Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Seen From the Outside

According to Joseph Howard (Strange Empire: Louis Riel and the Metis People):
"There, on the shores of the sea of grass, these men from the north and those from the St. Lawrence built a town which they called Pembina. The name, originally Pambian, was a French rendering of a Cree-Chippewa term for the high-bush cranbery, but it also meant 'sanctified bread' because the berries were used in pemmican which was blessed by the priest.

Pembina still exists as a sleepy border village in North Dakota. It was an inhabited place in 1780 and thus is the oldest community in the American Northwest. But it has been neglected in all save the local histories, and somewhat neglected even there because so much has happened that not even the oldest residents could ever recall it all. Few Pembina residents ever knew, for instance, that the first white children in the American or Canadian Northwest were born there. There were two, born in the same week; the parents of one came from Hudson's Bay, those of the other entered the country by the St. Lawrence. And Americans may find it odd that this American town was the first prairie headquarters of the thoroughly British Hudson's Bay Company, that it once was owned by a Scottish earl [Earl of Selkirk], and that it once was peopled almost entirely by German and Swiss mercenaries, veterans of some dog-eared European war.

But those distinctions are less important to us than some others. Pembina, a log cabin village, was the first capital of a new race, the Metis or Red River half-breeds of the Northwest--in so far as a people who always shunned settlements could be said to have had a capital. It was the principal seat of their church, established in 1818 and served by a bishop whose diocesan boundaries (ignoring such political fictions as the forty-ninth parallel) were officially the Great Lakes, the North Pole, and the Pacific."