Montana: The Magazine of Western History

Montana: The Magazine of Western History

Katherine Massoth. Montana: The Magazine of Western History. Volume 63, No. 2. (Summer 2013): 76-77.

Review of The Identities of Marie Rose Delmore Smith: Portrait of a Métis Woman 1861-1960, by Doris Jeanne MacKinnon (University of Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 2012) 208 pp. paper $34.95 paper.

"Doris MacKinnon's analysis of Marie Rose Delorme Smith's multi-faceted identities as depicted in her writings is a welcome addition to the burgeoning scholarship on women on Canada's western plains and Metis identity. Smith, a Catholic-educated French-Metis woman nicknamed the "fifty-dollar bride" because her mother sold her into a marriage to trader Charlie Smith of German ancestry, performed many roles while participating in trading communities across the Alberta-Montana borderlands between 1861 and 1960. MacKinnon closely reads Smith's manuscripts housed at the Glenbow-Institute to understand how Smith explored her identity as a Metis and French-Canadian woman. MacKinnon also refers to genealogical, census, and parish records and histories of Metis leaders and borderland traders to support her findings.

MacKinnon dedicates a chapter to each expression of Smith's identities: the historical figure of a Metis woman; the folk historian; the daughter, wife, and mother; and the writer of unpublished history and fiction. By separating each performance of Smith's identity, MacKinnon exposes the complexities of Metis women's lives. MacKinnon's central argument focuses on Smith's published and unpublished identities in chapers 2 and 4. MacKinnon discusses how Smith emphasized her nonaboriginal French-Canadian ancestry and dismissed the Metis in published writings while she concentrated on Metis identity in her unpublished fiction. MacKinnon argues that Smith's "manuscripts demonstrate that she was hesitant about the presentation of her own 'Metis-Metis identity" not out of self-preservation but because she had "strength of character, a determination to survive, and a desire that her words be heard" (pp. 4-5). However, Smith expressed "some allegiance to her Metis ancestry" in her unpulbished fiction (p. 84). It is unclear from MacKinnon's analysis how Smith's different uses of identity benefited her in daily life and why Smith was determined to have her voice heard. MacKinnon suggests Smith may have written out her Metis history because the dominant population viewed Metis people as savages, which raises the question of why write at all. However, by tracing how Smith's descendants identifed themselves differently, MacKinnon presents a complex understanding of identity across generations and provides a new tool for studying aboriginal and Metis people when few records are available. For example, some of Smith's descendants became Metis leaders, whle others were astonished to learn Smith was Metis.

Because MacKinnon focuses only on the identity expressed in Smith's writings, she overlooks close examination of the various expressions of identity. Smith performed Metis roles through producing buckskin clothing and beadwork and practiced midwifery and healing. The differences in her written and unwritten expressions of identity demonstrate the situational and strategic use of identity in daily life and point to the complexities of living in two worlds. These complexities need further analysis. MacKinnon's research contributes to the recent growth in scholarship on Metis women and identity by such authors as Sarah Carter, Eva Garroutte, Emma LaRocque, Nicole St. Onge, and Martha Harroun and makes an important case for studying "ordinary" women who wrote life histories and performed as historians before the rise of the field of women's history in North America. Most important, MacKinnon has made a step toward documenting the female Metis experience."

Katherine Massoth is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Iowa with a focus on U.S. Women and Gender History, U.S-Mexico Borderlands, and Nineteenth Century American West History.