Today we welcome a guest post from Ryan Hall, author of Beneath the Backbone of the World: Blackfoot People and the North American Borderlands, 1720-1877, out now from UNC Press.
For the better part of two centuries, between 1720 and 1877, the Blackfoot (Niitsitapi) people controlled a vast region of what is now the U.S. and Canadian Great Plains. As one of the most expansive and powerful Indigenous groups on the continent, they dominated the northern imperial borderlands of North America. The Blackfoot maintained their control even as their homeland became the site of intense competition between white fur traders, frequent warfare between Indigenous nations, and profound ecological transformation. In an era of violent and wrenching change, Blackfoot people relied on their mastery of their homelands’ unique geography to maintain their way of life. With extensive archival research from both the United States and Canada, Ryan Hall shows for the first time how the Blackfoot used their borderlands position to create one of North America’s most vibrant and lasting Indigenous homelands.
Beneath the Backbone of the World is part of our David J. Weber Series in the New Borderlands History. It is available in paperback and ebook editions.
I have recently come to the rather disappointing realization that my students know almost nothing about Canada or about Canadian history. Despite the fact that I teach in upstate New York, not terribly far from the U.S.-Canadian border, few of my students in a recent upper-level course could identify a single Canadian province on a map. Just the other day, I asked a class of twenty-two freshmen if any of them had heard of the Canadian freedom-fighter Louis Riel (one of the most famous figures in Canadian history) and not a single hand went up. I assured them that they would soon learn more, but they didn’t seem very excited. I don’t blame them—after all, when I was their age I likewise knew nothing about our northern neighbors. Why bother, when there is only so much space on our schedules and in our brains?
Well, I’ve become convinced that Canadian history is essential for Americans. My conversion to Canadian history evangelist began while writing my book, which focuses in depth on the history of western Canada and Indigenous people in the borderlands. Unexpectedly, I became an historian of the United States and Canada, which led me to spend the first three years of my career teaching at Canadian universities. I find Canadian history endlessly fascinating (honestly!) and I love Canada, but what does Canadian history have to offer other Americans? Allow me to suggest a few possibilities.
First, learning about Canada challenges the idea that American history was exceptional or inevitable. When thirteen of the British North American colonies declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, other colonists stayed and developed their own unique identities within the empire, eventually achieving their own semi-independence as Canadians. When seen through this lens, Canadian society can represent a sort of alternate reality for American history. As writer Adam Gopnik recently mused in the New Yorker, Canada offers the chance to see how the Thirteen Colonies may have turned out had they failed to break free of the British empire during the Revolution. This historical kinship is evident everywhere for an American in Canada, where many things feel identical to home, but other aspects of Canada’s political culture, language, and character make it feel very foreign. Learning Canadian history shows students that our American society could have taken shape very differently. We could have been Canada.
Second, learning about Canada helps to put American history in global context. Americans are generally conditioned to believe that American history is unique, for better or worse. My students are usually surprised when they see key parallels between American history and Canadian history, especially with regards to histories of colonialism and Indigenous people. Themes like economic exchange, settler colonialism, violence, ethnic cleansing, treaty negotiation, cultural genocide, and assimilationism define Indigenous-settler history in both countries. Understanding that America’s history of colonial expansion and Indigenous dispossession directly mirrors those of other countries demonstrates that these are global issues, which require global connections and need global solutions.
Third, learning about Canadian history encourages the use of new frames of analysis in historical study. In North America, history is still taught overwhelmingly using the frame of nation-states. Despite a growing interest in thematic approaches, history departments still most often advertise positions and offer courses based on nation-states: for example, “U.S. History” or “Canadian History.” These nation-centered histories can preclude approaches that span or predate national borders. Paying attention to both American and Canadian history therefore opens up other frames of analysis. Blackfoot history is a great example. Blackfoot homelands span the international border, and as a result, academic studies of Blackfoot history have long fallen victim to piecemeal national approaches: Canadians study Blackfoot history north of the border, Americans south of the border. Looking beyond national borders, and taking Canadian history seriously, allows students and historians to take the next step and put Indigenous homelands like Blackfoot country at the center of analysis.
When I was in Canada, my Canadian students sometimes bemoaned to me that they knew a great deal about the United States, but Americans never bothered to learn much about them. Perhaps that’s somewhat unavoidable, considering how the United States dwarfs Canada demographically, economically, and in cultural influence. But that shouldn’t stop Americans from looking north. We have a great deal to gain by paying attention to our northern cousins.
Ryan Hall is assistant professor of history and Native American studies at Colgate University.