Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People

Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People

Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People

Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People

Synopsis

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. Michel 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.

Grounded in extensive research in U.S. and Canadian archives, Hogue's account recenters historical discussions that have typically been confined within national boundaries and illuminates how Plains Indigenous peoples like the Metis were at the center of both the unexpected accommodations and the hidden history of violence that made the "world's longest undefended border."

Excerpt

A photograph from the British North American Boundary Commission shows six engineers, or “sappers” as they were known, in the midst of their work constructing one of the boundary mounds that identified the international border between the United States and Canada. Four of their colleagues were charged with creating a detailed photographic record of the survey operation, and this image was one of approximately 250 images that documented the surveyors’ work or other aspects of the Boundary Commission’s activities between 1872 and 1874. in this case, the photograph provided a glimpse of the labor required to form the packed earth and sod-covered boundary markers that the sappers left at three-mile intervals along this portion of the northwestern Plains. At the same time, this image and others like it reveal just how porous that new boundary was. the open plain stretches as far as the eye can see behind the men and their half-constructed mound. This was clearly no fence, no impermeable barrier.

In a place with few obvious markers separating one nation’s territorial claim from that of another, such photographs reveal the process by which an invisible border was made visible. Used to illustrate the commission’s interim and final reports, the images were more than a just useful tool for documenting the survey’s progress: they illustrated the very value or necessity of such surveys. the commission’s other photographs, including those meant to illustrate the region’s natural history, its mineral potential, and its human inhabitants, hinted at the broader role of surveying (and of survey photography, for that matter) in remaking the Plains. After all, by marking the fortyninth parallel, the surveyors not only delineated the meeting point of U.S. and Canadian territorial claims but also established the lines and measurements that would serve as the basis for subsequent land and railroad surveys. the joint efforts of the British North American Boundary Commission and the United States Northern Boundary Commission to survey the forty-ninth . . .

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