The Métis people are a culturally distinct group inhabiting parts of western Canada and the northern United States. The word means “mixed,” in French, and as this would imply, they have mixed blood, being the product of relationships between European explorers in North America and Aboriginal women. The word with a lower-case “m” is also used more generally in Canada and some parts of the United States to describe people of mixed blood who are not considered members of the Métis people.
Almost as soon as people began exploring North America, they began a cultural exchange, and many explorers had relationships with native women. The Métis people are the product of years of close association between Europeans such as the French and several aboriginal groups, including the Cree, Saulteaux, Menominee, Ojibway, and Algonquin people. The culture of the these people is distinct, mingling aspects of European and Native American culture, and members of the Métis Nation are formally recognized as an aboriginal group under the Constitution Act by the Canadian government.
While racial mixing between explorers and aboriginal tribes was common in many regions of the world, the amount of mixing involved with the Métis was quite significant, and the group also came to be known as an entirely separate entity. They also played an important role in the settling of Canada, with Métis men and women acting as guides, working as hunters and trappers, and expanding their own culture in the process.
Many of the Métis have physical characteristics which betray their mixed heritage, and their cultural traditions are also highly mixed. They have their own traditional dances, beliefs, dress, and so forth, combining aspects of European tradition with their aboriginal heritage. Many speak a modified form of French known as Métis French or Michif, although English is also commonly used.
In 1982, the Canadian government recognized that the Métis people were a distinct group, and that they were entitled to certain protections. One year later, representatives of the nation formed the Métis National Council, which represents the group as a collective when negotiating with the Canadian government and working in local communities.
Many people use the term “aboriginal” when discussing the heritage of the Métis, rather than “Native American” or “Indian,” because these terms are not widely used in Canada. “Native American” is often viewed as a specific reference to aboriginal residents of the area now known as the United States, while “Indian” refers to someone from the Indian subcontinent. People may also describe people of this heritage as coming from the “First Nations,” a group of aboriginal peoples formally recognized by the Canadian government. The other major aboriginal group in Canada is the Inuit.