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The Art of the Cart

by Karon Shmon

Jan 12, 2023

Posted in: ,

The most obvious similarity between the Gabriel Dumont Institute and a Red River Cart is that both are Métis inventions, albeit they are nearly a couple of centuries apart in origin. The first Red River cart is reported to have been made in 1801 at Fort Pembina, a part of the Métis Homeland long before the International Boundary separated Canada from the USA. The carts were made entirely of wood which made them repairable anywhere there were trees.

The carts were engineering marvels, in that they were built to carry a large amount of goods and people, and they could easily become a make-shift shelter for sleeping or resting. The wheels were genius as well, spoked at an angle to sustain more weight and removable so the cart and wheels could float over a water impediment. The wheel rims where often wrapped with shaganappi, a type of rawhide, to give them more traction.  All the trails at that time were dirt trails and they could be very muddy when wet.

Of course we cannot forget that the cart isn’t much use without the strength needed to pull it along. Oxen were best suited to this purpose. Although horses were faster, they couldn’t pull as much weight, so the Métis chose the ox for its strength, despite the journey taking a little longer. Figuring out how to get the ox and cart to work together well demonstrated more Métis resourcefulness and adaptability.

Overall, the cart suited the needs of our people. It was made of readily available materials that could also be found if repairs were needed. It was made to suit the terrain the Métis would encounter on their journeys to harvest what they needed, conduct trade and commerce, and to visit one another. The right combination of Métis ingenuity, suitable materials for the existing environment, and the teamwork required to reach a destination shows that each component has a role in supporting the other components. They were all essential right down to the smallest peg in the construction, the state of health of the ox pulling the cart, and the skill of the cart driver. These were interdependent parts of a whole.

GDI is on a journey, one mapped out for us by those calling for it at the 1976 Cultural Conference. They saw the destination as one that would provide education, employment, and culture. GDI has stayed true to this mission, adapting as we go, fixing what needs to be fixed, choosing routes that make sense, staying mindful of all that it takes to reach the destination, and succeeding in moving the people it serves to a “bright future with a proud past.” This phrase exemplifies the roots and wings we feel securely grounds us in our culture and history while preparing us to work and live successfully and happily.

We may have those days when we think that our individual efforts on this journey aren’t essential and don’t make a difference. Yet, we know from the lessons taught to us by our ancestors that all the parts are important and work best when they are supporting one another as we head towards the destinations we had in mind. Whether we see ourselves as part of the cart, part of the ox, or part of the driver, we are each helping to make the journey as smooth as possible and the destination reachable. And, like our ancestors, we are willing to adapt as needed.

Additional information about Red River carts can be found here: http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/transactions/3/redrivercart.shtml


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Gabriel Dumont Institue

GDI is a Saskatchewan-based educational, employment and cultural institute serving Métis across the province

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