On the open prairies in the 1870s, one could look to the horizon without seeing any distinguishing features. Yet here was the border – an invisible boundary along the forty-ninth parallel – dividing the United States and Canada.
The job of the North American Boundary Commission was to make the invisible border visible. They did this by building mounds of sod placed three miles apart – surely a ludicrous situation since anyone standing beside a mound would barely be able to see the next mound even on a clear day.
Although “First Nations” doesn’t actually appear in the title of Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People the book devotes substantial space to their issues as well. Author Michel Hogue sheds light on both Metis and First Nations people and their culture. As the subtitle suggests, the Medicine Line divided not only the two countries, but also the people living there.
Hogue points out that Metis and First Nations people were well aware of the power and legal ramifications of the Medicine Line – that no matter what they had done south of the border, they would be safe north of the line. Thus after the Lakota wiped out General George Custer’s Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Chief Sitting Bull, fleeing the vengeful American Army, brought his Lakota to the Canadian prairies.
The Canadian government allowed them to stay north of the border as long as they obeyed the laws of the land, but refused to provide food or supplies. Instead, the government let “hunger do its work” in a region with a growing population of hunters and a dwindling supply of buffalo. The position of the Canadian government, Hogue states, was “calculated to drive the Lakota out of Canadian territory, using starvation – rather than rifles – as the mode of violence.”
As the Canadian and American prairies developed, fluidity at the border was restricted. Metis and First Nations people lost many of their rights by crossing the border. Once they moved across, they were subject to new laws and not allowed to return to their previous status.
Hogue examines the impact of Prairie leaders like Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, and lesser-known heroes like Jean-Louis Légaré and Antoine Oullette. Dumont wanted a treaty like the one Riel had negotiated with the Canadian government at the Red River settlement in 1870. While living in Montana as an American citizen, Riel petitioned the American government to establish a Metis reserve, but his request was denied.
Metis and the Medicine Line has a bibliography, endnotes, index, three maps, and seventeen black and white photos or illustrations. A useful aspect of this 328-page book is a map outlining the areas covered by the various numbered treaties.
Hogue does an admirable job of sifting through archival sources to weave a comprehensive, cohesive, and coherent story. In examining the complex world of Metis and Aboriginal societies, Hogue’s Metis and the Medicine Line adds greater depth to our knowledge and understanding of Metis people and their culture.
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