Dennis Joseph Weber: Defining Metis Culture
The traditional Métis homeland covers a large portion of Canada and parts of the northern United States. My roots are in this homeland, as I was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, grew up in Calgary, Alberta and now live in Kelowna. My ancestry traces back to some of the first Métis people, and is full of colourful and influential people. I share this rich Métis heritage with a large and diverse population across North America, some of whom are still discovering their roots. Hopefully by sharing my art and heritage, I'll inspire others to discover their cultural inheritance in the Métis Nation.
Dennis Joseph Weber was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in 1951 and lived most of his life in Calgary before moving to Kelowna, B.C. in 1999. His mother's family originated from the Red River area in Manitoba and later Batoche, Saskatchewan, both areas being historically important to the Métis. His wife has traced Dennis' French heritage to the 1400's and his Native ancestry (which includes Montagnais, Saulteaux, Miami, Cree, Ojibwa and Sioux) to the 1600's. Dennis is a direct descendent of many famous Canadians including explorer Jean Nicolet, Jean-Baptiste Lagimodiere, Cuthbert James Grant Sr., and Canada's first farmer Louis Hébert. Louis David Riel, Canada's most renowned Métis (and Dennis' first cousin five generations removed), was not only instrumental in the creation of Manitoba, but also a poet, visionary and ultimately a martyr. He stated in 1885, the year of his death: "Our People will sleep for a hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who bring back their culture."
It was around a century after this prediction that Dennis started to explore the possibility of becoming a full-time artist and, in the last twenty years, achieving not only this but also being identified as one of Canada's foremost Métis artist. He is proud to identify with the revitalized Métis Nation.
Dennis works out of his home studio, his preferred media being pencil, pencil/white charcoal or oil. Regardless of medium, he glazes layer after layer to achieve his unique look. He has achieved accredited Signature Member Status in both the Federation of Canadian Artists and the Canadian Institute of Portrait Artists and teaches group workshops and private lessons. Dennis enjoys the challenge of drawing from life and his drawing demonstrations are popular at art shows: "When someone tells me they can relate to one of my pieces, it's usually because it evokes a memory from their past. I value the connection I have with the viewers of my art." He attends a number of prestigious art shows, such as the Western Showcase Sales Salons at the Calgary Stampede, the aboriginal show Dale Auger & Friends in Bragg Creek, Alberta and the Life & Arts Festival in Kelowna. Dennis was voted "People's Choice" in 2006 at ArtWalk, which features 300 artists and is attended by approximately 6,000 art enthusiasts.
Dennis is a consultant for Habitat for Humanity, sits on the board of Kelowna's Métis Children and Family Services, is involved with the national as well as local chapter of the FCA and donates pieces to many worthwhile causes. His bibliography includes an article entitled Improve Your Image in the March 2001 issue of The Artist's Magazine, one in the Okanagan Life magazine, a page in the North West Artists coffee table book and is currently working on a book with renowned author and public speaker, David Bouchard. He is represented by Turtle Island Gallery in Kelowna, and his art works can be found in collections throughout the world.
"A Métis person is one who self-identifies as Métis, is of historic Métis Nation Ancestry, is distinct from other Aboriginal Peoples and is accepted by the Métis Nation."
The Métis people are of mixed North American Aboriginal and European ancestry. The first Métis were the direct descendants of Aboriginal people and European immigrants - many were of French ancestry and arrived in North America in the 1700's to participate in the fur trade.
The word Métis is of Latin/French origin and means 'mixed'. While originally the word Métis referred to people of mixed blood, over time other aspects of the Métis culture became mixed. For example, the Métis language, Michif, is a mixture of Cree with French. The clothing, music and food of the Métis are also a mixture of Aboriginal and European influence.
The Métis Nation's Homeland is based on the traditional territory upon which the Métis people have historically lived and relied upon within west central North America. This territory roughly includes the three Prairie Provinces of Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan, parts of Ontario, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, as well as areas of the northern United States including North Dakota and Montana.
Throughout the history of Canada the Métis people have been involved in several political struggles. In 1763, they joined the First Nation peoples of the Great Lakes area during the peaceful Pontiac Uprising against the British. From 1812-1816, the Métis in the Red River area collaborated with the Northwest Company to protect their land from settlers and new immigrants. Both groups depended on the fur trade and could not afford to lose land to new settlement. Fifty years later, in the same area, disputes over land and law resulted in the Métis cooperating once again with local First Nation peoples in an attempt to preserve their ways of life. Gabriel Dumont and Louis Riel, two prominent figures in Canada's Métis history, were instrumental in these struggles.
Historically, the Métis faced discrimination from both First Nations people and European settlers; each group focused on the differences between the Métis and themselves rather than the similarities.
The last century has seen more debates over land and rights, with the provincial governments in Saskatchewan and Alberta establishing Métis townships and finally in 1982 the repatriated Constitution of Canada was amended to expressly recognize the Métis as one of Canada's distinct aboriginal people.
The Métis came to the Thompson/Okanagan region around 1810-11 and established families in the area. They were indispensable members of the fur trade, but by the 1860's became largely invisible with the demise of the fur trade. They continued as a community in and around Kamloops. There are just over 44,000 Métis in BC according to the Métis Nation B.C. and, almost 400,000 Métis in Canada.
"My people will sleep for 100 years, when they awake again; it will be the artists that give them back their spirit." Louis Riel, 1885
The identification of distinctive Métis art is complicated by the fact that Métis artistic styles had a wide range of influence on Aboriginal art throughout the continent. As a result of this confluence, it is difficult to identify exclusively Métis contributions with regard to Aboriginal art collections. Most collections, in fact, identify art objects by their last owner, and since these goods were often objects of trade, Métis creators are rarely identified. It is not uncommon to find Métis art objects misidentified as "Plains Cree," "Assiniboine" or, some other Aboriginal group.
There is little confusion about the place and importance of Métis floral beadwork within the Visual Arts. These colourful designs and creations are distinctive Métis. Many are of obvious European influence; a range of typical European flowers were used in their designs and compositions.
Métis bead artists were influenced by the Grey Nuns from Europe who taught in the Mission schools. The Grey Nuns brought examples of floral embroidery techniques of France and passed these on to the Métis. The designs and colour combinations were easily adapted into bead and quill work. The results were the foundation of the brilliant, colourful, delicate, symmetrical floral bead and embroidery creations which became known as typically Métis.
Using glass seed beads, silk and llama threads obtained through the fur trade, the Métis generated the artwork on their clothing that led them to be known as the "Flower Bead Work People". They adapted the techniques of Moose and Caribou hair embroidery as well. Guard hair from Moose and Caribou was dyed in bright colours and used as embroidery thread. This technique is extremely difficult and time-consuming; it requires great skill to create works that are consistent and precise.
Métis floral beadwork and embroidery was typically placed against a black or blue background, which enhanced its effects. They often used velvet and broadcloth as well as hides. Their works were trimmed with silk ribbons; a European influence. This specialized touch can be seen on jackets, bags, leggings, gloves and vests.
Métis bead and embroidery works were so impressive they were used as trade goods and distributed throughout North America and Europe.
Today Métis visual artists work in a range of media. While many of their works depict their heritage and culture, they are not limited to what are considered traditional or distinctively Métis subjects and media. Métis and visual artists crafts persons work in media such as painting, sculpture, photography, custom furniture, pottery, glass blowing and bead art. They have indeed fulfilled Riel's prophecy that the arts would give them back their spirits.
We Are Métis
An exhibition celebrating Métis culture, will open June 21, Aboriginal Day, at the Okanagan Heritage Museum.
This exhibition focuses on the history and culture of the Métis people both nationally and locally. It will include information panels, a genealogy chart and artefacts including examples of Métis clothing, beadwork, sashes, an original Red River Cart, at well as Métis music and dancing. The work of Dennis Weber will be featured. His works range from paintings to drawings and explore images of the Métis culture.
The opening reception will include a Grand March from City Park to the Museum and a welcoming song and greeting by a member of the Okanagan Nation. There will also be Métis food, music and dance.
Authors: Gayle Liman, Sharon Weber and Jasmine Marshall. References: BC Métis Nation