The Metis & Louis Riel: Background information when reading The Plague of Doves

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The Plague of Doves

A Novel

by Louise Erdrich

The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich X
The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2008, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2009, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Beyond the Book:
The Metis & Louis Riel

Print Review

Louis Riel
Many of the characters featured in The Plague of Doves are Metis.  The Metis (historically known as the Bois Brule) emerged in Canada in the mid-17th Century as New World fur traders intermarried with Cree, Ojibwe, Salteaux and Menominee natives. While mostly French, some of the traders were English and Scots. Over time, the offspring of these unions themselves interbred and had children of their own, creating one of three Aboriginal peoples recognized by the Canadian government.

The Metis homeland includes the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba & Ontario, as well as parts of the United States (Montana, North Dakota, & NW Minnesota.). They speak Metis French or a mixed language called Michif. Metis French is best preserved in Canada, while Michif is more prevalent in the United States (notably in the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation of North Dakota, where Michif is the official language).

Primarily fur traders and pioneers, the Metis acted as translators between the First Nations and the Europeans in Canada. They were well regarded as guides and trackers.

Louis Riel
One of the historical Metis mentioned in Plague of Doves is the controversial Canadian folk-hero Louis Riel. Riel was born in 1844 in the Red River Settlement (now Manitoba) in Canada. After being educated in both religion and law in Montreal, he returned to his homeland in 1868. The provisional government he subsequently established (1869-1870) ultimately negotiated the terms under which the modern province of Manitoba entered the Canadian Confederation, leading to Riel's recognition as "The Father of Manitoba." Toward the end of this period, referred to as the First Red River Rebellion, Riel ordered the execution of Thomas Scott for "defying the authority of the Provisional Government, of fighting with the guards and insulting the President." As a result of this unpopular decision, Riel was forced into exile to the United States.

While in the USA, Riel became convinced he was divinely chosen as a leader and prophet of the Metis people, and returned to Canada to represent Metis grievances (particularly regarding land) to the Canadian government. He led a resistance movement, which escalated into a military confrontation in 1885 (the short-lived Second Red River Rebellion). The rebellion ended with Riel's surrender. He was tried under a charge of high treason, found guilty and executed on November 16, 1885. The execution was widely opposed and had long-lasting political ramifications.

On April 17, 2007, the Manitoba government enacted legislation establishing Louis Riel Day as the Third Monday in February. The holiday was first celebrated on February 18, 2008.

Article by Kim Kovacs

This article was originally published in June 2008, and has been updated for the May 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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