Métis, métis, "Métissage", Creolization

par Aurélie Lacassagne

There seems to be much confusion surrounding these terms, likely because of their strong emotional and political connotations and because, through the ages, mixed-race people have been viewed as separate, marginalized, hybrid beings branded with the mark of impurity, of the heterogeneity that is anathema to many cultures.

On creolization

First, we must make a distinction between métissage (hybridity) and creolization. And the best man to do it is the great Caribbean poet and thinker Édouard Glissant. To describe the configuration of the crossroads of nations that served as the gateway to the colonization of America—equally applicable to the islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans—, Glissant posits métissage as “generally speaking, the meeting and synthesis of two differences, [whereas] creolization seems to be a limitless métissage, its elements diffracted and consequences unforeseeable. Creolization diffracts, whereas certain forms of métissage can concentrate one more time.”

More prosaically, métissage is the result of a biological encounter, while creolization is a cultural process that defies homogeneity and fosters creative exchanges and multilingualism. The creative vitality of creolization implies an acceptance of the unpredictable, the uncertain, change and multiplicity—notions that Western thought has fiercely resisted. Creolization leads to cross-cultural Relation, an identifying feature of what Glissant calls the chaos-monde (“chaos-world”), which “is neither fusion nor confusion: it acknowledges neither the uniform blend—a ravenous integration—nor muddled nothingness. Chaos is not ‘chaotic.’ But its hidden order does not presuppose hierarchies or pre-cellencies—neither of chosen languages nor of prince–nations.”

Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show is a good illustration of creolization: it makes connections, draws on an oral tradition, and favours heterogeneity over standardizing practice and discourse. The show constitutes an aesthetic expression of the chaos-monde, a poetics of Relation that “senses, assumes, opens, gathers, scatters, continues, and transforms the thought of these elements, these forms, and this motion.”

In Canada, the use of the terms “half breed” and “mixed-blood” emphasized the biological/genetic aspect, thereby effectively obliterating the (profoundly creolized) identities, languages and cultures of the people they described. Linguists’ resolute insistence on classifying Michif as a “mixed language” rather than a creole language reflects the political bias that disregards culture (and thus the distinctive identity of the Métis) and focuses on the “original mix,” with all of its associated myths and stereotypes.

On the distinction between Métis and métis

The Métis, with a capital M, are a nation to which the State where they live has or has not granted specific rights; métis, with a small m, is a more generic term for people of mixed blood—an individual identity rather than the collective expression of a distinctive culture. In Canada, this fundamental difference has sparked many debates and disputes, particularly since the recognition of certain specific Métis rights. It goes without saying that many Canadians are métis (sound of skeletons rattling in closets), but that doesn’t make them Métis. The vigorous appropriation of this long-reviled identity is one of the great paradoxes of our time.

These issues are not unique to Canada: they touch many territories, notably in South America, particularly in Brazil. Small-m métis communities are common around the world, as a result of the collision of three historical phenomena: colonialism, slavery and racism. Today, these communities are striving to free themselves from the marginalization and ostracism they have suffered since their emergence. This requires a complex process of redefinition, because, as minority communities, they are defined both by the dominant Other (for example, the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling on R. v. Powley, which laid out a set of criteria to not only define what might constitute Métis rights, but also who is entitled to those rights) and, as métis communities, by the other groups whose heritage they share (for example, in Canada, Cree/Nehiyaw, Anishinaabe, Anglo-Canadians, Franco-Manitobans, Franco-Saskatchewanians, etc.). And thus, when it comes to defining the Métis, a complex network of power relations comes into play.

Furthermore, like other communities, it is not a monolithic block. The issues are numerous, and extend beyond questions of identity to include cultural, territorial and linguistic considerations. These challenges, and the divergent strategies of resistance and alliance in situations of oppression, of non-recognition, of racism, were very much present at the Red River in 1855 and Batoche in 1870, and persist today.

One thing is certain: the age-old exclusion of the métis, the bastard, the hybrid, the mixed-blood can be traced to the obsession shared by many peoples, particularly those of European descent, with the “purity of the race,” a thanatonic obsession dragging its corteges of innumerable corpses from ancient Greece to the Nazi death camps by way of the African Great Lakes. Why this obsession? It goes back to a particular concept of a “root identity,” embedded in kinship and origin, that is the opposite of rhizomatic identity.

Again, Édouard Glissant reminds us that “Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari criticized notions of the root, and even perhaps notions of being rooted. The root is unique, a stock that takes all upon itself and kills all around it. In opposition to this they propose the rhizome, an enmeshed root system, a network spreading either in the ground or in the air, with no predatory rootstock taking over permanently. The notion of the rhizome preserves, therefore, the idea of rootedness but challenges that of a totalitarian root. Rhizomatic thought is the principle behind what I call the Poetics of Relation, in which each and every identity is extended through a relationship with the Other.”

This identity dichotomy is accompanied by other binary constructs, notably settled versus nomadic and written versus oral. However, the European colonizing forces’ historical imposition of a root identity, a settled lifestyle and a culture defined primarily by written records is not cast in stone. Today, all around the world, the Métis, the creolized populations are rising up, crawling out of the abyss, crying their cry of poetry, advancing a notion of Errantry that promotes Relation. It is this inexorable global movement that Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show invites us to discover, reflect on, and participate in.


Further reading:

  • Maria Campbell, Halfbreed. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1973.
  • Denis Gagnon and Hélène Giguère, “Présentation. Le Métis comme catégorie sociale: Agencéité et enjeux sociaux.” Anthropologie et Sociétés, 38 (2), 2014, pp. 13–26.
  • Édouard Glissant, Poétique de la Relation: Poétique III. Paris, Gallimard, coll. “Blanche,” 1990.