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Back to Batoche

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BATOCHE, Saskatchewan - Long after the crackles of bonfires have been extinguished; fiddle music drifts over the stillness of a prairie night.

Perhaps none as recognizable as a cultural object of the M?tis is this stringed instrument usually associated more with the Deep South than the North American Native. Even the dearth of light on a warm evening in northern Saskatchewan wasn't enough to stop one fiddler from getting some practice for the next day's competition.

The fiddling contest closes out Back to Batoche, an annual four-day affair that started in 1970 which celebrates the M?tis, their history and culture. More than 10,000 attended this year between July 24 - 27 to acknowledge the contributions M?tis have had within their own society and Canada's as the festival's grounds were continually abuzz with a plethora of musical, dance and historical demonstrations.

M?tis trace their roots through both Indian tribes such as Cree, Ojibwa and Dene plus European ancestry, predominantly French. The Europeans moved into the area, well before Canada became an independent country, via the waterways leading from Lake Superior portaging over land during the 19th century to pursue hunting and trapping.

Identifying their past is the M?tis symbol, the infinity sign representing two cultures coming together forever. Now totalling between 300,000 and 400,000, M?tis predominantly live in Canada's three prairie provinces; Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba while outlining jurisdictions including Montana and the Dakotas also have pockets and historical ties to the M?tis.

"The M?tis are more than a mixed-blood race. We have evolved into a distinct Aboriginal people with our own language, culture and social attributes," said Clem Chartier, president of the M?tis Nation-Saskatchewan.

Because the tongues spoken by the First Nations and the French were so different, the Michif language evolved by combining French nouns and Cree verbs. Although estimates that as of a decade ago had fewer than 1,000 people fluent in this regional dialect, with a resurgence the culture has experienced, in part because of the popularity of the festival, so too has the language.

"One of the things we have trouble with is that people put Michif in the category of French," said Terry Boyer, an organizer of Back to Batoche. "It's not, (as our) language justifies the culture."

When the Europeans migrated westward, the act of portage was to carry provisions on the back, including the transportation of the canoe, and usually without an aid such as a wagon between two bodies of water. That's why the fiddle became the instrument of choice because of its light weight.

Yet the sacks of food, clothing and other necessities lifted by men on these treks through the remote wilderness were heavy and their feats have been honored as present-day forms of entertainment. The M?tis Voyageur Games makes a spectacle out of the enormous burdens shouldered by the original settlers.

"I'm trying to get history woven into what I'm doing," said Nelson Sanderson, coordinator of the games. "They had to carry a minimum of 180 pounds and for people to identify with the M?tis, they'll watch these games."

In addition to target contests of archery and slingshot, skills needed to hunt for food, the races and endurance tests involving strength result in an admiration for those who participate today and a greater appreciation for those who made past journeys of hundreds of miles.

Stumbling over the finish line in the 100-yard dash while carrying two 90-pound bags was Jessee Gardiner. With eyes bulging out of his sockets, Gardiner collapsed at the finish with a time of 22.27 seconds, good enough for a win by seven-tenths of a second.

"I was trying to drop it (the bags) backward but I went face first so I lost my step ... and may have injured my rib," said Gardiner, tongue-in-cheek, who is anticipating his freshman year with the University of Saskatchewan football team.

Contrasting the brute strength of Voyageur Games is the gracefulness through up-tempo movements of Red River jiggers. With the uneven and irregular beats of M?tis fiddling, is a dance comprised of a special piece of music that's played and danced in two sections. Should the fiddle strike a high section that results in a basic jig step while a low section note requires the dancer to take a fancy step, with up to 50 steps in existence.

With the number of different cultural components that define the M?tis, Saskatchewan passed the M?tis Act in 2001 that recognized their achievements. Vital in the drafting of the bill was one of two present M?tis MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) in Regina.

Keith Goulet was elected in 1986 and has served the Cumberland riding since. Set to retire later this year when he intends to write his doctoral thesis on Cree land concepts, he remembers quite well the feelings he had two years ago when the provincial government acknowledged his people.

"It was emotional for me. This act not only deals with the cultural symbols, such as the flag, sash and Red River jig but also deals with the key issues of resources and education," he said during an opening ceremony with several members of the government, including Premier Lorne Calvert, in attendance.

Quite often it's the men who are front and center in the competitions but ending the fiddling with a flourish was a teenager in the women's category. After recently cutting a CD, 14-year old Cammy Romanuck of Saskatoon won her division.

M?tis fiddling is different than its American counterpart, she says, as country music in Nashville is not the jigs and polkas performed by Canadians. What Romanuck would like to do is return the music to its homeland and tour Europe introducing that continent to this cultural flavor.

"It would be kind of neat to have a full back-up band and I could get people to have an interest in Canadian fiddling," Romanuck said.