Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People.
Metis and the Medicine Line comes at a time of renewed focus on Metis history, one that recognizes the immense complexity of nineteenth century Metis life. Michel Hogue's work contributes to this discussion by handling Metis as complex boundary-crossing subjects who, while having a clear sense of themselves as Metis, are deft navigators of the social and political categories used by outsiders to situate them in numerous legal orders, particularly those of the colonial states in their midst. While Metis and the Medicine Line focuses primarily on physically crossing the forty-ninth parallel, it also explores the many other ways that nineteenth-century Indigenous people crossed boundary markers of identity, legal status, and citizenship. Hogue threads sophisticated discussions of geography, identity, political economy, and the social, political, and economic impacts these structures had on Metis throughout the nineteenth, and into the early twentieth, century.
One of the strengths of Hogue's work is the ease with which he moves back and forth detailing micro and macro social processes. He profiles the boundary-crossings of Metis families like the one headed by Antoine Oullette and Angelique Bottineau who crossed the forty-ninth parallel like many of their contemporaries, to take advantage of the shifting economic and political realities of the borderlands. These behaviours also reflect the larger movements of Metis people across the medicine line, while they--again at micro and macro levels--ascribed a different meaning to it than the westward expanding empires of the East.
Equally important is Hogue's focus on the ways in which Metis adapt identity boundaries to meet their ongoing needs. Unlike older works, Hogue does over-determine Metis-First Nations separation, nor does he overstate their interchangeability. From the outset, Metis and the Medicine Line respects Metis social and political distinctiveness, while at the same time highlighting the closeness with which Metis held their "Indian" kin. It is clear from this work that Metis and First Nations had integrated one another into their family networks, becoming real and ceremonial kin using these ways to determine who belonged. Such kinship structures were also instrumental in establishing Metis inclusion (both individual and collective) in emerging colonial policies. Navigating these kinship systems was used to restrict Indigenous access to their lands by policing who was and who was not "Indian."
Like crossing physical boundaries, Metis and the Medicine Line, explores
this other form of border-crossing which newly defined "Halfbreeds" and "Indians" sought to insert their self-understandings onto racial and social categories given form mostly by outsiders. These newly-formed policy boundaries often placed Metis families outside of Indianness, but complex kinship relations and still-unclear policy categories allowed Metis (and other Indigenous peoples) to strategically situate themselves as "Indians" or "Halfbreeds," and "American citizens" or "British subjects" as circumstances required. Despite attempts by the colonial authorities to limit this kind of boundary-crossing, Hogue shows that this was easier done in theory than in fact. Hogue's detailed historical analyses figure prominently in the need for the contemporary destabilization of race-based definitions of Metis identity. Going beyond historical scholarship, Metis and the Medicine Line details the origin of the Metis-First Nation distinction in Western Canada, and its arbitrary and racialized application.
While Metis and First Nations were busy frustrating the Indian/Half-breed identity borders imposed by colonial states, Hogue also chronicles the ability of Metis to undermine and remake the physical colonial boundaries at the forty-ninth parallel. Quoting one Canadian colonial official, Hogue notes Indigenous people called "the boundary the 'Medicine line' because no matter what they have done upon one side they feel perfectly secure after arrived upon the other" (p. 107). Indeed, Metis used the colonial boundary for their own purpose for much of its early history. Rather than being exploited by it, Metis were initially able to benefit from the Medicine Line. Once colonial power grew stronger, Metis found this to be more difficult, but Hogue is careful not to downplay Metis agency in this regard, as many continued to successfully evade border patrols, customs duties, and other colonial regulations. Furthermore, Metis were able to mobilize extensive kin relationships with "Canadian" and "American" relatives to find places on reserves to continue their mobile, land-based existence. In certain instances colonial citizenship could serve to advance Metis interests, although Hogue also details several little-known border-straddling reserve schemes envisioned by Metis that would allow them to perpetuate their longstanding relationships with the boundary and their relatives living on both sides of it.
Perhaps my biggest concern about Metis and the Medicine Line is semantic. The recurring use of the phrase "Metis and Indigenous people" with relatively rare use of "Metis and other Indigenous people" is both distracting and problematic. Beyond mere stylistic concerns, this language can uncritically equate "Indian" and "Indigenous," which not only does a disservice to Metis indigeneity, but is in clear contradiction of the rest of Hogue's work, which treats Metis as Indigenous. While this may be an editorial issue, it is a big one, particularly for historians and students who may not be familiar with Indigenous peoples, and the precarious position that Metis people find ourselves in vis-a-vis Canada's desire to treat us as less-than-fully-Indigenous. While I doubt it was the author's intent to deindigenize the Metis people, such a move seemingly contradicts the rest of the work, and it is therefore a serious editorial concern.
Regardless of this semantic shortcoming, this work is an important addition to the Metis studies canon, something that will no doubt be useful to scholars of Metis issues and Metis history. Its acknowledgement of the integrated kin networks of prairie peoples also makes it an important read for scholars of the nineteenth century prairies and borderlands. Hogue's work shows how a book focused on a single Indigenous people, the Metis, can acknowledge the interlocking relationships with their relatives from other communities and peoples.
Adam Gaudry, University of Saskatchexvan
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2015|
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