MATERIAL CULTURE: MÉTIS FOLK HOME

Note: A similar version of this essay was published by SITE magazine in June 2017, titled “Towards an Architecture of Métis Resistence.” 

In 1986 an award-winning interpretive center opened at the Batoche Historical Site in Saskatchewan. A central intent of the design by renowned Winnipeg firm IKOY was to “interpret the history of the Metis settlement,” yet their decision to shape the main gallery of the industrial-looking building after the hexagonal section of a rifle barrel pointed directly, and intentionally, at the church, is as jarring as their as their description of the project. (1) The site, they wrote, “has come to symbolize the Metis’ last stand as united people, the end of their independence, and the eventual closing of the Canadian frontier.” (2) Not only did this explicitly ignore contemporary Métis political and cultural vibrancy in the area (for example, the area welcomes over 5000 people per day for the annual Back to Batoche Festival), the juxtaposition of the building confirms a complete disregard for its historical and material context. But is this surprising? What is Métis architecture beyond log cabin nostalgia anyways? What could possibly be unique about Métis buildings and what value would this have beyond historical? These kinds of questions are nearly expected given the current lack of information easily available. Yet the St. Laurent de Grandin region of Saskatchewan (which includes the Batoche National Historic Site) is one of many in the province, and throughout the country, that offer significant insights into distinctly Métis ways of building and living. While various other indigenous vernacular typologies are recognized and often referenced across the country (for example, the igloo, the teepee, the long house, the wigwam, etc.), there is little understanding of Métis customs related to buildings and infrastructure. Given that recreation halls, schools, housing projects, and various other structures already exist in various Métis communities with minimal – if any – cultural relevance, the pondering of this situation is essential for a couple of reasons. First, it allows architecture to be discussed and appreciated alongside other Métis cultural forms, and secondly, because it encourages Métis community members and leaders, as well as architects and builders, to better interrogate future proposals for their invested responses to a specifically Métis cultural context. As Henry Glassie writes, the study of vernacular architecture “seeks ways to use buildings as evidence in order to tell better versions of the human story,” and it is clear that the Métis narrative continues to unfold. Following the recent Daniels case that reaffirmed the Métis as “Indians” as per the Constitution Act, and amid ongoing debates about the very nature of Métis identity and registration across Canada, there is a significant opportunity for vernacular Métis buildings to contribute a chapter to this story, one directly linked to their unique sense of place and habitus.

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Visitor reception centre at Batoche National Historic Site – the last battlefield in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, Saskatchewan, Canada

Métis Vernacular

As evidenced by the approach to the above-mentioned interpretive centre, the recognition of the St. Laurent region as a hub for Métis culture in Canada is today often linked to the 1885 conflict with the Canadian government at Batoche, yet this is also one of the locations where the Métis most clearly exhibited a distinct ‘conceptual order’ of habitation according to archaeological research led by David Burley during the 1980s. Though originally interested in the shift to a more pastoral lifestyle that occurred in the region during the 1870s, when many Métis hunters and winterers established new agricultural homesteads, Burley’s research concluded that a Métis vernacular architecture existed with significant implications for understanding “the concepts by which Métis ethnicity can be defined and identified.” (4) As he writes,

The unconscious rules of Métis behaviour conform to a conceptual order that, in its basic structure, is reproduced in day-to-day activities and in the built environment. This structure is ‘holistic’, integrating continuity in the culture/nature relationship, an unbounded and asymmetric perception of space and overriding concerns with egalitarian principles of social organization and consensus. (5)

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Isometric drawing of a Folk Home of the St. Laurent Region.  (Drawing: Jason Surkan)

What is particularly unique about Burley’s research is that it recognizes that “traits and styles” inevitably shift with time but a spatial conceptual order that is “regulated by unconscious rules and principles” allows for wider interpretation and diachronic relevance. (6) Yet, while this holds immense promise for architectural investigation, another essential observation by Burley, that the Métis “had adopted a predominantly European material culture by the mid-1800s,” has arguably truncated subsequent studies into Métis material and tectonic distinctions. (7) Kenneth Frampton’s seminal essay establishing ‘critical regionalism’ as a polemical response to universalization in architecture cautioned against such assimilating ‘threats’ to local cultures, laying out six points to address this “conflict” and “withstand the relentless onslaught of global modernization.”(8) Given his provocation to forge a ‘resistance’ to cultural oppression in architecture, and that the Métis view the 1885 Batoche uprising as a ‘resistance’ to oppression rather than as a rebellion, as it has been commonly labeled, it is entirely appropriate that Burley’s research and any further material/tectonic distinctions be identified and discussed in an attempt to better understand the role of architecture in strengthening Métis cultural identity, both historically and in the current globalized context.

Egalitarianism

A central conclusion of Burley’s research was that the Métis have maintained an overriding emphasis on egalitarian principles of social organization and consensus that is reflected in many facets of life. Socially, it is illustrated best by the historical buffalo hunts that took place on the Great Plains during the 19th century, as this formed the foundation of Métis society during the period. Developed by the Métis, it structured their leadership, identity, and unity as a nation and was founded on an equal share of responsibilities and duties. Architecturally, this overarching emphasis on egalitarianism and social consensus was also present in the earliest Métis settlements. In the hivernant (wintering) camps, which were formed through kinship ties and necessary for winter survival, each family group had access to an unrestricted landscape within the camp; no concerns of hierarchy or social rank/status affected the spatial location of structures.

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Interior of a Métis Folk Home. (Drawing: Glenbow Archives)

Such a social structure was similarly seen in the spatial planning of the homesteads of the St. Laurent district as many Métis transitioned to an agricultural lifestyle. They saw value in the river lot system used at Red River (and ultimately the St. Lawrence in Quebec) because it allowed all community members equal access to both road and river. As Burley describes, “the narrowness of the lots allowed for kinship and social relations to be maintained…[while the] River lots were alike and this reinforced Métis concepts of egalitarianism.”(9) Furthermore, the houses carried this into the interiors with their open floor plans, also described by Burley: “The interior of the house is commensurate with a lack of boundedness … an environment in which Métis sense of communalism, consensualism and equity were pre-eminent.” (10) Graham Chandler has further suggested that despite their symmetrical Georgian exteriors these open and communal interiors were closer to those of the Plains teepee.

Nature

Closely related to their strategic use of the river lot system, the Métis have always revered a deep connection to nature while expressing it through their culture and traditions, as well as their orientation of buildings on the landscape. A significant shift in their relationship with nature occurred with the end of the buffalo hunt, which resulted in more permanent structures than the quasi-nomadic hivernant (wintering) camps. Despite the profound and lasting impact on all Indigenous societies during this shift, Burley suggests that, “the structuring principles of [the Métis] world-view continued to affect the Métis response to land.”(11) The folk homes of the region demonstrate this lasting connection to the landscape through their informal placement of the structures within the river lots, which preserves meaningful connections to the river as well as other landscape features, which were viewed as “organic systems with which to interact.”(12) Compared to non-Métis homesteads in the region that utilized fences to divide the land, planted ‘shelter-belts’ to separate the yard from the surrounding landscape, and oriented outbuildings inward to form courtyard spaces, the Métis homesteads instead oriented the buildings outwards to their surroundings, used informal ‘string’ arrangements of buildings relating to specific landscape features, did not delineate property boundaries with fencing, and exhibited a general “preference for open unstructured space” that was consistent with settlement patterns from Red River. (13) Highlighting these characteristics, both the Letendre home, one of the most prominent in the region, and the Caron farmhouse at the Batoche Historical Site emphasize the role of the front porch in blurring the boundary between interior and exterior space.

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Caron home at Batoche Historical Site.  (Photo: Jason Surkan)

Asymmetry

In addition to the specific site relationships and egalitarian formations of the St. Laurent communities, and further related to the informal placement of structures on the site, the overall design of the Métis folk house reveals a unique tension between order and informality. As Burley writes,

The Métis adopted the [Georgian, or Euro-Canadian] façade but not the interior…the symbolic message of the Métis house front masks the reality of Métis cultural values…This built environment reflects openness, informality, lack of rigidly defined structure, and continuity with the landscape. (14)

Thus, the open informality of the interior was a distinctly Métis feature not only for its egalitarian qualities, but also for its adaptability as the large room could transform from a dining or living space into a gathering space or dance floor with minimal effort, all to facilitate distinct cultural events and everyday practices. Maria Campbell recalls that the shared open space also provided a sense of safety and security for women and children with the grandmothers often sleeping near the door. (15) According to Burley, this kind of interior was thus the ‘antithesis’ of the compartmentalized Victorian homes that reflected a highly structured and specialized society. Graham Chandler has further suggested that despite the symmetrical Georgian exteriors, the open and communal Métis interiors were closer to those of the Plains teepee. (16)

Tectonics

Yet in addition to the more abstract principles of Métis spatial perception and organization, it is also essential to recognize that a unique style of home building developed as a direct outcome of the Métis homesteading process, where combinations of various appropriated technologies and assemblies contributed to a distinct material culture. While beyond the scope of this essay, it is worth briefly considering that one of Frampton’s central positions on regionalism is guided by Gottfried Semper’s writings on the tectonic, as categorized into four elements of architecture – earthwork, enclosure, framework/roof, and hearth.

Earthwork – Consistent with Semper’s text, the earthwork plays a primary role in providing the Métis folk house with a telluric mass to anchor it to the ground, yet there are only a few salient features worth mentioning: 1) that the houses were typically set onto river stone footings, 2) that a root cellar with dirt floors and wooden shelves often existed that was accessed through a trap door in the home, and 3) flagstone surfaces at the entry porch of the Caron farmhouse, for example, suggest a tactile and tectonic continuity with the river stone foundations used in the houses. While none of these features are unique to the Métis, they suggest a strategic engagement with the ground in the overall design and use of the space.

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Flagstone Surface at Caron Home. (Photo: Jason Surkan)

Enclosure – It is evident that the St. Laurent Métis quickly appropriated available local materials for constructing their community while adapting rapidly to the new environment, as the folk homes built in the region shared many common elements. They were typically one and a half to two story homes constructed of white poplar logs from the surrounding forests. The logs were most often half dovetail notched, creating a crib structure and finished with framed gable ends, plank roof decking, and spruce shake shingles. Slight variations exist in log joinery; some are half notched and others saddle notched, both of which were departures from the Red River frame style homes that were predominately built in Manitoba (a variation of traditional post and plank construction inherited from eastern Canada and Europe). A staircase attached to an end wall led up to a loft. Consistent with Semper’s original critique of the historical tendency to cover over the tectonic expression of building, the walls often used chinking to smooth them over before being plastered inside and out with a straw/mud mixture and whitewashed annually with lime. With the arrival of Ukrainian homesteaders around 1900, many Métis also began to lath their houses with small willows on an angle, fastened at each end with small nails to help hold the plaster mud in place. 

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Tectonic Detail of a Saddle Notched Folk Home in the St. Laurent Area. Fragments of the mud/straw plaster is still visible under the eaves.  (Photo: Jason Surkan)

Yet, despite the documented use of the lime whitewashing, several etchings and photographs suggest many Métis homes did not practice this, choosing instead to leave the log construction exposed. Thus, the tectonics of the construction cannot be entirely dismissed as related to the idea of enclosure in Semper’s terms. Consistent with his emphasis on textiles, Métis weaving and bead work were central to their cultural expression, however, the stacking and notching of the logs could be similarly seen as an expression of Métis enclosure in some cases,. Furthermore, the continued use of Red River frame in the St. Laurent communities suggests it was a valued traditional method of construction that significantly contributed to Métis material culture.

Framework and Roof – Despite primarily using stacked log construction with dovetail and other corner notching, the continued use of the Red River frame for additions (such as lean-to kitchens) and other small buildings in the St. Laurent communities suggests it was a valued method of construction that significantly contributed to Métis material culture. Variations of its use include using a center post in the gable that poetically supports the ridge beam, as seen in historical photos of Métis families in Buffalo Narrows. The roof was originally made of smaller wood poles and covered with sod, but this evolved to more conventional wood framing, decking and shingles, as dimensioned lumber became available. Tectonically, the relationship thus evolved as the heavier mass of the logs supported a lighter framed roof (compared to the heavier sod roof of earlier structures).

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Family in Buffalo Narrows. (Image: Portage LaLoche)

Hearth – Finally, it is worth acknowledging that the hearth played a central role in every Métis-designed and built home of the era. While Semper closely linked the hearth to the earthwork, as would have been the case in the earlier hivernant house fireplaces, in the Métis folk homes commercially made stoves were tectonically independent while still playing an essential role in the overall use of the home, spatially anchoring the open interiors while providing centralized heating and cooking facilities.

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“Métis Trapper Cabin” at Fort Walsh National Historic Site, Cypress Hills. (Photo: Jason Surkan)

Métis Today

Though Burley concluded that the building of Métis folk houses had essentially terminated by the 1930s, recent field research comparing the historic houses to contemporary Métis-built homes reveals some remarkable similarities. For example, related to the role of site in the Métis folk homes, a community member from East Prairie settlement in Alberta recently chose a traditional lifestyle over government-implemented options by building his home on a remote site. He designed the house to directly respond to the specificities of its environment, in this case on the edge of a muskeg terrain with existing trees framing the entry and views shaping the building’s orientation and form, with a second floor covered balcony wrapping the structure.

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Entry to home framed by trees. Sweat lodge to right of house under lean-to (Photo: D Fortin) Read more about East Prairie Métis Settlement here. 

Similarly, in Fish Lake, Saskatchewan, another recent Métis-built home is intimately informed by its environment. Located at the end of a rough, meandering mud road, the small, two-story off-grid dwelling sits atop an incline that affords views of the surrounding boreal landscape of rolling hills with a small lake to the west. The placement of the home on the site is directly positioned to maximize passive environmental gains while sheltering itself from the harsh climate, as a stand of tall aspen trees protects the house from high winds on three sides. Meanwhile, its orientation maximizes solar gains in the living area during winter months while the eaves are the correct pitch and length to shield from the hot summer sun. Similar to the Letendre, Caron, and East Prairie houses, a covered balcony sits on the west end of the dwelling and is often used during summer months as a dining and living space.

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Contemporary Métis residence in Fish Lake Métis community, Saskatchewan. (Photo: Jason Surkan)

Related to earthwork, the Fish Lake home sinks into the earth a half-story while at Buffalo Lake settlement a resident attached a root cellar with an entry from the basement to his government-provided home. At Elizabeth settlement an early community root cellar is similarly preserved. There is also evidence that, like in the early Métis folk houses, there remains the capacity to adapt to available materials using unique construction methods. For example, the Fish Lake resident worked as a lineman for many years, and is familiar with the power-line construction and connection details that re-emerge in the home. It displays a combination of rustic elements with state of the art technologies, presenting a distinctly hybrid approach. Likewise, at East Prairie settlement, the home presents an insightful example of contemporary Métis construction which, similar to the folk houses, begins at ground level with 12”x12” hewn logs square notched and stacked at the corners, but then tectonically transitions to wood framing and a combination of plywood (exterior) and coroplast (interior) sheathing above. The details of the house are ad-hoc, yet the combination of traditional and prefabricated elements follow a series of transitions from the stereotomic logs to the dimensioned lumber rafters in a way that could be seen as similar to the home at Fish Lake, and tectonically linked to the earlier folk homes. The interiors of both of these homes unmistakably recall the folk homes in their lack of compartmentalization or hierarchy, their stoves similarly providing heat and spatial focus.

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Mixing of traditional log and wood frame construction (Photo: D Fortin)

Moving Forward

Understanding the Métis folk house reveals aspects of Métis culture that cannot be treated as solely historical, especially given the similarities with selected contemporary Métis-built homes. It is not surprising that Maria Campbell’s renowned memoir, Halfbreed, opens with “The house where I grew up..,” (17) or that a chapter on ‘customs and traditions’ in Diane Payment’s important historical account of Batoche begins with a discussion on kinship patterns followed by a description of the family homes. (18) Current and previous research strongly suggests that the Métis folk houses exhibited a distinct way of spatial understanding that supported social, cultural, and environmental values through their conception and construction, and there is clear evidence that this remains true in some capacity to Métis people today when given the opportunity to design and build their own homes. The Métis vernacular is composed of various elements that admittedly originate elsewhere, like most Métis cultural forms. But it is their unique combination into something distinct that is most pertinent. As Darren Prefontaine of the Gabriel Dumont Institute in Saskatoon suggests, the Métis are like a good stew. Though all the individual components can be traced to other places and circumstances, their specific combination creates an identity that cannot be denied or ignored.  

Related to the value of such vernacular narratives to architecture today, Frampton has recently conceded that what he once aspired critical regionalism to achieve, resist the thrust of modernism’s unabated goal of universal neutralization, has its inherent limitations. It cannot, he states, “alter the dominant spectacular, technoscientific global corporate discourse,” that arguably fed the original design of the Batoche interpretive center (it has unsurprisingly been retrofitted at least in part due to its aesthetic disconnect). (19) However, related directly to the specific situation of the Métis discussed here, he adds that “[critical regionalism] is nonetheless still able to articulate a resistant place-form within a smaller society, which, here and there, may maintain a dissenting cultural and political position.” (20) Inspired by this prompt and the evidence of the Métis vernacular in the St. Laurent region, it is possible for an architecture of Métis resistance to persevere that celebrates the infinitely rich combination of regionally specific spatial and material traditions developed during the past centuries by Métis people. The folk houses discussed here are one of many cultural traditions carried by regional knowledge holders that can help inform this resistance. Hunting cabins, smoke shacks, meat-drying racks, boat building, and other Métis artistic forms, for example, all hold tremendous potential to inspire meaningful designs that staunchly resist generic buildings motivated solely by standard detailing and profit margins, or perhaps worse, those prioritizing international design intrigue over community pride and wellness.

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Exploded Isometric Drawing of a Folk home with root cellar and lean-to summer kitchen. (Drawing: Jason Surkan) 

Notes:

(1) “Batoche Interpretive Centre,” IKOY Architects, accessed January 21, 2016. http://www.ikoy.com.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Henry Glassie, Material Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 231.

(4) David V Burley, Gayel A. Horsfall, and John D. Brandon, Structural considerations of Métis ethnicity: An archaeological, architectural, and historical study (Vermillion, S.D.: University of South Dakota Press, 1992), 2.

(5) Ibid, 2-3.

(6) Ibid, 2.

(7) Ibid. 1-2, 134.

(8) Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983), 29.

(9) Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon, Structural considerations of Métis ethnicity, 158.

(10) David Burley, “Creolization and late nineteenth century Métis vernacular log architecture on the South Saskatchewan River,” Historical Archaeology 34 (2000): 32.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Burley, Horsfall, and Brandon, Structural considerations of Métis ethnicity, 120.

(13) David Burley and Gayel A. Horsfall, “Vernacular Houses and Farmsteads of the Canadian Métis,” Journal of Cultural Geography 10 (1) (1989): 29.

(14) Ibid. 30.

(15) Personal interview, June 25, 2016.

(16) Graham Chandler, “The language of Métis folk houses,” The Beaver (Aug-Sept, 2003): 39-41.

(17) Maria Campbell, Halfbreed (Toronto: Seal, 1973): 1.

(18) Diane Payment, The free people – Le gens libres: A history of the Métis community of Batoche, Saskatchewan (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2009).

(19) Kenneth Frampton, “ Critical regionalism revisited,” in Brian MacKay-Lyons, Local Architecture: Building Place, Craft, and Community, ed. Robert McCarter (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2015): 29.

(20) Ibid.

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One response to “MATERIAL CULTURE: MÉTIS FOLK HOME

  1. Hi! I’m a Metis woodworker, planning to build a scale model of a Metis log house. Do you have any good pictures of gable joinery? Thanks!

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