The study of Métis art is complicated because their art style influenced Indian artisans all over North America. The Métis put their stamp on the art of practically every tribal group of the Northern Plains and the Northwest Territories. Many museums today have huge collections of Aboriginal art, but most of those created by the Métis are not marked as distinctly Métis. It is a tragedy that most of these items are catalogued as belonging to their owners; who usually were the last individual to trade the goods. So many artifacts are marked as Woodland Cree or Plains Cree or Assiniboine and the Métis name can hardly ever be found. As well, a huge number have simply been marked as ‘from the fur trade’. As a result, it is easier to define what is not a Métis artifact than isolating one that is. Items of Métis origin have been neglected in Canadian galleries, museums, art centres, and other cultural institutions. Métis handmade furniture has usually been attributed to pioneers.
Floral designs on articles made by the Indigenous people of the Northern forests were once thought to be traditional historic native motifs. However, such patterns are seldom seem on items made before 1700 and are never present in prehistoric native art expressions. Métis flower bead work is distinct. It represents European flowers in a composition that is reminiscent of colonial folk art.
Many Métis women learned embroidery skills through the French Grey Nuns who had arrived in the new world and taught them as children. The floral silk embroidery of these nuns were the inspiration for the development of Métis flower bead work. Roman Catholic mission schools were the main source of these French embroidery patterns. Utilizing the brilliant colour scheme of early quill work and bilaterally symmetrical floral designs, Métis art conveys a sparkling delicacy. These women incorporated these floral designs into the traditional porcupine quill work. Métis women had closer access to European fashions and trade goods, so by combining European styles with new world products they created a beading style unique to Métis people.
Métis women crafted fur trade seed beads, llama and silk threads into amazing works of art that they applied to the clothing of their families. This art work was so distinct that Europeans and other Aboriginal people (in particular the Dakota) call the Métis “The Flower Bead Work People” -- a testimony to the visual impression created by their art form. These works of art were highly prized as trade goods by the fur companies and found their way across North America and back to Europe.
Small glass beads and stroud became available as trade goods at approximately the same time as silk thread. Flower bead work on black or dark blue cloth trimmed with silk ribbons was popular for jackets, leggings, bags and other articles of clothing. In this art form, fine quills were dyed with natural and later commercial pigments, folded in a flat “braid” and stitched with sinew.
The lower Red River region became the culture centre of the Métis after their release by the fur trading companies, although considerable numbers of them could be found near every trading post in North America. In long trains of squeaking Red River Carts, the Métis set out on their annual expeditions, hunting buffalo and trading with the Indians and Whites. Among the Whites were an ever increasing number of British and American tourists, artists, and sport hunters eager to acquire souvenirs of the Wild West.
The Red River Métis specialized in the manufacture of colourfully ornamented horse gear and fancy “western” garments: such as coats, moccasins and a variety of bags and pouches. These items were purchased by the Indians, who sold them to eager White travellers (as the Whites preferred to acquire these items from real Indians) and other Indian Nations. As a result, most Métis art preserved in museums today is mistakenly identified as originating from various Indian tribes and their Métis origin is rarely recognized.
Métis women crafted many types of pouches, bags and carry-alls from hide and trade cloth. Each bag was decorated with flower bead work and in many instances the patterns of the bead work belonged to an individual family. Métis women tended to make their own garments out of black trade cloth in a simple, unadorned style; saving their beading skills to enhance their husband’s clothing and their household items. The flamboyant Métis men were an ideal canvas for the embroidery and bead work of their women.
At the very least Métis people need to be acknowledged for their impact on Aboriginal art. The ideal of course would be to have their artefacts and art work returned to them, or again at the least, acknowledged by the many museums, art centres, and government agencies, holding the pieces as being from the Métis Nation.