The Cypress Hills: An Island By Itself

26 February 2009

The Cypress Hills: An Island By Itself
By Walter Hildebrandt and Brian Hubner
Published by Purich Publishing
Reviewed by Tim Tokaryk
$25.00 ISBN 978-1-895830-30-9

There are still places of reflection and wonderment. Places that existed in their natural form for centuries upon centuries. Capturing these jewels, expressing their significance, is a noble charge commanded by few. “The Cypress Hills, an Island by Itself “ represents one of these jewels. The history of this isolated region is surprisingly long, fraught with characters, misdeeds, government greed, and failed promises. Affected most throughout these trials were the First Nations peoples.

Authors Hildebrandt and Hubner document the sorted history of this iconic piece of land that straddles the southwest corner of Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta. Sitting 600 metres above the grassy plains in all directions, it commands the highest point between the Rockies and central Canada. It contains its own ecosystem of lodgepole pine, elk and moose, remnants of a forest long since gone from western Canada. The ghosts of the now extinct plains grizzlies can still be heard and the forts of the past still striking. This land was a resource for First Nations peoples since at least 10-12,000 years ago, when “this finger of land” exposed during glacial retreats would have been a haven in the demanding times of the frozen past.

The modern history of this piece of land, the last 200 years or so, illustrates the role of the Cypress Hills as an anchor for aboriginal culture and resources and is the focus of this recent volume. It was with the encroachment of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the fur trade that this anchor was severely tested. Never more so than in 1873, when volatile conditions precipitated by the “intensely competitive trade for buffalo robes and furs” led to the ‘Cypress Hills Massacre’ involving American and Canadian traders, Metis, and the Nakoda people. The perpetrators, “sodden with drink” and in the absence of “level heads”, were clearly motivated by the current of racial prejudice that swept along the grassy seas of the Canadian west, including the unprotected and barely-armed camp of the Nakoda that would,in one day of incredulous action, be annihilated.

Since then treaties have come and gone, much like the promises and unilateral decisions of Canada, characterized by an uneven and uncaring hand. Hildebrandt and Hubner, with care and insight, show the history of the First Nations adhesion to this particular region and the resulting disastrous effects. For instance, the authors demonstrate how the forced paternalism of Canadian administrators was “humiliating” for proud First Nations people. What remains now are the names of the administrators and explorers – Farwell, Dewdney, Henday, Walsh – an inter-provincial park, and a national historic site; all little reminders of the past. “The Cypress Hills” is more than a little reminder, but a tempered document that should not be forgotten in this nations history, a record of a prairie island of hope and despair.

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