Thursday, May 21, 2015

Great Resources for Learning About the Métis

If you'd like to learn about who the Métis were and are, here are some great resources, many of which I used when researching Ox Cart Angel. Most of them are Canadian based, because most of those who identify as Métis live there. For example, approximately 400,000 people self-identify as Métis in Canada, while only 10,000 do in the U.S. - mainly in North Dakota.


Here's a short video from YouTube called Metis History 101: the Basics. The text flies by kind of fast, especially at the end, so get ready to use the pause button!

If you want more comprehensive info, or personal stories, here are some books I'd recommend. If you click on the covers, it will take you to their Amazon page.

Walking in the Woods; a Metis Journey

Metis: Mixes Blood Stories

Contours of a People

Homeland to Hinterland

And for kids:
The Tiny Voyageur

Remember, you can always simply type Metis into your favorite search engine and find all sorts of great information!

Meena kawapimitin!
(see you soon!)

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Michif - the Dying Language of the Métis


In Ox Cart Angel, the Métis traders that Claire helps send off in the beginning of the novel are said to speak a language called Michif. Other than that brief mention, I didn't talk about it in the book, so I decided to tell you a little more about it here.

So what was - or rather, what is - the Michif language?

To answer that question, it first helps to understand who the Métis are. They are descendants of a union between a European and Native American parent. Typically, the father was French Canadian and the mother was Ojibwe. The word métis (pronounced may-tee - the 's' is silent) is French and literally means mixed. The Métis developed their own distinct culture over the years, and were a large part of trading between European and Native cultures.

Michif also comes from a mixture of cultures, mainly French and Cree. The nouns come mostly from French, while the verbs are typically Cree. There are also parts of the Ojibwe language in Michif, as well.

a Michif hoodie!
Today, there are very few speakers of the Michif language. Possibly fewer than 1,000, according to this article on Wikipedia, or even less than 500 according to this article - all mainly in North Dakota and parts of Canada.

Fortunately with the internet, there are resources available to learn the language and preserve it. There are even a few books written in Michif, like the alphabet book pictured below.

Owls See Clearly at Night
A Michif Alphabet
-image takes you to its Amazon page-
If you would like to learn some Michif, here are a few good resources:

The Louis Riel Institute

Meena kawapimitin!
(see you soon!)

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Adventures in Making Pemmican!

Along the ox cart trails in the 1800s, a source of food relied upon for survival was something called pemmican. It was used not only by the Metis, but also by the Voyageurs, the Dakota and Ojibwe. In fact, it was invented by Native Americans.

It has two basic ingredients; dried meat and rendered fat. Berries, nuts and honey were often added to give it some flavor.

In my novel Ox Cart Angel, Claire and her father take pemmican along on their journey. Since I mention pemmican in my talks about the ox cart trails, I thought I ought to make a batch to see how it tastes.

Here's how I did it. If you try it, too, I hope you'll learn from my mistakes!

First, I found this recipe on the web that was originally printed in a newsletter for voyageur re-enactors. I altered it a little and used sunflower seeds instead of peanuts, and I didn't make as much as the recipe called for. The important thing to remember is that the basic ratio of dried meat to rendered fat is 2 to 1.

Here are the ingredients I used:

Three bags of suet and three pounds of lean ground beef

Honey, dried apple, dried apricots and sunflower seeds

First, I had to learn how to render fat, so I found some good info here. Basically what you do is cut up the suet into chunks and toss them into a crock pot. Set it on low.

Then wait.

And wait...


It takes many hours. I had mine in the crock-pot for a solid seven or eight hours before I finally felt it was ready to be filtered. I poured the contents of the crock-pot through a strainer to get rid of the remaining chunks of fat, and then re-strained it through cheesecloth to get out the rest of the little buggers. What remains is tallow, which is yellow in color when in liquid form, and a creamy white when solid.

It hardens quickly at room temp, which is fine. I made way more than I needed, but tallow can be used for frying, making candles and even soap. I set this aside, because next came the drying of the meat.

As far as meat goes, I chose beef, since it's easy to obtain. Elk, deer and bison can be used, too. The recipe I used warns not to use pork or bear meat. So beef it was.

A quick way to dry meat is to spread it thinly on jelly roll pans. Set your oven to 180-degrees and leave the meat in there overnight.

Here's a big mistake I made; I didn't line the pans with tinfoil. Lining the pans with foil would've saved a lot of time and aggravation, because without that, once the meat was dried, it stuck to the pans like cement! I spent at least half an hour scraping the dried meat off. A foil liner would've prevented this.

Here's the meat after it's been dried (and in my case scraped) and crumbled.

I ate a little piece of it and could discern no flavor. It was like munching on a thin piece of crumbly wood. 

Next, turn the crumbles into powder. At first, I used a mortar and pestle, but that took forever. Luckily, I remembered that we have a Cuisinart! That made everything much faster.

Powdered meat!

I used the Cuisinart on the dried apple and apricots, too.

One thing I thought about as I made the pemmican...we sure have it a lot easier than the Native Americans and pioneers had it when making this. They obviously couldn't just buy the meat pre-ground from the store, or the suet neatly packaged. 

They didn't have a crock-pot in which to easily render the fat, or a stove that they could set and forget in which to dry the meat. They also didn't have Cuisinarts!

Anyhow, since I had rendered the fat the day before, I had to turn it back into liquid form. To do this I simply put it in a pan and heated it over the stove at low heat. You don't want it to start smoking, because that will give the pemmican a nasty flavor.

When the tallow turned to liquid (took about 15 minutes) I poured it onto the dried meat and hand mixed it. I tossed in some of the dried fruit, sunflower seeds and honey as well.

Hand mixing at its finest!

Once that was done, I spread it into a pan so that it was about the thickness of brownies. Some people portion it out into muffin tins, which is a great idea, too.

And voila! Pemmican!

The great thing about pemmican is that it can last a long time at room temperature. Months and months and months. You can refrigerate it, too, to make it last even longer. It is a high energy food - lots of protein! It's great for taking on hikes or eating before workouts.


How does it taste?

To be honest, it doesn't have a lot of flavor - at least the pemmican I made. It doesn't taste bad, but just...kind of like cardboard with a little honey thrown on top. I think I should've added more fruit bits, and instead of apple and apricot, I should have used fruits with a little more kick, like blueberries or cherries.

This was my first time making it, though, and I'm sure there are folks out there who can make it much better! It was fun to try.

Just a warning - rendering fat permeates your house with a certain lingering odor. Not terrible, but it ain't potpourri, either.

So there you have it! Pemmican! If you try making it, let me know. I'd love to hear how it turned out!

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

If You REALLY Want to Learn About the Red River Trails...

When I wrote Ox Cart Angel, one of the most helpful books I used for research by far was a book put out by the Minnesota Historical Society by Rhoda Gilman, Carolyn Gilman, and Deborah Stultz:

Red River Trails : Oxcart Routes Between St Paul and the Selkirk Settlement 1820-1870

It's full of detailed trail maps, lots of background and history on the trails and the people who rode them, as well as historical pictures. There are a ton of references for further reading in the back of the book, too.

While I hope you get some fun information from this blog, the above book is highly recommended if you want to get to know the trails in a much more intimate way. It's available at many historical museums in Minnesota and North Dakota, as well as on the usual online shops. (The link above takes you to Amazon, if you're interested.) I'm guessing a lot of libraries carry it, also.

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Delmar Hagen's 1958 Journey by Ox Cart Along the Red River Trails

In 1958, to coincide with Minnesota's centennial, Delmar Hagen recreated the historic ox cart journey that thousands of Metis had taken before in the 1800s. He accompanied a Red River cart and an ox named Napoleon.

I found picture of Delmar in a 1955 yearbook called The Aggie, which was for the University of Minnesota Northwest School and Experiment State, Crookston, MN. Now I think it's just called U of M, Crookston.

Delmar on the right and, um - Stephen Colbert on the left?

Delmar left Pembina, North Dakota in the early afternoon of July 10th, 1958 and arrived at the State Fair Grounds in St. Paul, Minnesota on August 23rd of that same year. He timed his trip to arrive during the Centennial Exposition held at the fair that year. Along the way, he camped at various stops and took a couple detours to attend the Marshall County Fair in Warren on July 18th, and the Summer Water Festival in Glenwood on August 9th and 10th.

Here's the only picture I could find of Delmar dressed for the trails with Napoleon:

Photo by Jim Thompson of Holt, MN

The above picture is located in the booklet pictured below, called Red River Carts Trek, Historic Pembina Trail, of which I have a copy. It was written by Neil Mattson, and was published as a way to fund Delmar's trip. Interestingly enough, Neil Mattson's daughter, Jean Larson was recently elected to the Executive Council of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The booklet is full of great information about the trails and about the Metis who drove the Red River carts. It also has a map of Delmar's proposed route to the State Fair.

My copy is signed by Delmar, and is inscribed "To a sweet little girl" (though I'm not sure if the word is 'sweet' or 'smart'? It looks like it starts with an S and a T, but that doesn't make sense.) Anyhow, I believe one of my aunts was at the State Fair and met him, and received the book. It eventually found its way to me.

During Delmar's journey, a photographer from Life Magazine captured his journey on film, and eventually Delmar and Napoleon earned a noteworthy spread. Those photos used to be online, however I can no longer find them. They were beautifully done, and maybe I can find a copy of that issue in the future.

It must have been quite a journey, only now with not only mosquitoes and the hot sun, but also cars whizzing by and the paparazzi following him. 

A seventeen-year old boy helped Delmar prepare for the trip (Hagen spent two years preparing) and Delmar told the boy that perhaps in 50 years, he should take the journey.

In 2008, that seventeen-year old boy was now a 67-year old man named Orlin Ostby, and he actually did travel the trails. You can see his blog about the journey here. (I met one of Orlin's helpers at one of my talks. I blogged about that talk here.)

Who knows? Maybe in 2058, someone else will walk in the footsteps of the Metis and Delmar and Orlin.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Bonebag - or - What is an Ox?

Bonebag is a character in Ox Cart Angel; an old, flatulent ox with only one full horn, the other having been broken off when he was younger. Some people have told me that Bonebag is their favorite character (which I'm not sure is a good or a bad thing!)

I didn't grow up on a farm, nor spend much time on one, so when I sat down to write Ox Cart Angel, I didn't know an ox from a rutabaga.

This is a rutabaga...with eyes!

Well, okay, I did know that an ox was some sort of cow-like creature, maybe a bull of some sort, but that's about it. I only knew that an ox cart was pulled by an ox. Otherwise it might have been called a rutabaga cart.

So what is an ox?

Me! Me! Pick me!

An ox is basically a bull who has been castrated, and then trained to work. They also must have horns so that when they are pulling something, the yoke won't slip off of their heads. Luckily, Bonebag still has enough horn left to keep the yoke on his head!

An old wooden yoke

What does it mean to be castrated? It is when the testicles have been cut off of a bull calf. Usually this is done well before he's a year old.

"Wait, what?!"

This might sound cruel - and the bull might agree with you - but this has gone on for thousands of years, and is a way to make bulls less aggressive and to prevent them from breeding.

Oxen in an 11th-century illustration

So now you know what an ox is! 

"Did you know rutabagas have eyes?"
"Nope. I did not know that."

Thanks for stopping by!

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Monday, April 13, 2015

The Capote Coat

A popular clothing item for the Metis (as well as many other Native Americans and Voyageurs) was the capote.

No, not this Capote!!!

Ah, that's better...

Some were made of leather, some of blue wool, some white, some gray. Many were made from a single Hudson Bay Blanket, like the one pictured above. As you can see, they are long - thigh-length, with long sleeves, a hood, and were often held together by a Metis sash. Some incorporated buttons and thongs, as well. 

The wool worked great in the winter, since it could hold the wearer's heat, even when the wool got wet.

Hudson Bay Blankets were (and still are) very desirable. You can still buy them today.

This is called a Hudson Bay Point Blanket - the black lines on the left side are called 'points' and helped shopkeepers determine its size even while it remained folded on a shelf.

You can still buy Hudson Bay Point Blankets. Here's a link to a variety on Amazon.

Blackfoot Man wearing Capote circa 1910

Pictured here are members of the Montreal Snow Shoe Club in 1886.
Who knew capotes could make you fly?

Here's an 1845 painting by Paul Kane  with men wearing non-Hudson Bay Blanket capotes:

Portrait of Captain John Henry Lefroy

Lefroy's capote looks like it could be made of leather, and his companion with his back to us wears one of grey wool. Both of them wear a sash with a fire bag attached to it.

In case you're interested in making your own capote, here are a couple websites I found with instructions. 

If you decide to make one, or already have one, send a picture of you wearing it, and I'll put it on my blog!