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Geography and genocide on the Medicine Line.

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

Michel Hogue (University of Regina Press, 2015)

THE VOLATILE EVENTS of the second half of the 19th century remain pinnacle to many contemporary debates around Indigenous land dispossession and identity in North America. Familial and community connections as well as economic and political structures predating the coerced colonial categorization of Indigenous peoples is not more obvious than in the history of Metis peoples in the 1870s and their relationship to the creation of the 49th parallel, also known as the Medicine Line. Michel Hogue's book, Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People, draws out those complexities and histories by examining the history of Metis borderland communities in the prairie NorthWest, before, during and after the creation and enforcement of the national boundaries of Canada and the United States. While Hogue explores this process, he also reveals how the Metis shaped the border. Militarization and race-making were the colonial tools used to create the Line; however, resistance of Metis and other Indigenous nations challenged the demarcation of the nation-states as communities fought to maintain autonomous social, economic and governance structures.

Metis borderland communities shifted forward and back across the Medicine Line. Hogue tells beautiful stories of migration intertwined with the movements of the buffalo, allowing the reader to get a sense of the unique culture that developed with the prairie environment rather than against it. There is a remarkable and poignant weaving of culture, economy and environment in the book that keeps the reader engaged while staying grounded in the brutal realities of colonization and the events of the North-West Resistance of 1885. Hybrid identities and ways of life of the Metis formed a culture of resistance. Metis identity is not simply part Native, part European, but a self-identified community sharing the experiences of "dispossession, repression and population collapse." Political, economic and military actions were born of this displacement.

Living in Canada and being subjected to nationalist historical narratives, we often only hear accounts of Louis Riel's experiences at Red River, but there is a hole in that narrative that remains a significant part of his past as a leader of Metis rights. Hogue explores the stories of Riel in Montana, which further elucidate Hogue's claim that Metis existence transcended the border and worked to shape it while the boundaries were shaping them. Riel's political role in Montana (he almost ran for Republican office) and his work as a teacher meant much to him. His return to Red River was intended to be brief; however, the explosive conditions of the North-West resistance and his subsequent criminal charges and incarceration halted these plans as well as many other Metis dreams of recognition. The tragedy of Riel's death lay partly in his intentions to return to Montana to assert Indigenous land rights in the United States.

Hogue does not say "genocide," though he implies it; indeed, he acknowledges the forced starvation of the Lakotas by the Canadian government that was openly justified by their recently created migrant status. The growing conversation of genocide in this country centres itself in the history of the incidents discussed in his book. Fittingly, the nation-state's newest museum, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights located in Winnipeg mere miles from the Red River settlement, refuses to name this history as genocide. Metis and the Medicine Line, through its careful and eloquent articulation of Metis society and resistance to colonialism in the North-West, reveals the ways in which both the Canadian and American governments were complicit in the destruction of a distinct people through fraudulent scrip signings and subsequent land-taking policies, and therefore guilty of genocide. Settler-colonialism has normalized land dispossession in this country to the extent that people often do not consider using the term genocide as a descriptor for the system that has been integral in the development of the nation-state. It is, however, important to do so, especially in light of the current discussion.
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Title Annotation:Michel Hogue's "Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People"
Author:Wilson, Kimberly
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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