants. In response, the Métis people organized a resistance movement under the leadership of Louis Riel.
Louis Riel, a charismatic and educated Métis leader, sought to protect the rights and culture of the Métis people in the face of encroaching settlement and Canadian government policies. He formed a provisional government and presented a list of demands to the Canadian government, asserting the Métis people’s rights to land, representation, and self-determination.
Ultimately, the Red River Resistance led to the creation of the province of Manitoba in 1870, with provisions in the Manitoba Act to protect the rights of the Métis people. The events of the Red River Resistance and the leadership of Louis Riel highlight the resilience and adaptability of the Métis people, embodying the spirit of Metis knowing in their struggle for recognition, rights, and cultural preservation.
III. The Métis and Metis Knowing: Adaptability and Integration
In this section, we will examine the ways in which the Métis people demonstrated Metis knowing by adapting to their changing environment and integrating elements from both Indigenous and European traditions. Drawing on insights from both Fred Shore’s “Threads in the Sash” and James C. Scott’s “Seeing Like a State,” we will explore how the Métis people exemplify the spirit of Metis knowing.
Integration of Indigenous and European knowledge and practices
The Métis people, as Fred Shore describes in “Threads in the Sash,” expertly integrated Indigenous and European knowledge and practices, creating a unique culture that enabled them to thrive in the diverse and often challenging landscapes of North America. This integration can be seen in their language, Michif, which combines elements of French, Cree, and Ojibwe; their clothing, which blends European and Indigenous styles; and their social organization, which incorporates both Indigenous and European traditions.
This adaptability and integration of diverse knowledge systems align with the concept of Metis knowing as described by James C. Scott in “Seeing Like a State.” The Métis people’s ability to navigate the complexities of their environment, drawing on the strengths of both Indigenous and European cultures, exemplifies the importance of practical wisdom and adaptability in ensuring their survival and success.
The Métis as skilled buffalo hunters and fur traders
The Métis people became renowned for their skills in buffalo hunting and fur trading, as Shore’s “Threads in the Sash” documents. They combined Indigenous knowledge of the land and its resources with European technologies, such as firearms and horses, to develop highly effective hunting and trading strategies. This expertise allowed the Métis to establish themselves as key players in the North American fur trade and provide sustenance for their communities through the pemmican trade, as discussed in Section I.
Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” emphasizes the value of local knowledge and adaptability in navigating complex environments. The Métis people’s success in buffalo hunting and fur trading demonstrates their ability to apply these principles, embodying the spirit of Metis knowing in their economic pursuits.
Political and military organization of the Métis people
The Métis people were not only skilled in hunting and trading but also demonstrated adaptability and resourcefulness in their political and military organization. As the Red River Settlement faced increasing tensions and challenges, the Métis people, under the leadership of Louis Riel, organized themselves to protect their rights and way of life.
Drawing on insights from Shore’s “Threads in the Sash” and historical texts, we can see that the Métis people adopted elements from both Indigenous and European political and military traditions. For example, the Métis implemented a political structure that combined European-style representative democracy with Indigenous community decision-making processes. This is evident in the establishment of the Métis National Committee, a provisional government led by Louis Riel, which included representatives from various Métis communities to ensure broad representation and consultation.
In terms of military organization, the Métis people adapted European military tactics and training while maintaining Indigenous methods of warfare. Shore’s “Threads in the Sash” describes how the Métis formed a unique military unit called the Métis buffalo hunt brigades, which combined European-style cavalry tactics with Indigenous knowledge of the land and animal behaviour. These brigades were highly effective and played a crucial role in the success of the Red River Resistance.
Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” emphasizes the value of local knowledge and adaptability in navigating complex environments. By integrating these diverse political and military strategies, the Métis people demonstrated their resilience and adaptability in the face of adversity, embodying the spirit of Metis knowing and ensuring their continued survival and cultural preservation.
The Métis People as Exemplars of Metis Knowing in the Face of Social and Ecological Change
In this section, we will analyze specific instances where the Métis people showcased their adaptability and resourcefulness, reflecting the principles of Metis knowing as described in James C. Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” and Fred Shore’s “Threads in the Sash.”
The impact of European settlement on the Métis people
As European settlers expanded their presence in North America, the Métis people faced significant social and ecological changes. Despite these challenges, they adapted and integrated elements from both Indigenous and European cultures, allowing them to maintain their unique identity and way of life. For example, the Métis people developed a mixed economy, engaging in agriculture alongside their traditional hunting and trading activities.
Diane Payment, in her essay “The Free Métis of Red River,” describes the forms of agriculture adopted by the Métis people at the time, which included small-scale farming and the cultivation of crops such as wheat, barley, and potatoes, as well as the raising of livestock like cattle, pigs, and chickens. These agricultural practices allowed them to navigate the changes brought on by European settlement and maintain their distinct cultural identity in the face of assimilation pressures.
The adoption of European technologies, such as firearms
The Métis people demonstrated their adaptability and resourcefulness by incorporating European technologies into their traditional practices. One notable example is the adoption of firearms in hunting and warfare. As Fred Shore outlines in “Threads in the Sash,” the Métis people quickly recognized the advantages of firearms over traditional Indigenous hunting weapons and integrated them into their hunting techniques. This enabled them to become highly efficient buffalo hunters, providing food and resources for their communities while also participating in the fur trade.
Moreover, the significance of firearms in Métis culture can be seen in the Métis crest to this day, which showcases two rifles flanking the buffalo bust. The inclusion of rifles in the crest is a testament to the importance of firearms in the Métis people’s history and their ability to adapt and integrate European technologies into their way of life.
The Métis people’s response to the decline of the buffalo population
The decline of the buffalo population in the late 19th century posed a significant challenge to the Métis people, as the buffalo was a crucial source of food, clothing, and materials for trade. Faced with this ecological change, the Métis people once again demonstrated their adaptability and resourcefulness.
According to Shore’s “Threads in the Sash,” the Métis people shifted their focus from hunting buffalo to trapping and trading in other fur-bearing animals, such as beaver, mink, and muskrat. They also expanded their agricultural activities, growing crops and raising livestock to supplement their traditional food sources, as described by Payment.
This ability to adapt to changing ecological conditions and find new means of sustaining their communities reflects the principles of Metisknowing. The Métis people’s resilience in the face of social and ecological change serves as a testament to the enduring importance of practical wisdom, adaptability, and the integration of diverse knowledge systems.
The historical Métis people of the Red River Settlement embody the spirit of Metis knowing in the ancient Greek sense through their adaptability, resourcefulness, and ability to navigate the complexities of their environment. Their unique culture, which integrated elements from both Indigenous and European traditions, allowed them to thrive in their changing world. In this sense, the Métis people serve as a powerful example of the importance of practical wisdom and adaptability in the face of unpredictable and complex situations.
It is important to note that, while the Métis people’s and the Greek concept of Metis knowing, bear the same name, the words have separate meanings and etymological origins. The term “Métis” originates from the French word meaning “mixed” or “of mixed ancestry,” and is used to describe the descendants of unions between Indigenous and European people in North America. On the other hand, the ancient Greek concept of Metis knowing refers to a type of cunning intelligence or practical wisdom, as discussed by scholars like James C. Scott. Despite the etymological differences, the Métis people’s adaptability and resourcefulness align well with the spirit of the Greek concept of Metis knowing.
Drawing on the works of James C. Scott and Fred Shore, this essay highlights the significance of the Métis people as exemplars of the ancient Greek spirit of Metis knowing. Through their resilience in the face of social and ecological change, the Métis people showcase the enduring importance of practical wisdom, adaptability, and the integration of diverse knowledge systems.
- Shore, Fred. “Threads in the Sash: The Story of the Métis People.” Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications, 2009.
Scott, James C. “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.” New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.