Why is Cuthbert Grant Jr. called ‘Wapiston’ (marten)?

So PROUD to share this from a fellow descendant and New friend:

Why is Cuthbert Grant Jr. called ‘Wapiston’ (marten)?

by Dana Lynn Seaborn (D L Seaborn is a singer/songwriter and descendant of Cuthbert Grant. Her soon-to-be-released CD, I’m Métis!, includes a song about Grant.)

Who named Grant, “Wapiston”? His mother?

Who was his mother? Some historians say she was Cree, some say she was Métis. No one really knows. The only thing we can safely assume is that she had Cree ancestry and was at home in Cree culture.

None of the various books I’ve read on Grant have made reference to the name, ‘Wapiston’. The only published reference I can find is from a Métis Resource Centre ‘Buffalo Trails and Tails’ article by Lorraine Freeman (sadly, deceased). Printed in the late 1990s, the article is entitled, Cuthbert Grant, “Wapeston: White Ermine”, and seems to be the earliest reference to the name. Various Métis people I’ve talked to have speculated that Grant was called ‘ermine’ because he was particularly pale. Or that he was called ‘white weasel’ because the Cree people held him in contempt.

Neither speculation rings true. Grant was Métis; he was surrounded by his Cree and Métis family and friends. His dark good looks are apparent in his photograph and the descriptions of him by his peers. I’m not certain how Cree people view weasels, but they are not held in high esteem in many First Nations cultures. The assumption that his Cree relatives would refer to him with contempt is in error; the Cree of his time had great respect for him — so much so, that Cree warriors fought beside him at the Battle of Seven Oaks. Even the Sioux, traditional enemies of the Cree and Métis, addressed him respectfully as “Chief”.

So why would the Cree people call him “weasel”, white or otherwise? An ermine, of course, is a weasel in its white, winter coat. In summer, the weasel is brown, to blend with the forest, and in winter, white, to blend with the snow. The Cree word for weasel is “sihkôs”.

The ermine that’s most valuable to the fur trade is the black-tailed weasel (Cree: “kaskicewayowes”), which, in winter, turns white with a black tail tip.

I looked up “Wapiston” in four different Cree dictionaries. It had various spellings (Waapistaan, Wâpistân, Wâpistan), but was always translated as “marten” — not “ermine”. Hmmm, I thought. Curiouser and curiouser.

So “Wâpistan” (or ‘Wapiston’) doesn’t actually mean ‘weasel’ or ‘ermine’. It means, “marten”. The marten’s fur is considered extremely valuable. It’s a small brown carnivore with pale, fluffy fur from neck to chest. Unlike the weasel, it doesn’t turn white in winter.

So how did Grant come to be called ‘marten’? Did his Cree or Métis/Cree mother call him that when he was a child? (Perhaps because martens are not only valuable to the fur trade, but — let’s face it — they’re pretty darn cute.)

Another possibility: Grant was a ‘bourgeois’, and would often have worn his frock coat and cravat. He was almost certainly wearing it when he first arrived back home to Assiniboia as a young man. The marten pictured above reminds me of the photograph of Grant wearing his dark frock coat and “fluffy” white or cream cravat.

His Cree friends and family would have gathered to welcome the young Métis; they would have noticed his shining black eyes and admired the pale cravat tumbling down his dark coat. Were they reminded of the valuable little martin with its pale furry chest?

Did the name, Wâpistân, come down through seven generations of Cree speakers?

Or did someone (a Cree-speaking Métis perhaps), more recently look at his photo and give Grant this Cree name? How did the actual meaning of the name become lost in translation?

Because of the sad loss of Lorraine Freeman, we may never know. But the wâpistân (pronounced “wahp-shtahn”) is attractive, hardy, and valuable. It seems a fitting name for the attractive, hardy, valuable Mr. Grant.

His mother would be pleased.

Dana Lynn Seaborn

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