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Entries in museums (2)

Friday
Mar042016

Métis trappers' tents

Métis Crossing campground: trappers' wall tents

From Assiniboine tipis website: Wall tents are rugged four-sided shelters, much like a small cabin, with a peaked roof that slopes down to four canvas walls. The military began using wall tents as early as the 18th century. Then again, during the civil war, wall tents were used extensively. They were popular as army hospitals. Two large wall tents, fourteen feet squared, would be stacked end to end to form a medical ward for wounded. Later, tents continued to be used by hunters, trappers and gold prospectors throughout the eighteen and nineteen hundreds. Even today, the wall tent is in high demand. The tents are used for shelter by the US Army in Iraq. They are popular for use in refuge camps. Nomadic peoples have also taken advantage of the rugged construction and comfort of the modern wall tent.aha, David Fortin has sent this link: Métis Crossing, Kalyna Country, Canada’s Largest Ecomuseum.  Not built yet, but planned.  It is in Smoky Lake, on the Victoria Trail which runs on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan River, next to Victoria Settlement, an Alberta provincial historic site.  This promises to be a living museum, so far the website shows camping, a rodeo, new zip lines, giant mushrooms by the highway, a grain elevator museum and the historic Eldorena Ukrainian church.  I love this little website, it is the prairies as I know it; rather than Edmonton and Calgary, this is rural Alberta in all its cultural mix.  
From its website:
Extending east and northeast from Edmonton, the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum is one of the most historic places in Alberta. Follow our rivers and roads to experience a millennia of aboriginal culture, a landscape traversed by the great explorers and fur traders, prior to the homesteading era and the coming of the railroad. Kalyna Country is Alberta’s multi-cultural capital. Kalyna Country contains Canada’s largest Ukrainian settlement; some of Alberta’s largest concentrations of French, Cree, Metis and Romanian settlement; Alberta’s only Irish settlement, plus German, Scandinavian, British and other slavic cultures. All of these groups, together have combined to give Kalyna Country a distinct flavour that sets the region apart from other rural areas of Alberta.

This is métis, not the people, but as a Canadian response to our diversity and our fundamental métissage where evolutionary indigeneity meets the shock of the newcomer, gets over the shock either militarily or resignedly, and starts to talk, to share, to borrow. 

Take the discussion of the Métis trapper wall tent: the tent poles were probably the same as tipi poles, the canvas was a trade good, used for both tipis and tents: one looks like a cone – the shape derived by poles alone, tied at the top, the other like a house – structural walls and a water-shedding roof, however in the wall tent the walls are not structural, the roof is a continuous skin that becomes a wall, the structure is external: completely different logic informs the shape of the wall tent.  Whatever, it is efficient, well-honed over centuries of use, and still in use today, viz. the Northern Trappers Alliance camp set up on Saskatchewan Highway 955 in a 2014 blockade of tar sands and uranium exploration companies.

The wall tent is métis architecture as the tipi is not.  Métissage borrows and adapts – a form of innovation, but quicker than the slow evolution of what we consider originary building forms such as the tipi. 

Thursday
Mar032016

Métis architecture

Métis Farmstead Buildings – See Burley, David, Gayel A. Horsfall, and John D. Brandon. 1992. Structural considerations of Métis ethnicity: an archaeological, architectural, and historical study. Vermillion: University of South Dakota Press. Used with permission by David Burley.

David Fortin is in an RAIC 2016 session, speaking about Métis architecture, his widely-funded research project at Laurentian University.  He is studying Métis and their design sensibility: how they build – his webpage banner shows the curved edge of a Cardinal building.  Pointing out that there is not universal agreement on who is considered Métis and there is little material architectural culture that points directly to a Métis architecture, Fortin’s project is framed as ‘a discussion about weaving together Métis history with contemporary topics linked to culture and identity’.

I’m going to do some summarising here from an essay on Fortin’s website because it is interesting how he has started this project.  He sees three conditions of Metis design: ‘1) a distinct responsiveness to the landscape, 2) an emphasis on egalitarian space, and 3) an informal approach to design’.  Informality refers to  ‘flexibility, adaptability, and imprintability’.  His process is to study what material culture there is, in the manner of Henry Glassie who read historical legacies of building details, mapping them to migration, emigration and immigration.  

I first discovered Glassie in the mid-1980s with his Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. I was teaching in the Eastern United States at the time; Glassie was my guide to the folklore and folk traditions of building. I amassed a huge archive of log construction that in my experience culminated with cabins built in the Smokey Mountains out of ancient poplars where a slice through the trunk might be 4’ wide: a wall took just two boards, and they were still jointed like a regular log cabin corner would be.  There is method, and there is material: whatever the method and however old it is, the material bends it to fit.  This is what is so exciting about vernacular building: its utterly expeditious adaptability.

At the same time, and here Glassie wasn’t a guide, I recorded the reconstructed villages of aboriginal peoples throughout the eastern States.  The US is good with this sort of thing: there are reconstructions galore, pamphlets and books that range from oral histories to academic research – I mean there were then, not sure about now.  Canada not so good at this sort of thing: reserves and Nations are more private, more defensive. One wonders if there is some kind of political obstruction to examining aboriginal material culture. Fortin cites Burley’s Structural Considerations of Métis Ethnicity: An Archaeological, Architectural, and Historical Study.  This was published by the University of South Dakota Press in 1992: why wasn’t it published in Canada?  Why isn’t it in every bookstore rather than on Google books with an unmarked cover?

There is a a lot of research on the Haida, the Coast Salish, the Glenbow museum has vast Blackfoot collections, but I’ve always found it a bit of a struggle to discover any sort of delight in walking around glass cases of the real thing, compared to walking around a reconstructed village that presents a holistic synthesis of construction, fabrics, food, pots, where the horses were, how big the fires were, how were pieces of wood joined together (pins? sinew? hide? trade nails? gravity?).  I realise such things are necessarily incomplete, we don’t know much about the unrecorded, but we can start to think, to hazard, to speculate based on human nature, how things might have worked –– this is the basis of scholarly pursuit. It shouldn't however, be just the preserve of the museum and the academy.