Gerhard J. Ens and Joe Sawchuk. From New Peoples to New Nations: Aspects of Métis History and Identity from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-First Centuries. 704 pp., 14 illus., notes, bibl., index. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. $98 (cloth), $50 (paper), $48.95 (eBook)

From New Peoples to New Nations: Aspects of Métis Identity from the Eighteenth to Twenty-First Centuries takes on the herculean task of condensing three centuries of Métis history into a single tome. However, authors Gerhard J. Ens and Joe Sawchuck do not provide a simple synthesis of events. Rather, From New Peoples to New Nations offers a comprehensive account of Métis history centered around the multiple, dialogical constructions of Métis identity. This thematic focus takes the book out of the realm of historical synthesis and into critical theorizations of ethnogenesis (the emergence of new ethnic groups), racialization (the definition of people in terms of race), and nationalism. Building on studies of the invention of tradition, ethno-symbolism, and historical ontology, the authors eschew primordialist accounts that take ethnicity and nationality as enduring givens. Ens and Sawchuk adopt an avowedly “instrumental” view, emphasizing the situational and strategic nature of Métis identity (7). The book is organized into five parts with Ens primarily authoring the first four. Despite the division of labor and different disciplinary backgrounds of the authors (Ens being a historian and Sawchuk an anthropologist), the thematic focus and theoretical orientation is remarkably consistent across the expansive eighteen chapters.

The first four parts take the reader from the political-economic roots of Métis identity in the European fur trade beginning in the seventeenth century to social scientific studies of Métis populations in Canada’s prairie provinces in the mid-twentieth century. Part one begins with a general overview of the development of representations produced by government officials, missionaries, ethnologists, and historians that have constituted the Métis as a discernible people and analyzable entity. This section proceeds to explore the economic patterns of Métis ethnogenesis as it relates to the development of the fur trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Building on standard narrations of Métis historiography, the authors conceptualize the fur trade economies as a “catalyst” for Métis ethnogenesis that “put a premium on biracial and bicultural skills and offered relative isolation from the assimilating forces of large Anglo-American or Euro-Canadian populations” (66).

Part two continues with the deconstruction of the process by which “Métis” has moved from a predominately racial category to a national category (at least in Canada). The authors highlight the multiple and competing narratives of key events and figures that usually serve to mark the “birth” of Métis nationhood including the much-discussed Battle of Seven Oaks and Louis Riel, the famous leader of the late nineteenth century Métis rebellion. In these chapters, Ens and Sawchuk show how narrations have been selectively and creatively pruned to accommodate different political and economic terrains (69).

Operating loosely under the banner of Ian Hacking’s conception of dynamic nominalism, part three turns to official (i.e., governmental) codifications of Métis status and identity. Ens and Sawchuk suggest that the distribution and acceptance of scrip—an alternative to treaty-making that extinguished Aboriginal Title in exchange for a certificate of land or money—helped define the Métis as a new kind of people. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the taking of scrip worked to draw “distinct and absolute boundaries” between Métis and Canada’s treaty-making aboriginal population (132-33, 189). As a result, a kind of people came into being at the same time as the category that defined them.

Part four shows how modern Métis politics have their roots in turn-of-the-century racialized views that portrayed the Métis not so much as a primordial national entity but a social pathology in need of amelioration. The authors bring the theme of ethnogenesis into new domains with a discussion of the role of the applied social sciences. Focusing largely (but not exclusively) on government-sponsored research in Canada’s prairie provinces during the 1960s, Ens and Sawchuk argue that applied social science did not simply record and represent Métis life; it also “contributed to a new reformulation of Metis identity” (326). The most overt transformation spawned by the social sciences­—and anthropology in particular—is the adoption of the term “Métis” in academic and governmental circles in place of “half-breed,” which was used more commonly by many of the communities studied (328). The term has since moved beyond the ivory tower and halls of government to mixed communities where it has eclipsed “half-breed,” albeit not without contestation (331).

Part five continues the examination of identity formation from the 1960s to 2013 with the development of modern Métis nationhood out of ethnically-mixed political organizations. As the authors note, the contemporary Métis National Council (MNC) reckons identity based on one’s connection to a historic Métis population, ancestors that received Métis scrip, and/or acceptance by a recognized Métis community (361-62). However, the early political organizations from which this version of nationhood sprung were composed of Métis and non-status Indians (361). With the arrival of economic advantages to claiming Métis status, such as housing, employment, and legal and social services, the borders of Métis identity have become more rigid, excluding non-status Indians and people of mixed Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry (414). The final chapter steps back from the chronological narration of nation formation to close with an exploration of the symbolic formation of Métisness through the construction and reframing of flags, historic figures (such as Louis Riel), and other cultural artifacts.

The strengths of From New Peoples to New Nations are many. The theoretical orientation and attention to the history of applied social sciences are two particularly generative interventions. Drawing from a variety of theoretical streams, Ens and Sawchuk have deployed an explicitly constructionist framework that reinvigorates studies of ethnogenesis in North America.[1] Over the past ten years, a number of North Americanists have been working in a similar vein.[2] Ens and Sawchuk’s instrumentalist approach contributes to these efforts by fostering a clear illustration of how Métis studies might also benefit from an engagement with the works of Ian Hacking,[3] Anthony D. Smith,[4] and John Hutchinson,[5] names that rarely appear in these accounts.

Though the discussion of the social sciences is brief compared to the rest of the book, Ens and Sawchuk help to extend and complicate the growing literature on the history of applied anthropology. The Métis case reminds scholars how research amongst racialized and sub-nationalized populations, especially when carried out in conjunction with governmental initiatives, can reconfigure the very social phenomenon it seeks to analyze (327). Ens and Sawchuk effectively remind us of the structural dimensions of this process—how it is guided by official, governmental, and bureaucratic scaffolding that renders newly constituted kinds of people politically legible (343).

One area that could have been explored more thoroughly is the suggestion that the effect of applied studies “is felt as much by the objects of study as it is by the readers of the government reports or academic papers” (327). While Ens and Sawchuk effectively contextualize these various projects, showing their imbrication in governmental initiatives, it is unclear how Métis encountered this work. Missing are the micro-sites in which individuals and communities encounter social scientists and their research so that we might observe the process of dialogical identity reformation. To be fair, this may be an inevitable drawback to a book this expansive in scope. That being said, the reader is left wondering how Métis people responded to this legacy of applied entextualization.[6] At least in this section of the book, the “dynamic” component of this history of nominalist construction is more assumed than explicated.

While the focus of the book is obviously Métis history and identity, themes of ethnogenesis, racialization, nationalism, and political recognition move From New Peoples to New Nations into conversation with other of fields of inquiry. Those working in Native North American studies and the history and sociology of nationalism are likely to find Ens and Sawchuk’s framing and synthesizing of Métis identity formation to be a useful case study. As noted above, historians of science may also find the text suitable for expanding the investigative purview of the history of the applied social sciences. Tracing the intricate and layered process by which new peoples become new nations within politically, economically, and symbolically charged matrices, Ens and Sawchuk have contributed a theoretically and empirically bountiful text that one hopes will generate discussions within and outside of Métis studies.

[1] Jonathan D. Hill, ed., History, Power, and Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Americas, 1492-1992 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996).

[2] For examples of recent uses of explicitly constructionist and ethnosymbolic frameworks in Native North American Studies see David W. Dinwoodie, “‘He Expects We Would Be Off from His Lands’: Reported Speech-Events in Tsilhqut’in Contact History,” Anthropological Linguistics 49, no. 1 (2007): 1–26.; Andrew H. Fisher, Shadow Tribe: The Making of Columbia River Indian Identity (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010); Alexandra Harmon, Indians in the Making: Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities around Puget Sound (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Nicole St-Onge, “Familial Foes?: French-Sioux Families and Plains Métis Brigades in the Nineteenth Century,American Indian Quarterly 39 (2015): 302–337.

[3] Ian Hacking, Historical Ontology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).

[4] Anthony D. Smith, Ethno-Symbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approach (New York: Routledge, 2009).

[5] John Hutchinson, The Dynamics of Cultural Nationalism: The Gaelic Revival and the Creation of the Irish Nation State (London and Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1987).

[6] I follow Greg Urban’s characterization of entextualization as “the process of rendering a given instance of discourse a text, detachable from its local context.” Greg Urban, “Entextualization, Replication, and Power,” in Natural Histories of Discourse, ed. Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 21.

Nicholas Barron: contributions / website /