A Métis Girlhood

Shown here around age 15, Cecilia LaRance Wiseman grew up on the Rocky Mountain front in a self-sufficient Métis community. Photo courtesy Alf Wiseman

Shown here around age 15, Cecilia LaRance Wiseman grew up on the Rocky Mountain front in a self-sufficient Métis community. Photo courtesy Alf Wiseman

Cecilia LaRance was born in 1915 in a cabin on the South Fork of the Teton River. Her grandparents were among the Métis families who had settled along the Rocky Mountains between Heart Butte and Augusta in the late 1800s. Growing up in the distinct culture formed by the fusion of French, Scottish, Chippewa, and Cree heritages, Cecilia belonged to the last generation of children to experience the self-sufficiency and “old ways” of this Métis community.

The French Canadian LaRance family settled along the Rocky Mountain Front in the 1870s. Cecilia’s grandmother, Marguerite LaRance, was the first person buried at the Métis cemetery nestled in the trees along the South Fork. Cecilia’s father, James LaRance, was born at St. Peter’s Mission west of Fort Benton. When James was left with three small children after his first wife’s death, he married soft-spoken and hardworking Mabel Fellers, whose family had fled to Montana after the failed Northwest Rebellion of 1885.

The couple raised their family on a squatter’s homestead on Willow Creek, furnishing their single-room cabin with a woodstove, a large table, and apple-box benches. James’ rocker sat near Mabel’s sewing machine by the window. The cabin lacked electricity and indoor plumbing, and the LaRances bathed in a galvanized tub behind two chairs draped with a sheet for privacy. Cecilia and her sisters shared a bed, their brothers slept on a foldout sofa, and the baby’s hammock hung over the parents’ bed. When guests visited, they slept in the only space left: under the table. “We didn’t have room enough to keep a moth’s suitcase in that house,” Cecilia remembered. Continue reading

Pretty Shield’s Success: Raising “Grandmother’s Grandchild”

Pretty Shield, shown here fleshing a buffalo hide, worked hard to pass down traditional Crow skills to her granddaughter Alma.

Pretty Shield, shown here fleshing a buffalo hide, worked hard to pass down traditional Crow skills to her granddaughter Alma. Montana State University Library, Bozeman, James Willard Schultz Photograph and Personal Papers Collection, Collection 10

 The legacy of a nineteenth-century Apsáalooke grandmother lives on in the traditions of the Crow people today. Born in 1856, Pretty Shield belonged to the last generation of children raised in an intact Apsáalooke culture. Just thirty years later, the tribe faced the loss of their indigenous identities and cultural heritage as well as their lands. Thus, by the 1920s and 1930s, as she raised her grandchildren, Pretty Shield confronted a twofold challenge: first, to bring them up in the poverty of the early reservation years; second, to instill in them a strong Apsáalooke identity during the era of assimilation. She was well aware of the difficulty—and importance—of her task.

Pretty Shield herself had enjoyed a happy childhood. Her elders taught her how to harvest plants, preserve meat, cook, and sew. They guided her spiritually, educated her, and brought her up according to the traditions of the Apsáalooke worldview. Too soon, these happy years gave way to the destructive forces of American colonization.

In 1872, smallpox killed hundreds of Crow people, including Pretty Shield’s beloved father, Kills in the Night. At the same time, American military campaigns against other Plains tribes threatened all intertribal trade and safety while the extinction of the bison destroyed tribal economies. Reduced to poverty and starvation, tribes were forced to relinquish more and more of their homelands. Between 1851 and 1904, the Crows themselves lost 35 million acres. The U.S. government outlawed indigenous ceremonies, mandated that Native children attend government or mission schools, and sent emissaries of assimilation onto the reservations to enforce American policies. Many Crows converted to Christianity, took up farming, and sent their children to be raised at boarding schools, where their Apsáalooke identity succumbed to white American values and a wholly different relationship to the natural world. Continue reading