© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Metis Fiddling; News Review; "The Idea of You"

Ways To Subscribe
Photo by Joel Wyncott on Unsplash
Photo by Joel Wyncott on Unsplash
Photo by Joel Wyncott on Unsplash

Today's Segments:

Metis Fiddling Reair
As Memorial Day weekend approaches, we delve into the unique Metis culture, a blend of Indigenous, French, Scottish, and English ancestry from southern Canada and northern U.S. In 2022, Nick Rommell visited Turtle Mountain to capture the vibrant Metis fiddlers in action.

Dave Thompson News Review
News Director Dave Thompson discusses his latest newsletter and provides a comprehensive review of current news events.

Matt Olien Reviews "The Idea of You"
Matt Olien offers his insights on the film "The Idea of You," starring Anne Hathaway, delivering an engaging review of this anticipated movie.

Transcript of Metis Fiddling:

Nick Rommell

Driving through northern North Dakota, I can see for miles through my bug-splattered windshield, all the canola fields, the windmills, and the very occasional towns under a bright blue sky. But the landscape starts to change as I approach the Turtle Mountain Reservation. The small clumps of trees grow in size until a forest of aspen and ash rolls up and down with the area's namesake plateau.

Small lakes, ponds, and marshes dot the depressions in the landscape, and suddenly there are houses every 200 yards. Locals say that around 15,000 people live on the reservation, though the census drastically undercounts them at about 7,000. The landscape feels boreal, northern, and not as predictable, and I feel like I've entered a totally different environment.

Well, it is a different environment, and it's populated by a little-known North Dakota ethnic group, the Metis. I had come to Turtle Mountain because I wanted to meet Joe Parisian, a local musician that plays electric guitar as well as the traditional Metis fiddle. He's proud of being Metis, and he explains to me what exactly that means.

Joe Parisian

For those that don't know, the word Metis, they pronounce it at times, it's a French word that means mixed. And the people here of this area here in Turtle Mountain, so North Dakota really, we're all of mixed blood origin. When the first Metis came into existence is when fur trapper or fur trader, someone connected up with a Cree lady, and they had their first offspring.

 So that was the beginning of the Metis. The Frenchmen, they seemed to really cling to the Cree ladies for some reason. I heard stories because they were like good looking people.

 They'd sit and, I don't know, if the Frenchmen had good taste or not.

Nick Rommell

The mixing of French and Cree happened mostly in the 18th century, and today the Metis inhabit primarily what was considered Western Canada back then, the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. It was here that they worked as fur trappers and buffalo hunters. And when the Canadian Hudson's Bay Company acquired a monopoly over the fur trade in 1821, uncompetitive fur prices led many to start working as oxcart drivers.

They would haul their goods through North Dakota and up the Red River towards St. Paul and the American fur market. The Metis practiced a kind of frontier Catholicism, and most are Catholic today. They have a unique language too, Michif.

It has a lot of regional variations, but the way Joe described it was Cree verbs, French pronouns, and nouns. His example phrase, includes the Cree word for bring, and the Canadian-accented French for my pencil. Turtle Mountain's Metis heritage may not be immediately clear.

The tribe is called the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, using an anglicized term for the Ojibwe Nation. Ojibwe, not Michif, is taught at the tribal college. The history on this gets pretty murky, but most sources agree that both the Metis and the Ojibwe inhabited North Dakota, Minnesota, and Ontario.

But Turtle Mountain was overwhelmingly Metis until Thomas Littleshell brought his band of Ojibwe to the area around 1880. The leader was looking for new land as white settlers encroached upon Minnesota. It gets even more complicated here, but basically the federal government cheated Littleshell's band out of a ton of land, kept doing it, and then ended up giving them a small 6 by 12 mile reservation.

The reservation was calculated to be big enough for just Littleshell's Ojibwe people, disregarding the larger Metis population that still lived there. This partially explains Turtle Mountain's unusually high population density even today. But back then, it meant overcrowding and starvation, especially as the local fur trade and buffalo population faded away.

People turned to small-scale farming and gardening, hunting, and selling forest products, and many found work with government agencies during the 1930s New Deal, or started traveling for seasonal work. Joe Parisian was born into this time, and listening to his stories, the woods around us kind of come to life with the echoes of what used to be.

Joe Parisian

Yeah, we've, you know, the conditions were much different than they are today, you know, I mean, like there was no electricity in those days, so we heated our home with a wood stove, cooked with a wood stove, you know, and then in the real cold time of the year, in the evenings, my dad would burn coal, you know, we'd burn coal, keep heat going all night, because I remember sometimes waking up, or whatever, and it got so cold in the house, like things would freeze at night.


You know, we didn't have refrigeration in the day, so after the weather got cold and stuff, they butchered the hogs, then they kept them in place, it's a shed or whatever they used to call it in Michif, it's a French word, le hangar, it's like a hangar. During the summer months, we like a lot of wild duck or wild game, you know, and chickens, you know, we raise chickens, and then, you know, kind of butcher our own chickens up there, you know.

Nick Rommell

Joe is grateful for all the comforts that his home has now, but remembers his family traditions warmly and fondly.

Joe Parisian

A lot of our customs and traditions kind of revolved around our Catholic faith and our Catholic teachings.

Nick Rommell

Just imagine it, winter and Turtle Mountain. The snow piled high between the leafless trees, the wind is whistling, the sky is overcast, and the little coal stove in the Parisians' log cabin is huffing and puffing, working to keep the bitter cold out of those two rooms.

Joe Parisian

After Christmas, you know, then they really start getting prepared for New Year's, because it was a big Métis or Michif celebration, you know, all the families that did that, and it would start on New Year's Eve, and then it would go up till all King's Day. I think now today they call it Epiphany Sunday, you know. All the homes, I mean, people travel from home to home, they go eat their customary foods there, like the liboulette, bang, li bang, it's a fry bread, and a lot of other foods, you know, that they cook, and they'd serve for all that time from New Year's to all King's Day.


There was a custom in our home, and it was a lot of other homes, that you'd be at your parents' home before midnight on New Year's Eve. I mean, whatever they were doing, if they were out someplace, or at their home, they had to make their way to the parents' home, you know, and if you didn't do it, it was kind of almost somewhat of a sign of being disrespectful. Like my mom and dad were the oldest ones that we had there, and of course my grandma was still living too, but like at our home, there was 18 in our family, 10 boys and 8 girls.


They'd bring their kids, and they'd come, and then my dad would give them a blessing. He'd give all the kids, starting from the oldest one to the youngest one, a blessing, you know, individually, you know, and wished them well.

Nick Rommell

And then there was the music. Joe's dad, John Parisian, was a prominent local fiddle player, and Joe told me that their cabin was a nerve center of music and dancing on Turtle Mountain. This song is called the country waltz, and Joe learned it from his dad before the elder Parisian died during Joe's 11th year.

Joe likes to play with this computerized background now, which he takes with him to gigs. But the dances that went into the night at the Parisian household must have sounded kind of like this.

Joe Parisian

My dad was this fiddler. He was an excellent fiddler, and my mom played the piano, and we had all the other singing and dancing in our family, so our home was always kind of a, I like to call it like a nerve center, you know. A lot of them bush parties went on in our homes, you know.


Kind of had our own little Nashville act in our home, you know.

Nick Rommell

Bush party, or bush dance, is a local term, from what I can tell.

Joe Parisian

Well, there was like really not many places to play, like halls or anything like that. So a lot of the bush dances that they called them, but they'd really gather in their homes, and they would push things aside, and then they'd start their square dances and waltzing.

Nick Rommell

After waltzing, they would transition to other types of tunes. Métis fiddling is divided into different categories that have to do with speed, rhythm, dance steps, and fiddle technique. Craig Lunday is another Turtle Mountain fiddler, and he explains some of these differences to me when I meet him at his home, perched on a hill overlooking the woods below.

Hornpipes are fast, but also sweet and melodious. Breakdowns up the ante a bit, mixing speed with the kind of repetition that makes you want to dance feverishly and intensely. And jigs are distinguished by the rhythmic dance that accompanies them.

Craig Lunday

You know, your feet are going, and at the same time you're playing your fiddle.

Nick Rommell

The Red River jig is an example of this kind of tune, and many call it the Métis national anthem because of how popular and symbolic it is. Jig, by the way, doesn't refer to the Irish dance, but to a French dance called the jig. And then there's the technique of discording, where one or two strings on the fiddle are retuned so that you can hit them with your bow even while playing the melody on another string.

Craig Lunday

Making the other strings harmonize with the string that you're actually playing. It'll drone out another string to make to make it vibrate and give it more sound as you're playing that particular tune. And you can kind of hear the drone a little bit when you...

Nick Rommell

Craig is of a younger generation than Joe, and picked up the fiddle at the local Turtle Mountain Community College. He needed one more credit to graduate, and on a whim, took a fiddling class taught by a local musician.

Craig Lunday

As soon as I got into the class, I was hooked. I got addicted with playing, and I constantly played night and day.

Nick Rommell

Sometimes it was hard to transpose this traditional music into a classroom setting.

Craig Lunday

And you try to get an instructor that's a Métis fiddler to slow down the tunes. His version of slow down was … wasn't slow for me.

It's like I recorded it, and I was trying to learn only by ear.

Nick Rommell

Craig kept learning tunes by ear, slowly figuring them out on the fiddle. Most traditional music is passed down this way, and musicians end up putting their own spin on these tunes as they learn them. Craig did that on Big John McNeil, this tune from earlier.

Craig Lunday

Because the way most of them play is (music sample)... And I don't. The way I play it is (faster music sample)

Nick Rommell

So Craig played on, sometimes going extraordinary lengths to perfect his fiddling.

Craig Lunday

I was in college at the time. This is when I first started learning to play. My wife, she's a nurse, and her shift would be 12-hour shifts.

I would have my children at home, so my thing was practice, practice, practice. And the most I think I've ever played, that I kept track of it, was nine and a half hours in one day. I would be zoned in to trying to learn these tunes, and I would be putting pressure down on my chin rest.

And just out of the blue, we were traveling somewhere, and my neck started hurting, and it'd get really bad, and I didn't know what was going on. So I went straight to the ER, and then they couldn't figure out why, and I didn't have a clue of why it was. Here, finally, I told them.

I said, well, I play fiddle, and I'm constantly putting my chin down on the chin rest. So the doctor figured it out that it was from me practicing every day, and putting pressure down on the left side two, three hours a day, it was starting to pull my neck over. So I had to go through physical therapy at that time.

Nick Rommell

Our conversation continues, and eventually, Craig goes to a back room and pulls out his great-grandfather's fiddle, made in Paris in the 1840s.

Craig Lunday

It's Vieux Mayenne Paris, so it is a French-made fiddle.

Nick Rommell

Craig's great-grandpa, Pat Baker, was a prominent local fiddler as well, around the same time as John Parisian. At this point, Craig's dad, Alvin, chimes in with his boyhood memories of Mooshoom Baker, as they called him, using the Michif word for grandfather.


We had a big house down, it's called Gordon Lake, on the east side of Gordon Lake down here. And he would play in the living room, and I would sit, I had a little stool that's sitting alongside of him, I still remember that. But yeah, he would play for bush dances.


I was able to sit up for a while until we got kicked to bed, so we had to go to bed, but I would listen to him.

Nick Rommell

And it's no less than a small miracle, but Craig was able to learn a his grandpa wrote and played decades earlier. Someone had recorded Pat Baker in the 1950s on tape, and the recording had migrated to cassette and CD over the years. When Craig started playing fiddle, his great-aunt asked him to learn the tune, which they named Mushom Baker's Waltz.

Alvin joins in on guitar, father and son playing together. So even the only song rescued from the decomposition of time in Turtle Mountain, Joe Parisian has a similar story about a song of his father's, except rather than digging the tune out of an old box of cassettes, it came back to him from the depths of his own mind.

Joe Parisian

Okay, I'm going to do a tune here now that my dad composed. This was before he passed, like we said, in 1957. Then I started just playing it here a few years back, you know, but I remembered it.


It's kind of strange after all these years how you can still remember how things go, you know. I call my older brother Jim and ask him if this is the way that my dad's tune was, and he said, Jesus, you're playing it just like him, you know. But I hadn't played that in years and never really, really practiced it or anything.

I'd never had a name print.

Nick Rommell

He called it John's Breakdown.

Joe Parisian

So when I was playing that out in the day when my dad was playing this tune, I was just trying to visualize the people dancing to that, you know, because they really weave in and out pretty rapidly, you know.

Nick Rommell

We've talked a lot about remembering in this piece, but memory is a funny thing. You can tend to it like a fire and pass it down, burning bright and strong. Joe and Craig certainly do.

In fact, both of them told me they'd like to record the reservation's remaining Michif speakers and use the recordings to create a language curriculum for the local school system. But you can also let the fire of memory burn out, raking the coals into the dirt. Soon night falls and the woods go dark.

The coals stop glowing. Mixed in with the dirt around them, they're just charred fragments of the fire they once belonged to. But it doesn't mean they're not there.

I pull my car off the pitch black road and into the island of electric light around a small bar. Squeezed between two pickup trucks, I shut my engine off. In the silence, I can make out Joe singing and guitar playing from inside the bar.

He's playing a gig that he's invited me to. I walk across the dirt lot and step inside. It's comfortably warm and the lamps cast the cheerful glow over the bar area.

The bartender rehashes some inside joke with the customer while clumps of revelers stand around them laughing and hollering. In the next room, the old fiddler is playing a Keith Urban song on electric guitar while couples swing along to the tune in each other's arms. The more reclusive ones are in the back, cigarettes aglow in the blue mood lighting.

I buy a ginger ale and find an open spot by the wall to stand in. People curiously ask me where I'm from and one elderly lady tells me to stop standing like a statue and dance. I laugh and I seriously consider it but then a tall man in a camo ball cap sidles up to me and asks if I know Joe.

I explain my connection. He nods slowly and asks if I know why Joe is playing here tonight. What do you mean, I ask.

He just lost his better half, the man says, a little bit of beer on his breath. Oh yeah, I respond. In fact, it was the first thing Joe and I talked about after I came in his front door.

Joe's wife of 50 years died suddenly of COVID this past winter and he spoke with such fondness about her, with such heartbreak about her passing that I admit I welled up within just 10 minutes of being at his home. I look back at him now, that musical lifer crooning country songs on the little stage. The tall man in the ball cap nods deeply and somberly then turns back to me to speak and he said he'd never play again.

But there he is, wrapping up the song as the dancers turn and applaud. Joe looks over at me and with a wink and a nod says, this next one goes out to my man Nick. I laugh and he launches into Merle Haggard's Working Man Blues, upbeat and bouncy.

It was a song we had played together at his house after the fiddling was done. The tall man in the ball cap goes off to find his dancing partner while I finish my ginger ale. When the song ends I take my leave, waving to Joe.

He smiles back with his eyes and gives me one more nod. The cool air hits me as I step back into the night and the sounds all mix into one as I drive off through the dark of Turtle Mountain.

(fiddle music)

NOTE: Main Street uses turboscribe.ai to generate transcripts for its shows. The official record, however, is the audio of the show.