The Metises: designer people engineered by the continent

In fact, I STILL didn’t know what my novel was about, after completing it in Taos NM at the end of 2005, dazzled by the compelling eroticism.

The journal I kept named the tribes I passed through, Hopi, Navajo, and the drama of the season of rituals of the Pueblo people.

Burning Silk is a contact story: French Huguenot silkmakers come to depend on their metises neighbors for the success of their venture.

Who are the metises? They are modelled on the Revolutionary War Original people of the Susquehanna River where I have had a home for 25 years. Queen Esther Montour was Dutch/French/Mohawk/Lenape. A sophisticated woman from
a line of women who made it into the white man’s history books, Queen Esther and her sister Queen Catherine spoke several European and several native languages. The metises people, I have come to see, were this continent’s attempt to produce a hybrid people who could live in harmony on this continent.

It served the new breed of English settlers coming up the Susquehanna to style Queen Esther and her band as “savages,” in order to justify taking their land. Queen Esther and her band were driven from their homes at harvest time, their log houses burned, their orchards cut down, their crops destroyed, men, women and children fleeing north across the border
into Canada.

[Footnote: Yes I have read every account of the Wyoming massacre that has been published, that is, white man’s history. New settlers killed Queen Esther’s young son as he was travelling along the river. She went mad. What happened after that, no one knows but several white men were ritually executed by angry native people, among them a raging woman
identified as Queen Esther.]

Here is how I describe them in Burning Silk:

She had also not anticipated the impact their neighbors’ way of life would have on her family. None of the Duladiers had met an indigenous American before coming to this continent. To find a new race of people—the métis—sprung up here over the past two hundred years astonished them. The magnitude of this fact seemed like something they might have heard about before arriving.

Their neighbors, the Montour family, on whom they had come to depend for knowledge of this new land and its particulars, lived in homes with windows like theirs, of log and plaster and fieldstone, clothed themselves in a pastiche of European and deerskin clothing, furnished their homes in a stunning mélange of Louis Quatorze, Regency, and . . .

Bedouine, chic beyond any European woman’s dreams (if she had the eyes to see it, and the Duladier women did), as louche a chic as they had ever imagined. No doubt certain travelling Parisians found this rangy frontier style shocking Archives enough to take home and adapt to their own Bohemian lifestyles.

And the British? Little wonder that Marguerite’s grandmother was said to have run a salon on the distant Susquehanna that no European taking a tour of the Americas would have missed.

Sometimes, like catching a glimpse of herself in a window, and seeing herself as an outsider might, she understood how the Montours must see members of her own family: jarring and unnatural. Not belonging. Out of place. Their pale skin, coiffed hair, cinched waists, frock coats . . . all more than a bit stifling. The Montours were a fresh wind blowing, levelling pretense and piety. Not everyone in her family agreed with Catherine’s assessment, however.

La Madonne, source of all our success, we need the Montours. Need Regina. Why else would you send them to us?

She comforted herself the way a motherless child will: Soit tran- quille, my child. Breathe. Let your shoulders drop. Relax your jaw. There.

She lifted the cover of a small jewelry box her father Auguste had commissioned for her when she went through her first full volte with her mother, as apprentice. I must think of a gift to mark their first apprenticeships, she pondered, thinking of both Kristiana and Regina.

Tipping a velvet bag into her palm, she pulled out a snood set with seed pearls for her hair. Peering into the oval metallic mirror mounted near the window, and tucking the netted pearls around the contours of her braid, she felt her small rebellious spirit kindle in the act of adorning her corona. Too dressy for such a day, someone might say. Perhaps my conservative sister? At this late hour of her confinement, anything could be countenanced if it made her feel better. If Regina thinks it beautiful . . . Then she closed the lid of her treasure box, sealed the cupboard doors to her bed, and headed out to the day, to taste its flavor.”

I cherish the possibility that we may still allow this continent to shape a new people, one who can live in harmony with each other on our home watersheds, this continent which we have so disrupted, this continent where we imported the worst of our European ways and now are exporting under the name of “globalization,” a disease that feeds on authentic indigenous cultures, destroying them and supplanting the Golden Arches.

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