Transnational Perspectives on the History of Great Plains Women: Gender, Race, Nations, and the Forty-Ninth Parallel

Article excerpt

"History is sadly truncated if national historians travel without passports and stop investigating when the subject reaches the 49th parallel," writes Jan Noel in her introduction to a recent collection of articles that focus on race and gender in the intertwined histories of the border colonies of seventeenth and eighteenth century eastern North America. (1) There is enormous potential for similar work on cross-border history in the regions to the west of the colonies of the Noel collection. The modest goal of this article is to create interest in transnational approaches to the northern Great Plains region of the Canadian and U.S. Wests by drawing on examples from my past, present, and future areas of research that focus on Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women's and gender history within the context of imperialism of the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. "Transnational" histories question the nation-centered focus of history, and they encompass and blend diverse approaches and perspectives including comparative and borderlands history, analysis of boundary-crossing people, ideas and institutions, and examination of the ways in which national borders were ignored, contested and manipulated. (2) A transnational approach to the Great Plains permits fresh perspectives on the history of colonized and colonial women and on gendered and racial dimensions of nation-making. Many recent studies have shown that the gendering of imperialism took different forms in different parts of the world, although there were also shared features. (3) The Great Plains provides a unique opportunity to examine a region in which two nations' institutionalization of gender and race difference, that limited and legitimized peoples' access to the resources of the nation state, took divergent forms, while sharing some features, in the same part of the world, although one bisected by a border.

The field of Aboriginal women's history cannot be narrowly grounded in the nation state. The territory of many Aboriginal nations including the Plains Cree, Blackfoot, Assiniboine, Dakota, Lakota, and Ojibway, spanned the 49th parallel. Yet most historians, as Beth LaDow has commented, "tend to divide the American story from the Canadian along this boundary, as if it split the past as neatly as a meat cleaver." (4) Aboriginal people are neatly categorized as "Canadian" or "American," and are dropped from each nation's narrative once they cross the line, skewing understanding of experiences and identities that pre-date, transcend and ignore the border. One of the most prominent of the women of the mid-nineteenth-century Great Plains, Natoyist-Siksina', Holy Snake, (known in her lifetime and since to English speakers as Natawista) has been relegated to a realm oustide of history because of her Aboriginal and transnational status. She is virtually unknown today in non-Aboriginal Canada, although she is one of few women to have an entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. (5) While much of her life was spent in the American West, she was born in what became Canada in 1825, lived there for the last twenty years of her life, died on the Blood Reserve in 1893, and is buried at Stand Off, Alberta. Natoyist-Siksina' was a Kainai (Blood) woman who was born, likely near Lethbridge, Alberta, to Two Suns, chief of the Fish Eaters band, and Red Deer Woman. (6) At the age of fifteen she married Alexander Culbertson, chief trader for the Upper Missouri Outfit of the American Fur Company (figure 1). A description of this marriage was written by anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, who met the couple in 1862 and noted in his journal that "When Culbertson obtained his Blackfoot wife he sent 9 horses to his wife's eldest brother. He told his men to hitch them at his lodge and to ask for the girl as his wife. She was sent to him the next day the brother returned nine other horses as a present to Culbertson. It is customary for the brother to distribute the presents among the relatives, and for the relatives to return presents to the groom. …