We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Michel Hogue, author of Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People. Born of encounters between Indigenous women and Euro-American men in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the Plains Metis people occupied contentious geographic and cultural spaces. Living in a disputed area of the northern Plains inhabited by various Indigenous nations and claimed by both the United States and Great Britain, the Metis emerged as a people with distinctive styles of speech, dress, and religious practice, and occupational identities forged in the intense rivalries of the fur and provisions trade. Hogue explores how, as fur trade societies waned and as state officials looked to establish clear lines separating the United States from Canada and Indians from non-Indians, these communities of mixed Indigenous and European ancestry were profoundly affected by the efforts of nation-states to divide and absorb the North American West.
In today’s post, Hogue suggests that, despite its reputation as the world’s longest undefended border, the forty-ninth parallel’s presence has rarely been so benign for the Plains Indigenous peoples whose lands the border bisected. Recognizing the patterns of violence that were woven into the fabric of borderland relations along the western boundary between the United States and Canada, he suggests, should recalibrate our understanding of this political boundary and underscore the role of Indigenous peoples in border-making in North America.
“Thus has another good work been wrought in the interest of peace and good order, on our often threatened and imperiled border.” So reported the Helena Weekly Herald on the successful raid by the U.S. Army on a Plains Metis camp just south of the forty-ninth parallel in November 1871. “This colony of British Nomads,” the Montana newspaper explained, “had brought with them large quantities of liquor and ammunition to barter with the Indians for robes and peltries.” These circumstances were part of a disturbing series of reports from this stretch of the forty-ninth parallel through the 1860s and 1870s that suggested that Plains Metis traders from north of the border were encouraging Indigenous peoples in the American West “to make war upon the government of the United States and its citizens.” Reports such as these introduced the Metis to American officials and underscored just how important it was to suppress these cross-border networks if the United States was to secure its northern border.
The Metis are a post-contact Indigenous people born of the encounters between Europeans and Indigenous peoples. The first Metis communities in the North American West emerged amid the displacements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—the expansion of mercantile capitalist markets for furs, the introduction of epidemic diseases, metallic weaponry, and other goods—as powerful new players in this changed world. On the Great Plains, these communities were marked by their distinctive language, dress, artistic traditions, and religious practices, their expansive kinship networks, and by their occupational identities as key players in the fur and provisions trade.
The economic, political, and social relationships that sustained their mobile communities also formed the basis for their expanding economic and military power. In particular, Plains Metis hunters and traders exploited the vigorous commercial demand for animal pelts and furs, meat, and other products on the nineteenth-century Plains. During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Metis commercial networks ran through the borderland world of the northern Plains.
In the pitched battles that erupted between American troops and Indigenous peoples across the northern Plains during the Civil War and its aftermath, American officials came to view these trading networks—and the Metis traders who supplied groups like the Dakotas and Lakotas with arms, ammunition, and other goods—as key impediments to American expansion. During the military’s efforts to pursue the Dakota bands that had fled from Minnesota onto the Plains in the aftermath of the Minnesota Uprising of 1862, military commanders charged that Metis traders informed the Dakotas of the army’s maneuvers, thus allowing Dakota bands to keep beyond the army’s reach.
More galling still were the related tales that contraband from north of the border was finding its way to Cheyenne and other “Platte River Indians” who were then engaged in their own struggles against American incursions. When the Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos struck at the surveyors sent to plot the route of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1872 and 1873, officials again pointed to Metis borderland traders as the likely source of arms and ammunition. Such intelligence raised the disturbing possibility that the illegal trade in arms and ammunition by the Metis strengthened the hand of those Plains nations who seemed most determined to resist American expansion.
In just this way, Metis actions shaped how American officials viewed the borderlands and prompted sharp action on the part of the army. For those officials, the Metis traffic in arms and ammunition to tribes who resisted U.S. expansionism destabilized U.S. Indian policies and even threatened the viability of Montana’s nascent settler communities—hence the importance of unraveling Metis cross-border networks. The Plains Metis communities that were the targets of these military operations well understood that violence was essential to the creation and enforcement of the northern boundary of the United States. In the hothouse atmosphere of the 1870s, in particular, these Metis communities were the focus of repeated efforts to expel them from the borderlands at a moment when their pre-existing lifeways based in the buffalo hunt were on the verge of collapse, and as the effects of American expansionism on the Plains were displaced northwards. The violence that exploded across the Plains in the 1860s and 1870s was not contained by political boundaries like the forty-ninth parallel; indeed, the conflict unleashed by the clashes between the U.S. Army and Indigenous peoples was pivotal in making that boundary real.
Michel Hogue is assistant professor of history at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. His book, Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People, is now available.