Fiddling around Métis style: this week on The Green Room

Dec 31, 2015

America has long been thought of as a melting pot; a place where people from different backgrounds come together and in so doing, create new and unique cultures. As the fur trade in the upper Great Lakes region blossomed in the late 1600’s, French voyageurs and trappers began to marry Native American women. People with this mix of native and European heritage became known as Métis. 

Métis is a French word that roughly translated means “mixed blood” or “of mixed descent.”

As the fur trade in the upper Great Lakes region blossomed in the late 1600’s, French voyageurs and trappers began to marry native american women. People with this mix of native and european heritage became known as Métis.
Credit Alfred Jacob Miller

Phil Porter, the director of Mackinac State Historic Parks, says Métis people were the dominant population of the Straits of Mackinac for a long period of time. 

“The people who were apart of that culture were the ones that live in the communities here, they were the ones that were involved with the fur trade and these were people whose lives reflected both their Native American and their European, or French roots,” he says. 

Today, there isn’t much of a visible Métis culture left in Michigan. It’s more prominent in Canada, where Métis people are officially recognized as an aboriginal group, like the Inuits and First Nations there. 

Europeans introduced the fiddle to the Great Lakes region, and eventually the Métis people developed their own unique style of fiddling. It’s often called “crooked” because the meter of the tune can vary from measure to measure. It also has a unique bowing style in which fiddlers “throw” the bow.

Ruby John is a 24 year-old from Leelanau County, carrying on the Métis fiddle tradition. When she was a teenager, she traveled to Canada to learn directly from Métis elders.

Ruby says when she was growing up, her mom, who is part Irish, constantly listened to fiddle music in their home. She was about 4 years old when she first told her mom she wanted to play the fiddle. And that dream came true when she was 11.

“I remember getting my first fiddle and just remembering, ‘Oh my gosh, like I cannot believe I have this instrument," she says. "I cannot believe it’s mine and one day I’m going to be able to play it.’”

Ruby is a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. When some people in her community found out she was playing the fiddle, they did not like it.

“They would make it known,” she says. “They would tell me, ‘You know, you’re trying to be like a … white person. Why do you want to be that way?’”  

Ruby had two brothers that also played the fiddle for a while, but they got so tired of all the chiding, that they quit. For Ruby, it was different; she did not want to give up on her dream.

“I think anybody that has been successful at anything that they do, I think somewhere along the way they were made fun of for what they wanted to do,” says Ruby. “For me it just happened to be the fiddle.”

Ruby says she remembers how much the negative words bothered her as a child. But, she told herself, "I’m going to prove to them, I’m going to prove to everybody here that I’m good enough to [fiddle],” she recalls. “I’m not gonna be someone who is embarrassed of who I am.”

One day, Ruby’s mom showed her a documentary called Medicine Fiddle. It's about the Métis culture and fiddle tradition. When Ruby watched it, she saw other Native Americans that looked just like her, playing the fiddle. 

Once she saw that film, she started telling people, "No, there’s other natives out there that ... play the fiddle, you gotta understand.”

Today, those communities tend to be in Canada. Places like Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. The Métis music tradition is passed down orally from generation to generation, from elders to the youth. The way to learn is by watching and listening. Ruby says when she learns a song from an elder, she gets more than just a tune; she gets the “soul” from the tune.

“It’s so much more special,” she says. “When you play the tune, you don’t just picture a piece of music, you have a memory and a story that goes along with it.” 

Ruby John performing with band mates.

Even though Métis music is passed down orally from generation to generation, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t change. Métis music once went hand in hand with step dancing or jigging, but that tradition is fading in part because of the speed at which younger fiddlers are playing today. They want to showcase their speed. But, Ruby says it shouldn’t be about speed; it’s about the rhythm and the beat.

Ruby says she's conscious of not playing too fast. Her focus is on making people want to dance, or at the very least, tap their feet. “If I don’t see somebody’s foot tapping I know that I’m doing something wrong,” she says.

As a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Ruby John does not consider herself to be Métis, even though she does have some Irish ancestors. Still, she hopes one day, she’ll help pass the gift of Métis music on to a younger generation.

Ruby John will be playing a dance at the Red Sky Stage in Petoskey— Saturday night at 7:30pm.