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date: 24 September 2018

Archaeology of the Métis

Abstract and Keywords

This article reviews the history of Métis archaeological research in Canada. The Métis of Canada arose as a distinct Indigenous identity in the postcontact period and provide an interesting archaeological case study to explore how and why new cultures emerge. Previous research attempted to correlate patterns in material culture with Métis identity, particularly in terms of economy, use of space, and certain artifact types. New research has the potential to take a more nuanced approach to the process of identification among the Métis, to contribute to a broad understanding of ethnogenesis, and to do research that is relevant to the contemporary Métis community, as well as the discipline of historical archaeology.

Keywords: Métis archaeology, historical archaeology, Canada, ethnogenesis, material culture, Métis identity

One of the central questions in archaeology is how and why cultures emerge and change (Kintigh et al. 2014). Archaeologists use the material remains of past cultures to attempt to understand processes of short- and long-term change. A significant challenge within these analyses is determining at what point a culture changes enough to be called something different and how that difference may or may not be expressed in the material record (Jones 1997; Voss 2008; Hu 2013). Many social and cultural elements contribute to the emergence of a new people. A constellation of factors, including economy, social constructions of race, political tensions, kin relationships, and social practice, are necessary for ethnogenesis (Emberling 1997; Haley 2005; Douaud 2007; Voss 2008; St-Onge and Podruchny 2012). Some scholars have attributed new identities in the postcontact history of the Americas to racial mixing or hybridity, where social and biological traits from two or more groups are combined into new ethnic identities, which is problematic (Stockhammer 2012a, 2012b; Cipolla 2013). Ethnogenesis, as a process, is not predicated on the mixing of two or more cultures, but instead is part of ongoing cultural dynamics of identification, where certain identities emerge and become important due to a variety of social, political, and economic factors (Voss 2008; Jordan 2009; Silliman 2010; Cipolla 2013; Hu 2013). Circumstances where new identities emerge need to be understood within their specific historical trajectories and influences. Ethnicity, as a form of identification, is a response to many social variables, including shared descent, common lifeways, and both internal and external definitions (Barth 1969). The “active construction of social identity is embedded in … power relations” (Jones 1997, 224).

The Métis of Canada, a postcontact Indigenous people, provide an important case study for broader questions around the emergence of new collective cultural identities and their visibility in the archaeological record. The Métis arose as a distinct identity forged through colonial encounters between First Nations and European explorers, traders, and settlers (Sealey and Lussier 1975; Peterson and Brown 1985; Devine 2004; St-Onge and Podruchny 2012). Historical research over the past fifty years has focused on where, when, and how the Métis Nation formed in what would become Canada. Métis identity and nationhood are often connected to the events at Red River (now Winnipeg, Manitoba) throughout the nineteenth century, culminating in the Northwest Rebellion and the hanging of Louis Riel (Ray 1974; Sealey and Lussier 1975; Innis 1999; Payne 2004). However, the Métis were not limited to the boundaries of the Red River settlement; rather, they played a significant role in the opening of the Canadian West and forged a distinct cultural landscape stretching from the northern United States to the Northwest Territories. Archaeological research on the Métis is limited, but examining material culture provides insight into Métis history and daily life that is not well captured by historical documentation. Here, I summarize and synthesize data from previous archaeological excavations associated with Métis settlements and use of the land (Elliott 1971; Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988; Burley 1989a, 1989b; Burley and Horsfall 1989; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992; Weinbender 2003), before suggesting future directions for the field of Métis archaeology.

Archaeologists have been interested in the emergence of the Métis in part because they represent a case of ethnogenesis, where the historical record clearly notes the rise and formation of a new cultural identity. However, much archaeological research undertaken at Métis sites was driven by a need to salvage or protect the heritage in the face of development (e.g., McLeod 1982; Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988). Previous research on the Métis has focused on the relationship between the emergence of the Métis as a new cultural identity and whether the archaeological record can be used to demonstrate a Métis pattern in material culture. Several lines of evidence have been used to explore this broad question, including the engagement of the Métis in the economy of the fur trade; Métis use of specific material culture, including lithic tools and ceramics; and Métis use of space. In this paper, I review the historical context of Métis identity and previous research on Métis archaeology before exploring existing gaps and presenting some future research directions.

Defining a People

The exact definition of the Métis is debated in scholarly literature (Sawchuk 1973; Sealey and Lussier 1975; Foster 1978, 1994; Redbird 1978; Fuchs 2000; Chartrand 2005; Macdougall 2006; Lischke and MacNab 2007; Brown 2008; Teillet 2008; Andersen 2011a, 2011b, 2014; St-Onge and Podruchny 2012; Macdougall and St-Onge 2013; Ens and Sawchuk 2015). The scope of who constitutes the Métis ranges from a conception of the Métis as the descendants of families in and connected to the Red River settlement (Chartrand 2005; Andersen 2014) to communities with a history of mixed heritage (e.g., communities in Labrador and the North; see Kennedy 1997), to individuals with any mixed settler-Indigenous heritage in Canada (Hele 2007). Contemporary formulations of Métis identity are embedded in current legal battles for Métis rights (Teillet 2008; Andersen 2011a, 2014; R. v Powley 2003; R. v. Daniels v. Canada 2016). However, Métis nationhood and peoplehood is grounded in history, as “history is … a crucial resource in Indigenous claims to peoplehood, as it is for all Indigenous claims, because it challenges dominant colonial national/historical narratives that marginalize or attempt to altogether erase our prior presence” (Andersen 2014, 20). Archaeology has not yet played a significant role in legal debates about Métis identity and rights, but archaeological data are likely to factor into these decisions in the future.

For the purpose of this paper and the review of the archaeology within, the Métis are defined as an Indigenous people whose unique cultural identity was first formed during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century of Canada and the United States, with a concentrated homeland in what was known as Rupertsland (Figure 1). During the early nineteenth century, a collective group identity coalesced in the Red River settlement and a New Nation was declared (Peterson and Brown 1985; Foster 1994). While the Red River settlement served as a political anchor for the Métis, the Métis social, kin, and geographic connections stretched far to the west and north (St-Onge and Podruchny 2012). Archaeologists have mostly studied the material remains of people who would have been part of Métis society connected to economies of the fur trade and buffalo hunting during the nineteenth century (Elliott 1971; McLeod 1982, 1985; McLeod et al. 1983; Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988; Burley 1989a, 1989b; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992).1 Fur trade archaeology in Canada, although not reviewed in detail here, is invariably concerned with Métis people, but it rarely focuses on the specifics of Métis material culture or daily life (Doroszenko 2009).

Historical Context

The Métis emerged as a distinct people in the Canadian West out of a combination of factors relating to the fur trade, changing economies, cultural contact, politics, intermarriage, and colonization during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Métis identity and ethnicity are reliant on “a sense of common identity founded on and strengthened by historical events of the nineteenth century” (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 2). An understanding of the historical context of Métis emergence is essential to an understanding of the nature of Métis lifeways and the composition of the Métis archaeological record.

In the eighteenth century, the two major fur trading companies operating in what would become Canada, Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Company, began expanding into Rupertsland (Figure 1) (Innis 1999). From 1790 to 1885, the Métis played a central role in the transformation of Rupertsland to Canada, especially in the province of Manitoba (Sealey and Lussier 1975), and the colonial expansion had significant effects on the creation and enforcement of Métis identity. By the latter half of the eighteenth century, Métis families were living in various fur trade posts in Rupertsland and engaged in different roles within the fur trade economy (Sealey and Lussier 1975, 7; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992; Payne 2004). As Métis populations expanded through intermarriage, they began to take on a larger economic role, supplying forts with pemmican and furs, as well as transporting goods through a broad geographic expanse. Pemmican, the combination of dried meat, fat, and often berries, was a central food to the fur trade (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 20; Payne 2004, 47). Throughout this time period, Métis became central to the economic success of both the NorthWest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 14).

By 1811, the Métis were well established in Rupertsland, when Lord Selkirk decided to encourage European settlers to move into the west by founding the settlement that would come to be known as Red River. The region between the Red River and the Assiniboine River was important for the fur trade (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 15; Ens 1996), particularly in terms of communication, so the establishment of the Selkirk settlement was largely politically motivated by the Hudson’s Bay Company (Rich 1967, 207). The movement of settlers into the region increased tensions between the NorthWest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, leading to a merger of the two companies in 1821 into just the HBC (Innis 1999; Payne 2004). During this same time period, increasing attempts by the Hudson’s Bay Company to limit the activities of Métis traders led to the first moment where Métis identity was articulated. A series of limits on pemmican trading and export in 1814 were designed to prevent the Métis from supplying the Northwest Company with food (Sealey and Lussier 1975, 37). The outcome of restrictions on pemmican export was the first political uprising by the Métis, culminating in the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816 and a subsequent crystallization of Métis identity as distinct (Dick 1991). In the aftermath of the Battle of Seven Oaks, the flag of the Metis was raised as a declaration of a new Nation in the west (Ens 2012).

For the next sixty years, the Red River settlement and associated economic activities were key in Métis history. As Red River and Fort Garry became increasingly central to fur trade activities, especially after the merger, Métis began to transport goods and furs throughout Rupertsland, developing major trails heading south, west, and north of the settlement (Sealey and Lussier 1975, 21). Canoe travel was also important, with systems of portage throughout the rivers and streams of the region (Tough 2011). With the rising demand for pemmican, Métis began to participate in winter buffalo hunting out on the Plains as early as 1816 (Sealey and Lussier 1975, 46). As a part of the fur trade, Métis began to establish strategic routes throughout the prairie and parklands regions to the north, west, and south of Red River.

In the period from 1821 to 1825, many Métis moved into the Red River settlement (Sealey and Lussier 1975, 44). For the next forty years, the economic practice of the Métis was varied in Rupertsland, including acquiring furs or bison robes, producing pemmican, carting and transportation, and farming (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 20). The latter half of the nineteenth century was marked by several key social and political events that helped to continue to define a collective Métis national and cultural identity, some of which are outlined later. In response to increasing trade between Métis and Americans connected to the Red River Settlement, several free traders were arrested in 1849 (Payne 2004, 74). One was put on trial, but the court could not uphold the charges, and he was acquitted. The Sayer trial enabled and emboldened more Métis to engage in free trading, opening the market. During this time, Red River also became the major trading and provisioning center for Rupertsland (Payne 2004, 82) and one of the major hubs of Métis activity and identity.

Bison hunting grew in importance throughout this period so that by 1850 its associated trade was central to Métis economic practice (Ray 1974, 206; Payne 2004). Prior to the merger, pemmican was largely made by employees of the company, but since the workforce was significantly reduced post merger, pemmican began to become a trade commodity (Payne 2004, 72). Sources suggest that 60 tons of pemmican were required to provision the Hudson’s Bay Company, so the Métis began hunting bison to supply the need for food (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 20). This coincided with a rise in overwintering throughout the plains and parkland region. As bison stocks dwindled, Métis hunters moved further out into the prairies, overwintering at sites throughout Saskatchewan and Alberta (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 22).

The newly formed Dominion of Canada took over Rupertsland in 1869, marking the beginning of a major transformation in Métis lifeways that culminated in the Northwest Rebellion in 1885 (Sealey and Lussier 1975). The transfer of the land to Canada was actively resisted by the Métis in Red River, led by Louis Riel, resulting in the Manitoba Act and a land grant of 1.4 million acres to the Métis (Payne 2004, 85; Teillet 2008, 2013). Around this time, many Métis moved out of Red River to the north and west, some of whom continued to overwinter, but the bison were significantly harder to find. By 1878, very few bison were to be found and many hunts failed (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 27; Payne 2004, 85). By 1879, bison were virtually extinct on the prairies, ending overwintering as a way of life. In 1885, a second resistance arose in the Duck Lake/Batoche in Saskatchewan, leading Canada to send in a military force. The Métis were defeated and Louis Riel was hung as a traitor. Around the same time, the Canadian government established the Métis scrip system, designed to end the land question of the Métis (Tough 2011; Tough and McGregor 2011). Post scrip, many Métis were disenfranchised and the culture went underground, as it became ““impolitic and sometimes dangerous for Métis to self-identify publically” (Teillet 2013, 1–9). It took almost a hundred years after 1885 for the Métis to begin to assert their rights and identity as an Aboriginal people. This resurgence is ongoing in Canada, and Métis issues are again in the public eye.

Previous Archaeological Research on the Métis

The majority of archaeological research explicitly on the Métis has focused on overwintering or hivernant sites, in part because these are distinctly Métis places on the landscape and therefore provide a snapshot of a Métis way of life that may be harder to extricate from other fur trade–era sites. Métis overwintering was a social practice of spending winters out on the prairies away from major settlements. While overwintering has its roots in the eighteenth century (Foster 1994), the practice became more widespread from the 1840s onward, due in part to declining bison populations around Métis centers and the increasing demand for bison rawhide (Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988). Groups of families would follow bison herds to protected, treed areas; build a collection of cabins; and spend the winter hunting the bison and socializing with their neighbors (Sealey and Lussier 1975; Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988; Burley 1989a, 1989b, 2000; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992). Cabins were usually one room, made of logs, covered in mud or clay from local sources, with a thatched roof and a fireplace (Carpenter 1977; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 100–102). Some locations would be used for multiple winters, with the same families returning to repair or rebuild their cabins, but as bison populations continue to decline, overwintering sites moved further and further west (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 99).

Archaeological remains of overwintering sites are found throughout the prairies and parkland regions of western Canada and the northern United States. Most sites include a series of cultural depressions and mounds. Cultural depression types include mudding or borrow pits, cellars, refuse pits, and possibly latrines (Elliott 1971; Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992). Mounds typically represent the remains of chimneys above fireplaces in the cabins. Some chimneys were constructed of stone when it was readily available (Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992); otherwise, the chimneys were a wood superstructure covered in mud and clay. Most overwintering sites show little to no sign of the structure of the cabin itself, unless the cabin was burned (Elliott 1971).

In total, six overwintering sites and three Métis river lots have had some degree of published archaeological research (Figure 2; Table 1).

Archaeology of the MétisClick to view larger

Figure 2 Map of Canada showing Métis sites with excavations. Map by author.

Two Métis overwintering sites were excavated in Alberta between 1965 and 1978, while three additional sites were excavated in Saskatchewan in the 1980s, with one being returned to in the late 1990s and early 2000s (Weinbender 2003).

Table 1 Métis Sites with Previous Excavations

Site Name




Riel House

Red River, Manitoba


(Forsman 1977)

Garden Site

Red River, Manitoba


(McLeod et al. 1983)

Delorme House

Red River, Manitoba


(McLeod 1982)

Kawjeski Cabins

Cypress Hills, Alberta


(Elliott 1971; Bonnichsen and Baldwin 1978)

Buffalo Lake



(Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988)

Four Mile Coulee

Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan


(Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992)

Chimney Coulee

Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan


(Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992)

Kis-sis-Away Tanner’s Camp



(Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992)

Petite Ville



(Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992; Weinbender 2003)

Material culture at both the overwintering and river lot sites is fairly typical of western Canadian historical archaeology. Most of the artifacts would have been purchased through the Hudson’s Bay Company, including construction materials (glass, nails, etc.), kitchen items (ceramics, cutlery, kettles, etc.), personal items (clothing, beads, hygiene, etc.), arms and ammunition (guns, shot, cartridges, gun flints, etc.), and transportation materials (harnesses, horseshoes, etc.) (Elliott 1971; McLeod 1982, 1985; McLeod et al. 1983; Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988; Burley 1989a, 1989b; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992; Weinbender 2003). Fauna at overwintering sites was mostly wild animals, with a preponderance of bison in many locations, while river lots had greater occurrence of domestic animals (McLeod 1985; Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992). The majority of the Métis were Catholic, so religious paraphernalia is sometimes present as well (Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988). From the previous archaeological work, several themes emerge, including the distinctiveness (or lack thereof) of Métis material culture, with a specific focus on lithics and ceramics, the role of the Métis in the fur trade and related economy, and Métis use of space. Each of these is detailed in the following sections.

Métis Material Culture

Previous research on the Métis has attempted to correlate either patterns (McLeod 1982, 1985; McLeod et al. 1983) or specific material types (Burley 1989a, 1989b; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992) with Métis lifeways. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there was some attempt to distinguish a pattern within material culture that could be associated with Métis lifeways in western Canada. McLeod, after working on two important Métis locations in Red River, applied statistical analyses to the patterns he observed, but he was unable to find any statistically significant results that distinguished Métis sites from other sites of the same era (McLeod 1985). Burley and colleagues (1992, 8) took a structural approach to their study of Métis ethnicity, arguing that changes in style may signify and demonstrate shared cultural values. Instead of trying to find statistically valid patterns, they note that the analysis of a complete assemblage and the interrelationships between different categories might represent ethnic identity (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 9).

Although the overall assemblages from Métis sites have not yielded statistically valid material patterns, a few material types have been used to demonstrate the possible distinctiveness of Métis sites. Ceramics and beads have been argued to be material types that are indicative of Métis lifeways. In addition, there is a difference in opinion between several researchers about the possible role of lithic materials within Métis occupations.

Patterns in Material Culture

Two different Métis material culture patterns have been identified in the archaeological record by McLeod (1985). First is the Métis Farmer-Merchant pattern, denoting a lifestyle that was relatively settled. This pattern consists of a cluster of artifact types associated with farms and more permanent settlements in the Red River vicinity. The majority of artifacts associated with the Métis Farmer-Merchant pattern involve kitchen objects, architectural debris (nails, chinking, etc.), and clothing (McLeod 1985, 125). When Métis people moved out onto the prairie and away from the settlements, a different Hivernant pattern shows up in the archaeological record. The main difference in Hivernant material culture when compared to the Farmer-Merchant pattern is the relatively high occurrence of beads at overwintering sites, a pattern which McLeod suggests might separate Métis sites from other sites of the same age on the prairies:

Large Bead class counts at Hivernant sites possibly indicate that beadwork patterns were used as ethnic boundary markers that distinguished the Hivernants from other cultural groups in the northwest. Therefore, if the Hivernants were originally members of the Bison Hunter sector of the Red River Métis, it is possible that large bead class counts can be expected at Red River Bison Hunter sites. (1985, 128)

In addition, Burley et al. (1992) review all known overwintering assemblages and draw some broad trends in the use of material culture. First, there is a distinct lack of architectural materials such as nails, window glass, and so on, indicating the expedient and temporary nature of overwintering cabins (1992, 108), as well as scavenging activity that may have taken place when more permanent settlers arrived (Weinbender 2003, 145). Second, household and activity materials are underrepresented, perhaps indicating a lack of investment in household items for traveling out onto the prairie. Third, clothing and firearms/ammunition are comparatively overrepresented (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 109), especially beads (Table 2).

Table 2 Bead Counts from Métis Overwintering Sites


Bead Count


Petite Ville


Four Mile


Kissisaway Tanners


Buffalo Lake


Cabin 1

Buffalo Lake


Cabin 2

Buffalo Lake


Cabin 3

Buffalo Lake


Cabin 4

Buffalo Lake


Cabin 5

Kajewski Site


Cabin B

Kajewski Site


Cabin E

While several authors correlate small, drawn-glass seed beads with Métis occupations (McLeod 1985; Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992; Weinbender 2003), other cultural groups also used similar beads during the same time period (Thompson 1994). The pattern of Métis beading was distinctive and a key component to Métis dress (Farrell Racette 2004), but the archaeological record only records the medium (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 109), making it difficult to distinguish Métis beading from other beading. Examining color distribution and comparing it to ethnographic collections with known provenance might be one method to help clarify patterns of Metis beading in the archaeological record (Parsons 2016). Two other forms of material culture have been the explicit focus of an understanding of the material remnants of Métis ethnic identity: transfer-printed ceramics and lithics.


Several researchers have examined the role of transfer-printed wear ceramics in the Métis archaeological record. Burley (1989b, 97) notes the fragile nature of the ceramics is not the most functional choice for the lifestyle of mobile bison hunters, as more durable options were available. His interpretation is that ceramic use began among Métis women in Red River, where they adopted tea culture and the use of delicate ceramics in an attempt to demonstrate their social position. Over time, the use spread across the Métis community, due to the significant role that women played in maintaining Métis social relationships, and ceramic use for tea drinking became “integral to Métis ethic integration” (Burley 1989b, 104).

At the Buffalo Lake overwintering site, Doll notes the presence of fragile ceramics, which he correlates with the presence of complete households at the site. In addition, there is some evidence that the ceramics were curated through repair (1988, 104). Highly fragmentary ceramics were also found at Petite Ville, although there is recovery bias in the results, since a different screening method was used (Weinbender 2003, 147). The proportion and distribution of fine ceramics may therefore be a marker of Métis sites.


Every Métis site that has been excavated outside of Red River has lithic material, much of which is in clear stratigraphic context with other Métis material culture, especially in Alberta (Elliott 1971; Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988). However, Burley (1989a) argues that all lithic materials found in sites are intrusive, due to intermixing of deposits by Métis cultural activities, such as digging pits for mudding of the outside of cabins (1989a, 156). The basis of his argument is both context and a fundamental assumption that Métis would not use lithics if they had other tools available. Therefore, with the prevalence of European materials available, Burley argues there is no reason for Métis winterers to use lithic material culture (1989a).

Lithics found at overwintering sites are dominated by flakes (n = 847, 96%), with a paucity of finished tools (n = 36, 4%) (Elliott 1971; Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992; Weinbender 2003). The diversity of raw material types, including obsidian and nonlocal cherts (notably Knife River Flint), suggests either a precontact component or a continued connection with First Nations lifeways by the Métis in the 1860s and 1870s. However, the dismissal of all lithics as intrusive, even when in clear context with historical materials, is problematic. This issue is discussed further next.

Métis and the Fur Trade Economy

The Métis were central to the success of the British fur trade (Ray 1998; Innis 1999; Payne 2004). Their labor was used to move goods over vast distances and the pemmican they produced from bison was an essential component of the fur trade diet (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992; Payne 2004). An archaeology of the fur trade in Canada, therefore, concerns the material remains of the Métis. However, much of the fur trade literature does not explicitly deal with the experiences and lifeways of the Métis; rather, there is a greater focus on European and First Nations interaction (Doroszenko 2009).

Changes in the fur trade, as discussed earlier, impacted Métis families, leading to a shift in the focus for some Métis to bison hunting for both provisioning and other resources. Declining populations and the focus on bison led in part to the rise of overwintering sites during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Bison hunting was accomplished in large brigades of sometime hundreds of hunters (Ross 1856; St-Onge and Podruchny 2012). Descriptions and representations of Métis bison hunters are common in the historical record, especially after 1840.

On the 15th of June, 1840, carts were seen to emerge from every nook and corner of the settlement, bound for the plains … from Fort Garry the cavalcade and camp-followers went crowding onto the public road. Here the roll was called, and general muster taken, when they numbered, on this occasion, 1,630 souls.

(Ross 1856, 245)

Red River and Pembina were originally the base for the hunting brigades, but as the bison populations dwindled, the brigades followed the bison to the west and north. Bison were hunted by the Métis for several purposes, including for meat to feed their community and to make pemmican for trade or sale, for fur, and for raw hide to sell to the growing industrial economy in the United States (Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992; Payne 2004).

From an archaeological perspective, the remains of bison hunting and related weaponry are significant material remains of Métis activity. All Métis sites with excavation show the presence of ammunition and parts for arms (Table 3).

Table 3 Arms and Ammunition from Métis Archaeological Sites






Petite Ville




Kis-sis Tanner




Four Mile




Garden Site





Delorme House





Kajewski Site




Buffalo Lake




The Métis were historically known for their hunting prowess and care of both their firearms and their horses (Weekes and Welsh 1994; Erasmus and Thompson 1999). The suite of firearms and associated assemblages provides evidence for bison hunting as the main economy of Métis peoples from 1850 until the decimation of bison populations by 1880 (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992; Payne 2004).

In addition, there is considerable evidence for processing of bison meat, bone, and raw hide at Métis overwintering sites. Where faunal analysis has occurred at Métis archaeological sites, bison bone is present in most assemblages (Kooyman 1981), although it occurs only in small quantities at Petite Ville (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992; Weinbender 2003). A diversity of smaller mammal use is also evident, including beaver, muskrat, rabbit, and badger (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992). Most Métis sites also contain fish bone, fish scales, and bird bone. There is considerable species diversity within and between different overwintering sites (Weinbender 2003), leading some authors to suggest dietary stress among the overwintering Métis (Elliott 1971; Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988; Weinbender 2003).

Faunal analysis has been used to try to distinguish Métis identity from European and First Nations during this time period. Brian Kooyman, in his masters thesis and a subsequent appendix to the Buffalo Lake report, argues that the patterns within bison bone in particular are indicative of Métis lifeways and Métis status (Kooyman 1981; Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988). European butchery patterns and meat preferences, according to Kooyman, would show a different faunal assemblage than a First Nations use of the same animal. Based on his analysis, he concludes that different statuses of Métis families lived in cabins at Buffalo Lake by equating more European patterns with higher Métis status and more First Nations patterns with lower Métis status (Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988, 349).

The types of faunal remains in sites in Red River compared to overwintering sites are noticeably different, as they represent different subsistence practices. Overwintering sites have little to no domesticated species, while the large mammal assemblages at the Delorme House site and the Garden site were dominated by cow, pig, and sheep remains (McLeod 1982). Searching for a Métis-specific pattern in the distribution of faunal remains, therefore, requires a consideration of the broader social context of the activities at the site in question.

Métis Use of Space

One method used to attempt to distinguish Métis occupations from other groups at the same time is through analysis of Métis use of space. Archaeologists have looked at site placement and vernacular architecture to examine Métis archaeology. In their analysis of overwintering sites in Saskatchewan, Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon (1992, 95) define some of the characteristics of overwintering sites as including an area that (1) had natural protection from the environment; (2) had a supply of wood for winter fuel; (3) was close to a water source; (4) was near a diverse base of resources; and (5) provided an area for early staging of the spring hunt. The sample of known archaeological overwintering sites is quite small, however, so further research needs to be done to determine if Métis sites have particular environmental, social, or symbolic characteristics.

Cabin and site characteristics common to all excavated overwintering sites include the disorganized nature of cabin placement, where the environment appears to be an important factor in choosing a location to build the cabin itself (Elliott 1971; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992). Burley et al. note that “Métis overwintering villages stood in direct contrast to Victorian principles of order” (1992, 106). They argue village layout did not follow any set pattern; rather, Métis focused on “employing individual site characteristics to maximum advantage” (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 96). The lack of formal layout is attributed to the mobile Métis season round, a lifestyle which had “little need for structures or organizational patterns associated with long-term land tenure” (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 97), and elements of a Métis worldview where the nature/culture divide was not present. In a subsequent analysis of postoverwintering Métis structures in St. Laurent, Saskatchewan, Burley draws a comparison between the vernacular architecture of Métis cabins and the grammatical rules of Michif, noting the similarity of layout and building style within the Métis community of St. Laurent (Burley 2000). This architecture, he argues, reflects a Métis worldview, as it integrates elements of European and First Nations construction to create a vernacular that is distinctly Métis (Burley 2000, 33).

Cabins excavated at different overwintering sites have shown different configurations of rooms. The historical literature tends to note Métis cabins as single-room structures, but excavations have revealed one- (Elliott 1971; Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992), two- (Elliott 1971; Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992), and three-room structures (Weinbender 2003), along with a multiple-room/structure complex at the Cabin 5 locale at Buffalo Lake (Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988, 189–190). This indicates a difference between the historical record and the archaeological evidence and suggests multiroom cabins might have been more prevalent at overwintering sites than would be expected from a review of the historical literature (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992; Weinbender 2003).

All overwintering sites that have been mapped show clustering of cabin locations. In some cases, such as Four Mile Coulee, the clusters can be spread out over a large area (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992, 74). The role of these clusters is not currently well understood. Doll et al. (1988) note clustering within the eighty-eight possible cabin locations at Buffalo Lake. The authors draw a possible correlation between clustering and different populations or family groups using the site (Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988, 211). Recent research at the Buffalo Lake supports the idea that many cabins were in small clusters, ranging in two to five cabins per cluster. At Petite Ville, there are twenty-six individual clusters of cultural depressions and mounds, some with as few as three depressions and as many as sixteen depressions (Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon 1992; Weinbender 2003). Further spatial research is needed to understand the reasons for clusters. Demographic information available at Buffalo Lake indicates that larger, extended families were using the site, so it is possible that cabins built in clusters relate to extended families (Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988, 46). New methods of collecting and analyzing precise spatial data will provide a better dataset to test the relationship between cabin layout, cabin location, and elements of Métis identity.

Archaeological explorations into Métis material culture have focused on attempting to prove that Métis material cultures, economies, and uses of space are distinct from other groups at the same time, but surprisingly little attention has been paid to the process of ethnogenesis and how it is reflected in the archaeological record. All of the excavated sites postdate the time when Métis national and cultural identity was coming into being in the early nineteenth century. The focus on overwintering sites does provide a sample of material culture that was clearly related to Métis people and lifeways, but where, when, and how this material culture became associated with Métis is less well understood. In the following section, I outline some of the significant gaps and outstanding questions that remain from previous research.


The archaeology of the Métis Nation in the Canadian West as a dedicated program of research has been almost entirely absent from Canadian archaeology since the 1980s (see Weinbender 2003 for an exception). During the past twenty-five years, while historical and contemporary research on the Métis has significantly increased, Métis archaeology has remained stagnant. Archaeological approaches to identity and ethnicity have changed, from a focus on correlations between ethnic identity and distinctive configurations of archaeological material culture to a more nuanced understanding about the complex interactions between identities, the choices of individuals, and how identities are expressed in various aspects of material culture, especially in colonial contexts (Silliman 2010; Ross 2012). These new methods and theories provide an opportunity to investigate the connections between the material record of the Métis and their lived identities within the nineteenth century. A new research program by the author is working to address some of the outstanding research questions in the field (Supernant 2012b, 2014, 2015).

Several issues emerge from previous research. Burley et al. (1992) and McLeod (1985) argue that there is no evidence of a distinctive pattern of Métis material culture, but one possible explanation for the lack may be the methods used and the limited contexts of the material culture forming the basis for the analysis. The straightforward association between material culture patterning and identity has been recently problematized in historical archaeology (Silliman 2001, 2005, 2009, 2010; Ross 2012) and new approaches seek to understand the complex, multiple uses and meanings of material culture. It is no longer sufficient to compare overall assemblages to other assemblages from the same time and look for statistically significant differences. Difference can be expressed in diverse ways that may be difficult to see using archaeological methods.

Another issue arising from previous research is the question of whether or not Métis peoples used lithic material culture. Recent research in historical archaeology has examined the complex interactions and entanglements of material culture and ethnic identity in colonial contexts, suggesting we need to question our assumptions about people’s material choices (Stahl 2002; Martindale 2009). In addition, stone tools have been demonstrated to be more effective at certain types of tasks that Métis winterers may have engaged in, most notably hide working (Reilly 2015). Elliott (2014) recently interviewed Métis community members who had memories of using expedient tools while hunting and trapping, or recalling use of lithics within their families in the past. It is therefore inappropriate to dismiss the potential for use of lithic material culture by Métis winterers, and the question of Métis use of lithic technologies remains an area in need of additional attention.

Recent excavations at the Buffalo Lake overwintering site tested whether there were precontact deposits underlying the Métis occupation. In an excavation unit outside of a cabin structure, lithic materials were found from the top layers to the bottom of the historical occupation. The excavation went down to sterile glacial material with no layers of precontact materials uncovered; rather, the lithic materials were evenly distributed throughout the Métis occupation layers with no evidence for significant ground disturbance through pit features or other features that could have extended below the Métis occupation. Lithic materials found were mostly local quartzite, with few formed tools, suggesting expedient tool use. Other researchers who have excavated Métis sites in Alberta have also found lithic materials situated within intact Métis deposits. Therefore, more careful archaeological attention needs to be paid to the context of lithic materials, since both a precontact and a historic assemblage of lithics may be present at Métis sites in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The Métis of the nineteenth century negotiated their identities through a series of relationships with political, economic, social, and ethnic structures. Previous work that associated use of European material culture (Burley 1989b) or butchery patterns (Kooyman in Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988) with higher status within the Métis community assumes that Métis wanted to be European rather than First Nations, a claim which masks the distinctiveness of being Métis in the nineteenth century. However, not all Métis people at this time thought of themselves in the same ways, although there is historical evidence for some degree of cohesiveness. Making claims about Métis material culture based on limited excavations from sites across a vast landscape is therefore problematic. Métis material culture in Saskatchewan may not look the same as Métis material culture in Alberta (Doll, Kidd, and Day 1988, 234), even at the same type of site, due to a number of social, political, familial, and economic constraints. The potential diversity of Métis material culture across the landscape of the Canadian West does not undermine the distinctiveness of Métis identity and nationhood during the nineteenth century; rather, it is a comment on the complex, entangled relationship between identities and material cultures through time.

Finally, previous research on the Métis has failed to take into account community perspectives on the past. The Métis have experienced a significant resurgence as a people, an identity, and a nation in the past thirty years. The lack of community collaboration between archaeologists and the Métis in the past is not surprising, considering much of the research was done in the 1970s and 1980s. The practice of archaeology, however, has changed. For example, when discussing the likelihood of Métis winterers using lithic tools, none of the archaeologists involved deliberately sought out living Métis people to ask whether there was any memory of parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents using these forms of tools. Other traditional knowledge and cultural memory around Métis practices may be relevant to archaeological research of Métis sites.

Contemporary Context and Future Directions

Archaeology is continually seeking new ways to answer old questions. The ways in which Métis identity is salient in both the history and contemporary context of Canada as a colonial nation-state means it is an area with great possibility to inform archaeology as a discipline, as well as make a difference to contemporary communities. The archaeology of the Métis is more important today than it has ever been. The Métis community is actively seeking recognition of their Indigenous rights through the Canadian court system (2016, 2003). Communities with a history of European and First Nations ancestry are claiming a Métis identity, leading to ongoing debates about who has the right to claim they are Métis (Andersen 2008, 2011a, 2014; Green 2011; Gaudry 2013), the consequences of which now have greater significance in Canada. A nuanced and community-based approach to the archaeological record of Métis people will help to place Métis people on the landscape during the nineteenth century and demonstrate the extent of Métis lifeways, geographies, and kinship networks in the Canadian West. Very little consideration has been given to the Métis archaeological record during major development projects and Métis sites tend to be generically labeled as “historic,” obscuring their significance to living Métis communities (Supernant 2012a).

An archaeology of the Métis has the potential to contribute to an anthropological understanding of the nature of cultural emergence and the ways in which ethnogenesis can or cannot be seen in the material record of the past. The Métis also defy traditional anthropological categorization, as a highly mobile, nomadic culture emerging from a nascent capitalist economy and developing nation-state. Future research should explore the intersections between kinship, mobility, economy, and indigeneity within the Métis context, in part because the Métis challenge our interpretive and theoretical frameworks around identity and ethnogenesis in colonial contexts. A broader temporal and spatial approach to Métis ethnogenesis, the relationship between Métis material culture and identities, and research that is engaged with and responsive to the contemporary Métis community are essential to the future of Métis archaeology.


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(1) There has been archaeological work on what were originally called Labrador Métis (Kennedy 1997; Beaudoin 2008; Beaudoin et al. 2010; Kelvin 2014). Since that research was completed, the Labrador groups have changed their terminology, reflecting their individual history of interrelationships between Inuit and settler groups. They are now known as the NunatuKavut ( They are therefore excluded from this review, although the approaches to Nunatukavut archaeology are complementary to Métis archaeology.