After a two-year hiatus of in-person events because of the pandemic, the 2022 event is hoped to attract over 10,000 people through its gates. “Back to Batoche” is an annual celebration held the third Thursday to Sunday in July in Batoche, Sask. It attracts thousands of visitors from across the Métis Nation Homeland and beyond who gather at Batoche to visit, celebrate their heritage and honour those Métis who died during the 1885 Northwest Resistance. Along with this being the first post pandemic, in-person Back to Batoche festival, this year is also the 50th annual in-person Métis gathering at the Batoche homelands and the entertainers are even more numerous than before requiring a second stage to be erected on the grounds. MN–S President Glen McCallum told reporters, “The past two years have been a testament to the resiliency and courage of our citizens, but it has not been without sacrifice. Back to Batoche is always an opportunity to reconnect with friends and family and enjoy food, entertainment, and dance while visiting and hearing stories. This year’s festivities have special significance for us all because it marks 50 years of the festival coming back to Batoche.”
Joe Blyan who has attended the Back to Batoche celebrations since the early days, said that this year more than any other, he and others have felt a connection back to the land. “This is where our Métis life is. When you talk about Métis people, you immediately think about Louis Riel, Gabriel Dumont. These are the people that fought, but there are many others – many kookums and mooshums that died for us to be here today,” Blyan told reporters. Back to Batoche provides the opportunity to preserve and promote Métis culture but it also creates a space to reconnect with friends and family and create new relationships with people from across the country. While Back to Batoche may be festival celebrating Métis culture and nationhood, it is also an open invitation for those not of Métis descent to enjoy and share in the culture; to experience the atmosphere that is like that of a very large family reunion or homecoming.
According to the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada published by Canadian Geographic, (https://indigenouspeoplesatlasofcanada.ca/article/heritage-days/) the Back to Batoche festival is the modern version of an old Métis holiday, St. Joseph’s Day (July 24), which was first named as a Métis National Day in 1884. The celebration honouring the patron saint of the Métis, St. Joseph, involved a mass and a country fair with music and dancing. Men participated in horse racing, shooting and arm-wrestling contests, while women displayed their embroidery, quilting, rug hooking, sash weaving, beadwork and crocheting. St. Joseph’s Day continued to be celebrated at Batoche until the 1930s.
On June 26-28, 1971, the modern Back to Batoche celebration was inaugurated. Costing $30,000, the gathering was actually a Métis Society of Saskatchewan convention, with July 25 being set aside as a “camping day.” The Canadian Army supplied tents and ration kits, and policing was provided by “special Native police” and the Rosthern RCMP. The event was labelled as a political and cultural “rebirth” of the Métis Nation and included powwow dancing, racing, sporting events, turkey shoots, bannock baking, tent pitching, fiddling and Métis dancing contests. Early Back to Batoche events were celebrations of both Métis and non-status Indians. From 1981-1984 the celebration was called Métis Heritage Days, but with the centennial celebration in 1985 the Back to Batoche name was resurrected and remains to this day. In 1986 political tensions arose between the Métis and Non-status Indians in the Association of Métis and Non-Status Indians of Saskatchewan. The result was the reformation of the separate entity, the Métis Society of Saskatchewan in 1988 (a predecessor for the Métis Nation – Saskatchewan) which then took over the running of the event. As a celebration of the Métis culture, Back to Batoche demonstrates that the Métis are more than just a mixed-blood race. They have evolved into a distinct indigenous people with their own language, Michif (which evolved by combining French nouns and Cree verbs) and distinct culture. Métis nationalism gained a resurgence after the Constitution Act, 1982 (s.35.2) declared the Métis to be one of three distinct Aboriginal peoples.
The Back to Batoche festival showcases Métis culture through traditional food, storytelling, Métis artists, traditional land use teachings, voyageur games, chuckwagon racing, sports, contemporary games, Indigenous language, fiddling, square dancing and jigging. Traditional Métis fiddling has a distinct style that incorporates influences from a diverse kinship network, such as French-Canadian and Scottish-Irish. The Métis style of fiddle music and the Red River Jig are considered national symbols of the Métis Nation and Métis fiddle music is well-known to get an audience’s toes tapping. Another aspect of the festival which showcases Métis culture is the horses and racing. Back to Batoche would not be complete without chuckwagon and chariot races. The main events on Thursday and Friday were the chariot races, while Saturday evening saw the chuckwagons take to the track. Like many sports, the North West Pony Chuckwagon and Chariot Association is hoping to encourage more young people to get involved. Predominantly a male dominated sport, chuckwagon and chariot racing have relatively few women drivers, and those are mostly found in chariot driving, and for the most part only in the pony division, not the thoroughbreds. As much as some detractors would like to say that driving the wagons is not a physical sport, it takes significant upper body strength to control two or four horses who really want to run. The “ponies” must be no taller than 58.5 inches at the withers, or 14.2 hh, and a “pony” that size could weigh anywhere between 880 to 990 pounds (399 -449 kg).
Additionally, this was the inaugural year for the “Indian Relay” at the festival, and the fast action drew huge cheers from the fans. Each relay team is comprised of one rider, three horses and three other people to help hold the horses. At the horn the rider mounts the first horse bareback and races around the track back to the starting ‘box’ where he transfers to the next horse and does another lap. In all the rider must complete two transfers between three different horses and finish three laps. As the crowd saw first-hand, things don’t always go off without a hitch. As thoroughbred’s the horses are born to run, and in the relay, they are given their head to complete the lap in the quickest possible time, and sometimes they can decide that just doing one lap isn’t enough. In the final race on Saturday evening one horse did just that and after two complete laps decided that it still wasn’t done and refused to stop. The rider decided to just jump off, but his dismount landed him underneath the speeding horse, and he was taken by ambulance to Rosthern hospital for assessment. In an interview two years ago one relay organizer observed that the event is about more than just sport. It’s about reconciliation and healing for a new generation. “There’s a connection when you’re on that horse, there’s an indescribable feeling when nothing else really matters. As long as you’re in tune with that horse, that horse will take care of you.”
For four incredible days the music and culture of the Métis people swelled over the landscape of Batoche, welcoming the people back to the land of their ancestors. Ribbon skirts and Métis sashes were worn proudly as Métis flags rippled in the breeze. Back to Batoche is a homecoming in every sense of the word.
Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wakaw Recorder