Q&A with Michel Hogue about “Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People”

Cross-published at the Borderlands History Blog.

On October 5, 2015, the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University hosted Michel Hogue (Associate Professor of History at Carleton University in Ottawa) to speak about his new book, Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People. You can watch the video of that talk below. His book was published in 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press with the aid of a Redd Center grant. Ever one to remind our community of scholars that there are borderlands to the north as well, I highly recommend his work and thankfully I am not the only one singing Hogue’s praises. Since its publication and his talk for the Redd Center, Metis and the Medicine Line has won the Stubbendieck Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize, was a finalist for the Canada Prize in the Humanities, and is still a finalist for the prestigious Sir John A. Macdonald Prize (winners to be announced on May 31).  Prof. Hogue was kind enough to participate in a Q&A below about the book. Questions by Brenden W. Rensink, responses by Michel Hogue.

What drew you to study this topic? Sketch out its origin story.

The idea for this book emerged out of the research that I conducted for my M.A. thesis at the University of Calgary. In the process of researching my thesis, I came to learn about the large clusters of Indigenous peoples that formed along the forty-ninth parallel in the 1870s and 1880s and of the determined efforts by Canadian and American officials to disperse these communities, and to prevent the cross-border migration by Plains Indigenous peoples in the decades that followed. Embedded in the first-hand accounts of these borderland communities were references to Metis (or “half-breed”) families and individuals. Unlike First Nations, those identified as Metis had a different legal relationship with Canadian federal government and no real recognized presence in the U.S. South of the border, there were few conceptual or legal categories for people of mixed Indigenous and white ancestry. What happened to the members of these communities, I wondered, as state officials enforced the international boundary across the nineteenth century and as these migratory hunting communities faced the collapse of buffalo populations?

It seemed to me that the pitched battles that emerged over who belonged on what side of the border challenged the commonplace insistence in Canada and the U.S. about the placid nature of bilateral relations between the two countries and of the uniquely peaceful nature of Canada’s settlement of the Prairie West. Certainly, familiar bromides about the “world’s longest undefended border” require us to overlook the fact that the extension of national claims over the North American West depended on the suppression of Indigenous sovereignties and the mixture of coercion and consent that was required to bring this about. Writing this book became a way to investigate the hidden histories behind the making of the border and its consequences for Plains Metis and other Indigenous communities.

You completed an MA in Canada but your Ph.D. in the U.S. Can you identify meaningful differences in how Canadian versus American scholars approach their shared border regions?

Well, I suppose the most obvious difference is that Canadians pay a great deal of attention to the border they share with the United States. For much of the twentieth century, the nationalist tendencies in Canadian historiography ensured an attachment to the idea of the forty-ninth parallel as a real dividing line, or at least as a kind a marker that defined the (natural) boundaries of historical inquiry. The stories told about the border generally helped to affirm the differences that existed between the two countries.

The change the last decade or so which has led to the dramatic expansion of scholarship about the shared border between the U.S. and Canada stems the changing scholarly climate and the interest on both sides of the border in investigating transnational histories and in looking at borders in particular as fruitful sites of inquiry. Though I think that scholars in the two countries work in different contexts. In the U.S., the northern border is seen as perhaps more distant, more peripheral, which can make it more difficult to imagine or convey the stakes behind the historical events and issues. In Canada, where most of the country’s population is clustered near that border and where the border occupies a key role in the national imaginary, these studies are read differently and are perhaps imagined as more central, more pressing.

Though the U.S. did momentarily have a handful of “half-breed” reservations, they did not last. While those were not the same as Red River-based Metis, American readers (and scholars) may be unfamiliar with Metis peoples. Can you offer a brief explanation of who they were (and are)? In broad terms, how are their stories similar or unique from First Nations / Native American histories?

The Plains Metis are a post-contact Indigenous people—that is to say, they emerged from the same maelstrom of events in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—the expansion of mercantile capitalist markets for furs, the introduction of epidemic diseases, metallic weaponry, and other goods—that simultaneously proved so calamitous for North American Indigenous peoples and, in some instances, provided new contexts for ethnogenesis. On the Great Plains, Metis communities were marked by their distinctive language, dress, artistic traditions, and religious practices, their expansive kinship networks, and by their occupational identities as key players in the fur and provisions trade. In the nineteenth century, they emerged as one of the most powerful nations on the northern Plains. Although their homeland spanned the forty-ninth parallel, the long fur trade history north of the border, its importance as a driving force of the nineteenth-century Canadian economy, and the centrality of the Metis to the fur and provisions trade—not to mention the dramatic Metis resistance to Canada’s annexation of the West and continued assertion of their political rights in the twentieth century—were among the factors that created a different trajectory for Metis history north of the border.  The result is seen in the distinct, identifiable Metis communities and a legal relationship with the Canadian state that differs from that of First Nations in Canada or the U.S.

On a similar note, how do you convince American scholars that they should care about Metis on the northern border?

This difference is what ought to interest others. The kind of racial mixing (or what scholars have described in terms of métissage/mestizaje) that was a feature of the northwestern fur trade and that gave rise to some of the progenitors of the first Metis communities was a common feature of colonial encounters the world over. It is much less common, however, for the descendants of those unions to develop separate, identifiable communities, to forge a sense of themselves as a distinct Indigenous nation, and to secure federal recognition of their status. This distinct path invites comparisons and allows us to better see and evaluate the contextual and structural differences that existed across the international boundary with regard to Indigenous peoples like the Metis. Also, the literature on Metis ethnogenesis is detailed and extensive and could be fruitfully brought into dialogue with the works that examine the interconnections between ethnogenesis and violence and between emergence and collapse in the encounter between Indigenous peoples and an expanding Atlantic economy.

You contend that the history of the U.S.-Canadian borderlands cannot be understood without Metis history. Explain your reasoning. Likewise, is the inverse true? Can Metis history only be properly understood if contextualized in the borderlands world?

What I meant to suggest is that it ought to be impossible to narrate the history of the Plains borderlands and the marking of forty-ninth parallel across the Plains without taking Metis history seriously. At the most basic level, it is hard to get away from the actual role that Metis individuals and communities played in the physical construction of the border, as well as in the economic activities and political events that made a largely invisible border visible. Metis commercial networks animated the economic rivalries marked by the border and fed fears that the cross-border traffic in arms, ammunition, liquor, and other goods would incite violence among other Indigenous peoples and bolster the resistance by those peoples to American and Canadian expansion. The potential that these actions had to destabilize national territorial claims brought the border to life in the minds of distant administrators, invested it with meaning, and made the stakes of border enforcement real.

One of the chief advantages of recontextualizing Metis history in this borderland world, I think, is that it helps to detach Metis history from its moorings as “Canadian” topic and to change the plot points or reference points that have too often been used to shape historical inquiry. Resituating Metis history in this borderland context also helps to draw attention to the connections between the Metis and their kin and neighbors with whom they traded, hunted, married, fought, and the like and thus to present Metis history in a way that connects it to that of other Indigenous peoples. In so doing, it’s easier to situate the events of nineteenth-century Metis history as part of the broad transformations of the northern Plains, and as a continental story in which the suppression of Indigenous sovereignty was the necessary precursor to white settlement.

Thinking of Chris Anderson’s recent book on Metis identity and contemporary identity politics in Canada (Chris Andersen, Metis: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood), what kind of context does your book bring? Does it offer a useful perspective to current debates being held in Canada?

Yes, questions about Metis origins, the shape of Metis communities, and the nature of Metis rights have emerged with renewed force in recent years. Although this project was never meant to address these present-day issues, it does help to historicize some of the racial and legal categories that are now the subject of debate, both in the online world and in the courts. It broadens the discussion by determining the shape and composition of trans-border Metis communities and by highlighting the contemporary legacies of nineteenth-century policies and practices of ethnic ascription. And, in this sense, the cross-border perspective that the book takes is valuable in that it is meant to show how conversations about who these people, what they should be called, what rights they should have took a different form in the U.S. and Canada. That comparative perspective helps to denaturalize the categories that were used, say, in Canada to define who was/is Metis.

For those wanting more on this topic, what are the key studies they should consider?

For readers already interested in the study of borderlands and are looking for ways to connect Metis histories to the kinds of themes and issues that typically animate borderland studies, I might start with Nicole St-Onge’s “Plains Métis: Contours of an Identity,” Australasian Canadian Studies 27, nos. 1-2 (2009): 95-115. It offers the most concise effort to connect Plains Métis history to the broader patterns of Indigenous ethnogenesis on the North American Great Plains. Two other short articles that extend that conversation and that will give you good sense of the efforts to redefine ethnogenesis include Brenda Macdougall and Nicole St-Onge, “Rooted in Mobility: Metis Buffalo-Hunting Brigades,” Manitoba History 71 (2013): 16-27 and Nicole St-Onge and Carolyn Podruchny, “Scuttling along a Spider’s Web: Mobility and Kinship in Metis Ethnogenesis,” in Contours of a People: Metis Family, Mobility, and History, ed. N. St-Onge, C. Podruchny, and B. Macdougall, 59-92 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012).

For works that situate Metis communities as part of the shifting ethno-cultural and political landscape of the northern Plains, they might start with Rob Innes, “Multicultural Bands on the Northern Plains and the Notion of ‘Tribal’ Histories,” in Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women’s History in Canada, ed. R. J. Brownlie and V. J. Korinek, 122-145 (Winnipeg, Man.: University of Manitoba Press, 2012). For a much more detailed view, see Nicholas Vrooman’s The Whole Country was… ‘One Robe'”: The Little Shell Tribe’s America (Helena, Mont.: Drumlummon Institute, 2012).

For those interested in tracing those issues to the present day and connecting them to modern Indigenous politics, they should read Chris Andersen’s Métis”: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2014) and Adam Gaudry’s “Respecting Métis Nationhood and Self-Determination in Matters of Métis Identity,” in Aboriginal History: A Reader, 2nd ed. Ed. K. Burnett & G. Read, 152-63 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2016).

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