Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Regional Ideas and the Montana-Alberta Borderlands[*]

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Regional Ideas and the Montana-Alberta Borderlands[*]

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. The borderland concept is not often applied to the U.S. West's northern boundary, but the northwestern Great Plains have been the subject of at least two border-staddling regional conceptions: Whoop-Up Country, based on a shared natural environment. Both ideas can be found to varying degrees in northern Montana and southern Alberta, but as expressions of regional distinction, their significance and meaning differ sharply north and south of the international boundary. In borderlands such as these, nationalism and regionalism intersect. Key-words: chinook, 49th parallel, Great Plains, regionalism, U.S.-Canada borderlands.

It is nearly a commonplace to refer to the boundary between the western United States and Canada along the 49th parallel as an imaginary line. Such sentiment is voiced particularly often south of the line, where Americans have greater interest in and anxiety over their border with Mexico than in the so-called world's longest undefended boundary to the north (Figure 1). Canadians are more sensitive to the significance of the 49th parallel as a line of cultural and economic defense against what former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau calmly described as a sleeping elephant. [1] Nonetheless, Canada's own potent regionalism, combined with everyday cross-border interaction with neighboring states to the south, blurs the transnational divide into what might be described as a series of borderlands.

Despite a late start, historical geographical scholarship on Canadian-American borderlands is emergent (Konrad 1991; Lecker 1991; Widdis 1997a, 1997b). Building on an older tradition of studying comparative frontiers (Mikesell 1960), historians and geographers are challenging the national blinders traditionally worn in studying the North American West. For some, this involves a scrutiny of cross-border influences, particularly those of people and ideas from the United States on Prairie Province farming and ranching (Bicha 1968; Evans 1978, 1979, 1983; Shepard 1994). Others look instead at the border's role in shaping local, regional, and national identities--explicit attempts to apply the notion of a borderland to the U.S.-Canada context (LaDow 1994; Earle and Wirth 1995; Widdis 1997b).

At its heart, the borderland idea is an exercise in regionalism: an attempt to erase, at least partially, the international boundary from our mental maps. In describing an area as a borderland, a transboundary regional identity is asserted that allegedly bridges the international divide imposed on local spaces by external forces. According to this view, borderland residents often have more in common with their neighbors on the other side of the line than with their respective countrymen who may live hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away. Such a reconfiguration of our collective conceptual geographies is not without merit. One potential pitfall, however, comes when the borderland scholar attempts to completely blot the boundary from view. In the context of the U.S.-Mexico region, such attempts have been described as promoting the romanticized idea of a "third country," a concept that seems to be more a figment of the regionalist's imagination than a feature of geographical reality (Arreola and Curtis 199 3).

This, then, is the challenge for Canadian-American borderland scholarship. What might one cite as the basis for asserting a shared regional identity along and across sections of the U.S.--Canada border? Do there exist ideas that unify border-region residents and set these areas apart, as international spaces and places, from the rest of the continent? Or are all attempts to craft such borderland identities doomed to be just another third-country fiction, a romanticized denial of the significance of the modern nation-state?


Perhaps the most common notion of a shared U.S.-Canadian borderland is that of a sweeping continental grassland stretching from the parkland belt along the North Saskatchewan River down to the Llano Estacado of New Mexico and Texas. …

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