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A Comparative Analysis of the Mtis and Romani

Since the failed 1885 Resistance effort in Saskatchewan, Mtis people have been the perfect

Other for both Canadians and First Nations. The former view the Mtis as the antithesis of the

bounded nation-state, mobile mongrels who stood in the way of Canadian progress with their

zealot leader Louis Riel. While the latter envision the Mtis as the illegitimate bastard offspring

of over four centuries of lopsided business interactionsthe fur tradewith the white-man,

which left them landless and marginalized on Indian reserves. Likewise, Europes internal

Other, the Romani, have been vilified by Europeans for close to a thousand years for their

transient ways and their participation in the underground economy and, just like the Mtis,

they are seen as a serious impediment to modern nation-state building projects. It should be

known, the Romani and the Mtis are both very diverse peoples who, because of their mobility

and status as insider aliens, have been homogenized into legible, governable ethnicities by

majority populations hence the common assumption that they are analogous. Notwithstanding,

the Romani and Mtis collective groups are very similar to each other in terms of the ethnic

niche they occupy and can be seen as such in three ways. One, the Roma and Mtis both have a

long history of mobility that defines how they see themselves. Two, the Roma and Mtis employ

dance and music to construct identity and foster solidarity. Three, both have been have been

persecuted and marginalized by nation-states. Together these criteria help us understand that

Mtis and Romani people although continents apart are in fact quite similar to each other.

The first way we can see that the Roma and the Mtis collective groups occupy a similar

ethnic niche is by their histories of mobility which defines how they see themselves. To start,

shortly after the French landed in 1608 in North America and established the colony of New

France, Indigenous women and French fur traders began procreating in an effort to better exploit

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the rich fur lands around the Great Lakes.1 Their Mtissage (Mtis) offspring would be known as

bois brule or chicot (which means burnt wood because of the colour of their skin) or Les Michif

(after 1780), and they would later speak an in-group language comprised of Cree verbs and

French nouns, also called Michif.2 Note, most early proto-Mtis at this time were polyglot

linguists working as traders, translators, diplomats, or mediators.3 A similar proto-Mtis

ethnogensis began farther north when the English King Charles II in 1670 issued a fur trading

monopoly to The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay

(HBC) which proclaimed all lands draining into Hudson Bay, Ruperts Land, open to the

companys exclusive enterprise.4 Ruperts Land was a huge swath of land one and a half million

square miles in area that covered most of north-western continental North America.5 The

children from the northern Orkney Scot/English and Cree/Montagnais/Anishnabee interbreeding

were called Half-Breeds or Country Born Mtis who spoke Bungee, a pidgin language comprised

of English, Gaelic, and Algonquian languages.6 After 1670, fur-trade rivalry increasingly raged

across North America, peaking between the years 1788-1821, during which time it became

extremely advantageous for incoming Euro-males to marry Indigenous women a la facon du

paysin the custom of the country, without church sanction.7 European miscegenation with

Indigenous women was spurred on primarily by the logic that the closer ones kin-ties were to

the Indigenous landscape and social networks the farther ones fur trade networks extended, and

1
Jennifer Brown, Strangers in Blood, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1980): 6-9.
2
Peter Bakker, Ethnogenesis, Language, and Identity, in Contours of a People, eds. Brenda Macdougall, Nicole
St-Onge, and Carolyn Podruchny. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012): 182.
3
Brown, 6-9.
4
Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-1870 (Winnipeg: J.
Gordon Shillingford Publishing, 1980): 19-21.
5
Ibid.
6
Bakker, 182.
7
Van Kirk, 36.

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the more secure ones profit margins.8 Also, traders who did not marry-in had little chance of

surviving the harsh interior of North America.9 As such, generations of Mtis offspring were

born, grew up, and died traversing the vast river networks and portage routes of North America

becoming the undisputed masters of river and canoe.10 Johan George Kohl, a German travel

writer in 1850, captures the words of a young courier de bois accustom to a life travel:

Where can I stay? I cannot tell you. I am a voyageurI am a chicot. My Grandfather was a voyageurhe
died during a trip. My father was a voyageurhe died during a trip. I will also die on a trip and another
chicot will take my place. Such is our course of life.

Indeed, as generations of Mtis voyageurs pressed inland hunting grounds subsequently became

depleted pushing the fur trade ever northwest into the El Dorado of Furthe Athabasca

making long-distance commerce and provisioning increasingly difficult.11 Canoe and portage

routes at their greatest extent stretched from Montreal, Quebec, in the east to the mouth of the

McKenzie River in the far north of the Canadian arctic: a distance of some 4339 kilometers!12

The solution to feeding the Athabasca canoe brigades, impossible to reach in one canoe season

from Montreal, was through a transfer station at Fort Frances, Lake Superior, where hivernants

(wintering partners who lived in the Athabasca) would unload furs headed to European markets

in exchange for pemmican provisions provided by bison hunting.13

Around 1800-16 many Mtis began mobile bison hunting on the prairie, a natural and

profitable extension to their already transient economic history.14 During the 19th century

seasonal caravans of Red River Carts driven by Mtis freighters departed from Winnipeg onto

8
Van Kirk, 37.
9
Ibid.
10
Olive Patricia Dickason, and William Newbigging, A Concise History of Canadas First Nations: Second Edition.
(Toronto: Oxford Press, 2010): 177.
11
Arthur Ray, Indians in the Fur Trade: Their Roles as Trappers, Hunters, and Middlemen in the Lands Southwest
of Hudsons Bay, 1660-1870, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1941): 56-59.
12
Bill Nelson, Contours of a People, xxxii.
13
Victor P. Lytwyn, In the Shadows of the Honorable Company: Nicolas Chatelain and the Mtis of Fort Frances,
in Contours of a People: 195-97.
14
Dickason, 177-78.

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the Great Plains following the wide seasonal oscillations and retractions of the bison herdsthe

bisons range before the 1880s covered the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and

parts of British Columbia; and the American states of Montana, Minnesota, North/South Dakota,

Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Illinois, and Missouri, a vast territory that covered one third of North

America.15 Mtis pemmican freighting reached its height between the years 1830-1869the

golden years of Mtis society.16 St-Onge, Podruchny, and Macdougall note that because of the

Mtis aforementioned deep history of mobilitycanoe and cartMtis corporate identityla

Nationcrystallized into a self-identity [centred] on mobilizationnot rooted to any

particular placeMtis [came to] think of themselves as part of a far-flung network of

commercewith a distinct view of the world as a vast, mobile, interconnected territory.17

Similarly, Romani have also had a long history of mobility that defines who they are thus

revealing that they occupy a similar ethnic niche as the Mtis of North America. The Balkan and

Macedonian Romani, along with almost all other Roma according to Carol Silverman, view

themselves as a mobile diaspora linked together in a giant web of interconnected relationships

that stretches across countries.18 Often Romani will travel thousands of kilometers per year to

work, visit family, or see friends.19 Romani long-distance travelling from Macedonia and the

Balkans to various parts of Western and Eastern Europe and Africa and back is not uncommon

for the Indian-descended Roma whose mobile history covers close to a thousand years.20

Scholars Kabachnik and Ryder also note a similar mobile heritage exists among the Romanichal

English, and the Welsh and Scottish Gypsies who are thought to have migrated to the British

15
Nelson, xxxii, in Contours of a People.
16
Nicole St-Onge and Carolyn Podruchny, Scuttling Along a Spiders Web, in Contours of a People: 60-62
17
Ibid.
18
Carol Silverman, Romani Routes, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012): 41.
19
Carol Silverman, Romani Routes, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012): 41.
20
Silverman, 39.

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Isles as part of the original Indian diaspora, arriving in Scotland in 1505 and England in 1514.21

Labeled nomads by the Anglo Saxon majority for over four centuries, ethnic Romani within

Great Britain have been subject to ever-restrictive laws that try to hamper their mobile lifestyle

through legal classification.22 Kabachnik and Ryder state that British zoning officials legally

classify Roma by the distance they travel, their ethnic background or point of origin, their

profession, and their participation in regional economiesall in an attempt to curb the

movements of Britains long-time transient Others.23 Furthermore, Jan Grill shows that apart

from the traditional island bound Romanichal English, and the Welsh and Scottish Gypsies,

Britain also receives migrant population of Romani from the Czech Republic and Slovakia who

come in search of worka phenomenon known among Czech and Slovak Romani as dzan

opregoing up.24 Going up is in reference to the upward social mobility Eastern European

Romani feel they attain by moving to Britain. 25

Likewise, Martin Olivera confirms a highly mobile culture among the Gabori Romani of

the Maros and Szekler regions in Transylvania, who have been moving between Romanian

districts for centuries along an interconnected web of caravan routes and node gathering stops in

search of work.26 Olivera details the fluid and ancient movement of Gabori life in Transylvania

in a Romani informants words:

Only God knows for how many years our neam has lived in Szekler territory. All together with our families,
going through the villages looking for workBut at one time, families increased and we could not find work.
Then our leader gave the order to put children and luggage in carts and to go around the world!All this is

21
Peter Kabachnik and Andrew Ryder, Nomadism and the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act: Constraining Gypsy
and Traveller Mobilities in Britain, in Romani Studies, Vol. 23, 1 (June 2013): 87.
22
Kabachnik and Ryder, 88.
23
Ibid.
24
Jan Grill, Going up to England: Exploring Mobilities among Roma from Eastern Slovakia, in Journal of
Ethnic and Migration Studies 38, 8 (September, 2012): 1270.
25
Ibid.
26
Martin Olivera, The Gypsies as indigenous groups: The Gabori Roma case in Romania, in Romani Studies, Vol.
22, 1 (June 2012): 30.

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what my grandmother told me, but she said she had heard it from her own grandmother as something that
happened when her great-grandmother was a girl.27

So long have Gabori been mobile in Transylvania that sedentary agrarian Romaniansthe

majority populationhave forgotten who lived in Romania first. Olivera illustrates the

Romanian cultural amnesia: [The Gabor Romani] arebetter anchored [to this] territory

[Transylvania] and its history than the people around them [Romanian] but do not have control

nor are they recognized as indigenes of the Maros and Szekler regions because they are

constantly on the move.28 Lastly, Tony Gatlifs 1993 film Latcho Drom (Romani for Safe

Journey) chronicles the storied history of the Roma diaspora from its origins with the

Rajasthan Gypsies of India, through to the Ghawazi of Egypt, up through Eastern and Western

Romani populations in Europe, and ending with the Gitanos of Spainan epic journey that

covers some 5200 miles.29 The Balkan and Macedonian Romani; the Romanichal English, and

the Welsh and Scottish Gypsies; the Gabori Romani; the Czech and Slovakian Romani; the

Rajasthan Gypsies, Ghawazi, and the Spanish Gitanos all have a common history of mobility

that has come to define how they see themselves writ large.30 Silverman breaks down how

constant migration over centuries has forged the Romanis self-perception as a transnational

diaspora: Migration has become a way of life for the RomaAs migration grew in prevalence

within [their] communities it change[d] values and cultural perceptions in ways that increase[d]

the [Romas] probability of future migration. Migration [became] deeply ingrained into the

repertoire of [Roma] behavior, and values associated with migration [became] part of the [Roma]

communities values.31 Ergo, although living continents apart, it is through a common but

27
Zriynyi, Iren Rromii Gabori, in Alexandrescu, G. ed. traditii ale rromilor din spaiul romnesc. Organizaia
Salvai Copii. (Bucharest: 2004) 4054. in Martin Olivera, 30.
28
Martin Olivera, 20.
29
Tony Gatlif, Latcho Drom, (Paris, 1993).
30
Silverman, 40.
31
Silverman, 40.

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separate history of mobility and a self-identification as people on the move that both the Mtis

and the Romani can be seen to occupy a similar ethnic niche. It is little wonder when one seeks a

visual symbol to best represent both peoples one finds that caravan wagonsthe material

embodiment of mobilityare the prime image: the Vardo Wagon for the Romani and the Red

River Cart for the Mtis.32

The second way we can see that Romani and Mtis collective groups occupy a similar

ethnic niche although continents away is how both employ dance and music to construct identity

and foster group solidarity. The Mtis Fiddle and the Red River Jig represent to many Mtis the

cultural cornerstones of Michif identity.33 Indeed, half-breed ballslarge dancehall celebrations

that bring together networks of extended Mtis kin for a night of music, dance, and songhave

been a part of Mtis life for centuries.34 Musicologist Lynn Whidden defines the central role

music has had in the historical construction of Mtis identity with her short but sweet analysis:

The Mtis [have always] used music as their primary form of expression.35 Adding more depth

to the pivotal roles music and dance play in the construction of Mtis identity, Whidden, Hourie,

and Barkwell note: Dancing is a favorite form of entertainment for the Mtis. Their

communities are close-knit, and dances are one means by which people come together to

maintain solidarity and kin and friendship ties. Dancing and music are inextricably intertwined in

Mtis culture.36 The historical roots of Mtis fiddling and jigging, according to orthodox

32
Vardo image taken from cover of T. A. Acton, Romani Culture and Gypsy Identity, ed. Thomas Acton and Gary
Mundy. (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire, 1997) & Red River Cart image taken from NDSU Archives, Fargo,
North Dakota: Its History and Images, Regional Studies at North Dakota State University. Web. (Date accessed:
April 3, 2014): http://library.ndsu.edu/fargo-history/.
33
Lynn Whidden, Mtis Music, In Mtis Legacy, ed. Lawrence J. Barkwell, Leah Dorion and Darren R.
Prefontaine (Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications Inc., 2001), 169.
34
Ibid.
35
Ibid., 175.
36
Lawrence Barkwell, Audreen Hourie, and Lynn Widden, Mtis Music and Dance, in Mtis Legacy Volume II:
Michif Culture, Heritage, and Folkways. (Saskatoon: Gabriel Dumont Institute and Pemmican Publications, 2006),
167.

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scholars, are found in the fur trade and are believed to have been imported to North America

through male French Canadian and Orkney Scot traders, although both contain hints of Irish

influence.37 Moreover, American Hillbilly and Deep South Bluegrass are also counted as lesser

influences to Mtis fiddle music and dance being incorporated, so musicologists believe, during

the height of the fur trade1788-1840.38 Extended melodic Aboriginal song verse is also a

major influence on Mtis fiddling and jigging as detailed by Widden: Clearly, [Mtis] fiddle

music is heavily influenced by Native songs.Fiddle music is a blended, syncretic form of

Native and European music elements.39 The rigorous off-beat double-step string rhythm of

Mtis fiddling combined with the repetitive use of lengthy Indigenous style song phrase create a

natural bounce, or jig, that is completely unique to Mtis music and dance.40 Verne Dunsenberry

believes, however, and contrary to popular scholarly debate, that Mtis dancejiggingis more

Indigenous than French or English/Scotch/Irish, he notes: The Mtis had inherited the Indians

love of the dance. But, instead of using the dance [jigging] as a medium of religious expression,

the Mtis danced for sheer pleasure.41 Supporting Dunsenberrys suspicions of the mainly

Indigenous roots of Mtis jigging is the Smoke Dance or Earth Dance (Ohwejagehke

Hadegaenage) of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), the Anishnabek (Ojibway) practice a similar

dance, wherein participants rapidly jig their feet as low to the ground as possible out of respect

for mother earth whom they symbolically honour through close rhythmic connection to the

37
Ibid.
38
Widden, Mtis Music, In Mtis Legacy, 169
39
Ibid.
40
Ibid.
41
Verne Dusenbury, The Dispossessed Mtis of Montana, in The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Mtis in
North America, ed. Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S. H. Brown (Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press,
1985), 121.

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earth.42 Whitefield-Madrano offers an alternative origin to the Smoke Dance, and by

consequence jigging, citing that the former may actually have its origins in the structure of the

longhouse itself, serving the utilitarian purpose of creating an up-draft with quick footwork to

drive fire smoke up through vents in the structures roof.43 Quantifying the steps of Mtis jigging

as more parts French/Scottish/English/Irish than Haudenosaunee/Anishnabek/Cree/Sioux is

however a futile endeavour as jigging merged, just like the Mtis themselves, into one syncretic

phenomenon long ago.44 Mtis jigs like La Danse du Crochet or Hook Dance, Li Danse de

Kenard or Duck Dance, Danse de Mouchouaire or Handkerchief Dance, and Nahpatchi-

ahpinkawin (the Native moonwalk which existed centuries before Michael Jackson), La

Quadrille or Quadrille, Li Danse Dilev or the Rabbit Dance, Strasthspey, and The Red River Jig

are all a unified mixture of Euro-Indigenous dance styles wholly complete to themselves and all

are common within Mtis communities.45 Mtis dances do, however, vary regionally; a footstep

different here, and a back-jig different there, a two-step hop to the right here, and a foot and a

roundabout jig there, identify to Mtis what territory you come from, what racial mixture of

Mtis you are, anda long time agowho your family was; sometimes even revealing what

town or village you come from.46 Mtis song and dance, then, is a regional marker of identity

that helps Michif differentiate each other, which also allows them to celebrate or compete

communally.47 Contemporary Mtis fiddler Robert St-Georges illustrates how music and dance

allowed Mtis to construct identity and foster solidarity:

42
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, The Origins of the Smoke Dance, in Indian Country, New York: Today Media
Network.com. Web. (Date Accessed: April 4, 2014)
http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/08/12/origins-smoke-dance-45759
43
Whitefield-Madrano.
44
Lawrence Barkwell, Audreen Hourie, and Lynn Widden, 167.
45
Ibid., 170.
46
Ibid., 167.
47
Whidden, 170-72.

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With the Mtisthey took the folk airs from France [Ireland/Scotland/US] of the time and the Native airs
and they amalgamated their rhythm and they made Mtis music out of it. Thats what it made. And through
this music they were capable, or it permitted them to keep solid community links. Music and culture,
particularly for the Mtis, they really understood that its an anchor, an anchoring place of their culture. And
for the Mtis much more than for the whites, well for the French or the English, or even for the Indians. The
music they have preserved, Mtis music keeps them together.48

Perhaps no other song better embodies Mtis identity and solidarity better than Pierriche

Falcons song about the 1816 Battle of Seven Oaks wherein Mtis NorWesters led by Cuthbert

Grant defeated Lord Semple and the HBC, thus securing the Red River settlement as the free

homeland of the Michif until 1869.49 Even today when the song is played at half-breed balls or at

outdoor gatherings such as Back to Batoche or National Aboriginal Day, Mtis will join together

in unison, jigging and singing as one corporate peoplela Nation.50

Likewise, song and dance holds a special place in Romani identity construction and

group solidarity, again showing that the Roma occupy a similar ethnic niche as the Mtis. Kai

berg details that the Romany Kale of Finland use music and dance for social interaction,

internal elevation of status, and group solidarity.51 berg describes how Kale always play

traditional folk songs amongst themselves in Romani, whilst they universally sing to outsiders in

Finnisha clear indication of an us and them corporate identity among the Kale.52 As such, it

is almost unheard of for an outsider Finn to hear a Kale song in Romani.53 Moreover, as

professional singers who can potentially earn large amounts of money, Kale musiciansif they

are goodcan support their kin and elevate their social status to good providers within the

48
Annette Chrtien, Fresh Tracks in Dead Air: Mediating Contemporary Mtis Identities through Music and
Storytelling, Dissertation for the Degree of Philosophy, Department of Music. York University. Web. (December,
2005): 198. http://www.ontarioMtis.ca/Annette%20Diss%20-
%20FRESH%20TRACKS%20IN%20DEAD%20AIR.pdf
49
Lawrence Barkwell, Audreen Hourie, and Lynn Widden, 175.
50
Paul L. A. H. Chartrand, Our Mtis National Anthem: The Michif Version, (Saskatchewan: Gabriel Dumont
Institute, 2008), 5.
51
Kai berg, The Traditional Songs of the Finnish Romany: Silent Tradition, in Romani Studies 5, vol. 18, no. 1
(2008), 71.
52
berg, 72.
53
Ibid.

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Roma community.54 What is more, since Romany Kale is a highly coded dialect that excludes

outsiders, the better versed a Kale singer is in traditional Roma songs the higher ones position

within the community, as only the most respected performers are allowed to know the full

gambit of Kale songs.55 Just like their Nordic Kale cousins, the Parakalamos Yifti and the Vlachi

Romani, who live along the Greek-Albanian border in the northwest Greek province of Ioannina,

are known as natural musicians and dancers to majority outsiders.56 Theodosiou notes through

an informants words the outsider perception of Romani as natural musicians: The Gypsies

[Yifti and the Vlachi] were like the rest of the people of the village, except they had a different

language, as many others in the area anywayand they all tended to be musicians; music was

in their blood after all.57 Outsider Greek and Turkish perceptions of the Yifti and Vlachi as

born musicians has over two centuries taken Roma away from their traditional vocations of

blacksmithing and tin metallurgythe money, it seems, is much better in singing and dancing.58

It should be known that music has always been a pillar of the Yifti and Vlachi historic identity;

however, it was in compliment to blacksmithing and tin work, never the main marker of identity

as it has become.59 As such, Theodosiou notes that in 2001 Yifti and Vlachi group and individual

identity focused primarily on well-tended housescleanliness and good food, easy life and

prominent musicianship.60

Perhaps the most recognizable of the Romani minstrels and dancers are the Gitanos of the

Iberian Peninsula who cannot be envisioned by outsiders without Spanish guitars, castanets,

54
berg, 72.
55
Ibid., 84.
56
Aspasia Theodosiou, Be-longing in a doubly occupied place: The Parakalamos Gypsy musician, in Romani
Studies 5, vol. 14, no. 2 (2003), 28.
57
Theodosiou, 32
58
Ibid., 28.
59
Ibid.
60
Ibid., 31.

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clapping hands, and flamenco dancers with impassioned faces and stomping heels.61 Although

appropriated by Spain and sold as their national dance during the Franco era, flamenco music

and dance originally represented the cry of pain of persecuted Andalusian Casero Gitanos.62

The Gitanos first arrived in Spain via France during the 15th century and immediately faced

Inquisitional intolerance, popular resentment and violence, as well as brutal repression from

Christians and Muslims who viewed them as alien beggars and criminals.63 Excluded from all

aspects of mainstream Spanish commerce, and society, Casero Gitanos in the provinces of

Seville and Cadiz turned to black-market activitiesbegging, thieving, street singing, and

dancingto survive, and by the early 1700s flamenco had emerged as their national heritage.64

The song El Pjaro Negro from Gatlifs film Latcho Drom captures the Gitanos long

historiography of Spanish persecution:

You, youre a stork


Who has landed on Earth.
Me, Im a black bird who has taken flight.

Why does your wicked mouth spit on me?


What harm is it to you
That my skin is dark
And my hair gypsy black? (2X)

From Isabelle the Catholic


From Hitler to Franco
We have been the victims
of their wars.

Some evenings, some evenings


Like many other evenings
Some evenings I find myself envying
The respect that you give to your dog.

Why does your wicked mouth spit on me?


What harm is it to you

61
Peter Manuel, Andalusian, Gypsy, and Class Identity in the Contemporary Flamenco Complex, in
Ethnomusicology, vol. 33, no. 1 (Winter, 1989), 48.
62
Ibid.
63
Ibid.
64
Ibid.

12
That my skin is dark
And my hair gypsy black? (2X)65

The flamenco among Gitanos, then, is an insider ode to centuries of pain and resiliency against

Spanish crueltyit is definitely not the sterilized national dance of Spain as Franco would have

us believe.66 The force of the guitar strum, the expression on a flamenco dancers face, the

mournful cry of the singer, and the short powerful bursts of the dancers footwork all reveal to

insider Romani who is one of them and who is not, who has really suffered and who is just

pretending.67 Thus, it is through music and dance that Casero Gitanos reaffirm their historic

identity and build contemporary solidarity among kin.68 The Romany Kale of Finland, the Yifti

and Vlachi along the Greek-Albanian border, and the Casero Gitanos of Andalusia, Spain, all

use dance and music as a way to understand themselves and to forge group solidarity and in

doing so occupy a similar ethic niche to the Mtis.

The last way Romani and Mtis share a similar ethnic niche is how both have been

persecuted and marginalized by nation-states. Heather Devine in her genealogical historiography

of the Desjarlais family highlights a fiercely independent spirit among the Mtis underscored by

their high esteem for liberty.69 In fact the title of her book, The People Who Own Themselves or

Otipemisiwak in Michif/Cree, is in reference to the Mtis historical reverence for freedom.70

Throughout the fur trade Mtis engages (labourers) had the option of renewing their

HBC/Northwest Fur Company (NWCo) work contracts after their service term ended, or they

could go free.71 Those les hommes libres (free men) who left service usually set up

65
Gatlif, El Pjaro Negro. Final scene.
66
Manuel, 48
67
Ibid.
68
Ibid.
69
Heather Devine, The People Who Own Themselves: Aboriginal Ethnogenesis in a Canadian Family, 1660-1900,
(Calgary: Calgary University Press, 2004), xvii.
70
Ibid., 53-57.
71
Devine., 53-57.

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independent fur trading posts or hunted buffalo with their indigenous kinmany chose to

leave.72 As generations passed, freeman offspring began intermarrying and procreating, thus true

Mtis ethnogenisis occurred and a new multicultural society was born, one predicated on

freedom and commerce.73 The main Mtis settlement was located at the forks of the Assiniboine

and Red Rivers where present-day Winnipeg is, known then as the Red River Settlement (RRS

lasted from 1816 until 1869).74 In 1869, after two centuries of fur trading, the HBC sold Ruperts

Land to the Dominion of Canada without any consultation from the Mtis.75 Resenting the fact

that their treasured freedom had been taken away without their approval, the Mtis rose up

against Canada and won the 1869 Red River Rebellion under the leadership of Louis Riel.76 After

a series of negotiations the Mtis agreed to enter Confederation with Canada, but through a

succession of broken government promises eventually lost their Red River homeland to

Canadian settlers and were forced west into Saskatchewan.77 At Batoche, Saskatchewan, in 1885,

the Mtis would again take up arms to defend their freedom against the ever-expanding nation-

state of Canada; however, they were not successful and suffered a crushing defeat.78 Afterwards,

Canada actively scattered Mtis communities and kin groups so they could never again band

together to challenge the Canadian nation-state project.79 The years 1885-1980 are known

amongst Mtis people as the Dark Period, it was a time when Canada systematically

persecuted the Mtis, barring them from property ownership, excluding them from work (save

72
Devine., 92.
73
Ibid.,12.
74
Nelson, xxxii.
75
Neil McLeod, Cree Narrative Memory: From Treaties to Contemporary Times, (Saskatoon: Purich Publishing
Limited, 2007), 35.
76
Olive Patricia Dickason, and William Newbigging, A Concise History of Canadas First Nations: Second Edition.
(Toronto: Oxford Press, 2010), 177-78.
77
Ibid., 218.
78
Lawrence J. Barkwell, Veterans and Families of the Northwest Resistance, (Saskatoon: Gabriel Dumont Institute,
2011): 1.
79
Dickason, and Newbigging, 218.

14
the lowest labour positions), restricted them from borrowing money, had their Indian Treaty

rights revoked, and forced them to live on the side of the road/railroads in ditches (settlements

known as Road Allowances).80 Note, Road Allowances were/are ribbons of public land ten feet

on either side of highways where Mtis were made to live by law and circumstanceRoad

Allowances Mtis were forced to move from place to place where work or persecution took

them.81 Canadian officials even went so far as to round Mtis people up during the 1940s, under

the leadership of Tommy Douglass Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF)

government, and put them on experimental farms (forced labour camps).82 Canadian

scholarship has yet to write about CCF labour camps but oral accounts from Mtis Elders do

exist; at present it is an emerging historiographical field. South of the 49th-parallel Mtis faced a

similar if not worse persecution by Americans.83 US Mtis communities, seen as a threat to

American territorial claims because of their high mobility and cross border tendencies, scholar

Michel Hogue best articulates this phenomenon, were cast out from both Euro-settler and

Indian society, being forced to relocate numerous times between the years 1860-1910.84 On

many occasions during this epoch their homes were set ablaze, torn down, or violently invaded

by US/immigrant settlers; moreover, the whole category of Mtis has been systematically

obliterated from American popular and legal consciousnessa mute testament to the USs

persecution of the Mtis.85 Because of the concurrent US and Canadian nation-building projects

during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, Mtis north and south of the border were forced

underground, becoming known as serial drifters, vagabonds, criminals, and garbage people

80
Maria Campbell, Halfbreed, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1973), 7-12.
81
Ibid.
82
Personal communications, Nicholas Vrooman, outside the remains of a forced labour camp near Lebret,
Saskatchewan, June 19, 2013; and Maria Campbell, St. Louis, Saskatchewan, June 25, 2013.
83
Nicholas C. P. Vrooman, The Whole Country wasOne Robe: The Little Shell Tribes America, (Helena:
Little Shell Indians of Montana and Drumlummon Institute, 2012), 163.
84
Ibid.
85
Ibid.

15
who were often found rummaging through refuse dumps or living on the outskirts of cities and

towns.86 Mtis Historian Brenda Macdougall compares the Mtis plight at this time to the

Romani: The Romani (Gypsies) have likewise had history of mobility and sociocultural

exclusion from communities and nationswhich resulted in a violent persecution and

dislocation similar to [us].87

By looking at how European nation-states have treated Romani we can confirm

Macdougalls comparison and see that Roma are a persecuted and marginalized people just like

Mtis. To begin, the Rom Gypsies of Hungary are semi-sedentary farmers who are persecuted by

Gazo Mygarsthe latter deny landownership to the former because of the formers mobility.88

Mygars also justify excluding Rom Gypsies from land ownership citing that Roma are not

aboriginal to the soil, thus they have no right to Hungary.89 Exacerbating exclusion,

landlessness is seen by agrarian Gazo peasants as immoral which bars Rom Gypsies from

Mygar life based on the assumption that Rom are lazy, unproductive, and deviant.90 Lumped

together with Jewish people, the Gazo believe all Rom Gypsies are serial gamblers, horse

thieves, crooks, and sorcerers who steal, lie, and bewitch cattle to sour milk.91 Consequently,

Rom Gypsies are not considered real citizens of the nation-state of Hungary, nor do they have

equal access to village or state services and resourcesthey remain marginalized foreigners

despite the fact that they have lived in Hungary for over five centuries.92 In the summer of 1993

a Czech politician echoed the Hungarian Mygar distain for dirty Gypsies on Czech national

television: Gypsies are a problem, because most of them are criminals who are getting rich

86
Personal communications, Nicholas Vrooman, in the Qu'appelle Valley, Sask. June 17, 2013.
87
Brenda Macdougall, Introduction, in Contours of a People, eds. Brenda Macdougall, Nicole St-Onge, and
Carolyn Podruchny. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012): 13.
88
Michael Stewart, The Time of the Gypsies, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997), 119.
89
Ibid.
90
Ibid.
91
Ibid.
92
Ibid.

16
through thievery and prostitution.93 These words, captured right after the fall of Czech

communism, showcase Bohemian and Slovakian racism towards Romani that has only grown

since the collapse of the U.S.S.R.94 Historian David Crowe grimly confirms these rising racist

sentiments: These feelings were also expressed in several public opinion surveys conducted

before and after the breakup of Czechoslovakia [and] showed an almost universal hatred towards

Gypsies, particularly among young Czechs and Slovaks.95 The mayor of the Slovak town of

Medzev, in his violent solution to the Romsk problem, confirms and elevates the Romani

hatred Crowe speaks of: Shoot them allIm not racistBut some Gypsies you would have to

shoot.96 Unfortunately, the consensus across Eastern and Western Europe is that Romani are

not moral, productive, or natural citizens which effectively excludes them from most aspects of

economic and civic life across the EU.97 Although it may be true that many Romani partake in

the underground economy and engage in criminal behaviour in Europe, Crowe asserts it is only

because they face such extreme discrimination and bleak employment opportunities; the

problem, he notes, is not Romani immorality but European racism.98

Possibly the most horrific example of Romani prejudice and persecution by the nation-

state was perpetrated by Nazi Germany where between the years 1941-45, 500 000 Roma were

exterminated in an effort to cleanse the Fatherland and its Protectorates of racial vermin.99

Sadly, Romani maltreatment by the nation-state did not end after WWII; rather, it took on a less

violent but equally destructive face as the U.S.S.R and its satellites decided to showcase their

communist social engineering powers, reforming Romani society through a directed policy of

93
David Crowe, A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 66.
94
Crowe., 64.
95
Ibid.
96
Ibid.
97
Ibid.
98
Ibid.
99
Stewart, 5.

17
social and cultural assimilation.100 The U.S.S.Rs end goal was, deplorably, the same as Hitlers

Germanyto eradicate the Gypsiesand unfortunately, in parts of Russia and the Ukraine,

they achieved their goal.101 Silverman compares Romani and Indigenous North American (First

Nations/Inuit/Metis) persecution by the nation-state and shows how it created a similar ethnic

niche in both people: The project of Native American identity making was forged in the

crucible of genocide and displacement, similarly the project of Romani identity making was

forged during the centuries of discrimination and diaspora.102 We can thus see that the Romani

and Mtis are similar by way of nation-state persecution and marginalization.

In conclusion, despite the fact that the Romani and the Mtis are very diverse people and

traditionally live continents apart, they do still occupy a similar ethnic niche which is observable

through a three-part comparative analysis. One, the Roma and Mtis have been mobile

throughout their history and it is how they define themselves. Two, dance and music is employed

by Roma and Mtis to construct identity and create in-group solidarity. Three, both have been

historically persecuted and marginalized by nation-states. Lastly, for the purposes of this paper I

found the most obvious common characteristics among the Romani and Mtis collectives and

emphasized them and, as one might expect, there were many differences that clearly separated

the two peoples. Surprisingly, though, I did find more cultural resemblance between the two

ethnicities than I did divisions, with many historical references to the Mtis as prairie gypsies.

However, I found no similar comparison of Romani as Mtis. When I questioned Mtis Elders

about the commonality between Romani and Mtis I found that most believed that the Romani

were kindred cousins of Les Michif and they acted like it was common knowledge hardly worth

investigating. Notwithstanding, I am sure that as time passes and more Roma and Michif enter

100
Stewart, 5.
101
Ibid.
102
Silverman, 56.

18
university our parallel paths will cross and we will confirm what the elders already know: that

the Roma are also Otipemisiwak at hearta people who own themselvesjust like the Mtis.

19
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