Songs Upon the Rivers

The Buried History of the French-Speaking Canadiens and Métis from the Great Lakes and the Mississippi across to the Pacific

Reviewed by Jennifer S.H. Brown

Posted September 19, 2017
Book Cover

This book is a major undertaking from three authors who are diverse in their interests and experience. Robert Foxcurran, based in Seattle, Washington, is an independent historian with a business background. Michel Bouchard, professor of anthropology at the University of Northern British Columbia, combines research interests in French North America with aocus on Russian-speaking diasporas and on nationalism and ethnicity. Sébastien Malette, of Métis and French-Canadian heritage, teaches law at Carleton University and works with the Métis Federation of Canada, which was formed four years ago with the purpose of representing all Métis in Canada.

The authors’ sense of mission is well articulated in their subtitle. Two intertwined concerns animate their work. First, they seek to retrieve the “forgotten history” of “the French-speaking populations that had shaped the destiny of the United States and Canada,” arguing that “the history of the French [Canadien] settlers and their role in the making of the United States has been so thoroughly buried that it goes totally unnoticed.” American writers, focused on anglophone heroes, have exhibited “a collective willful blindness” to Canadien/Métis historical contributions, often regarding them as “half-indigenized and of shady loyalty.” Second, in the Canadian context, the authors challenge the dominance of “an overly simplistic, linear and evolutionary model of Métis nationhood,” which negates both “the collective existence of all Métis beyond the scope of what amounts to Red River Métis nationalism” and “other political expressions through which Métis have shared collective sentiments and group identities.” Their political stance is clear.

The book’s research, drawn mainly from secondary and Internet sources, rather than archival sources, is extensive, although some works that could have helped its arguments have been omitted. In nine detailed and substantial chapters, the authors trace the histories of Frenchspeaking traders, settlers, missionaries, and other migrants with Quebec and Indigenous roots across the Great Lakes to the Michigan and Illinois territories, the Mississippi and Missouri watersheds, and the Pacific Northwest.

Near the end, the authors propose a constructive model for conceptualizing Métis identities — one with which they could have usefully framed their argument at the beginning of the book. They argue that the members of Métis communities across the regions have all borne “multiple group identities, while maintaining a sufficient degree of cultural coherence stemming from their … fusion of Indigenous and mainly Canadien voyageur culture.” To visualize the contours of this “predominantly French-Canadien-Métis identity across North America,” they invoke a rhizomatic model, drawing upon the image of the honey fungus, a mushroom in Oregon that spreads underground over a large area through a tuber-like root system that may extend for kilometres.

Each Métis community, they affirm, “was connected by language, culture, and kinship to other such communities often separated by hundreds or thousands of miles.” Having “no true centre,” the people were linked by “a barely visible mass of threads” grounded in culture, memory, and kinship.

I am sympathetic to this imagery. However, the outlook it expresses is not entirely novel. “The Métis Landscape,” the frontispiece map in The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America (a book I co-edited with Jacqueline Peterson) — along with the broad, bordercrossing scope of the essays included in that book — presages some of the arguments presented here. So too does recent work by some other scholars.

The authors of Songs Upon the Rivers at times take a dismissive view of certain other scholars’ works, imparting a more negative tone than is needed. They also might have paid more heed to the biases of some of the older sources they have used to make their points. The etymology of various ethnonyms — Métis, Michif, Creole, half-breed, and others — could use deeper historical study. The book also needed attentive editing; there are too many typos and obscure sentences, and information sometimes gets repeated, partly because some chapters overlap in content.

The text is rich in information, but it is not a quick or easy read. The index is of high quality, though it misses some topics, such as language or references to the songs featured in the title — which really deserve more attention! Overall, however, Songs Upon the Rivers is a valuable contribution, illuminating areas of North American Canadien and Métis history that have lingered too long in the shadows of larger national narratives.

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