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Manitoba History: Book Review: Karl S. Hele (editor), Lines Drawn Upon the Water: First Nations and the Great Lakes Borders and Borderlands

by David McCrady

Number 62, Winter 2009

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Unlike the borderlands between the United States and Mexico (the Spanish Borderlands), comparatively little scholarly interest has been paid to the Canadian-American borderlands. Americans have had a long fascination with Mexico—the exotic, the other, the dangerous, the object of American expansionism (the US gobbled up thousands of miles of formerly Mexican territory in the 19th century) and, more recently, the source of covert immigrants. Canadians, for their part, have been more insular, more interested in nation-building (existing more in spite of its geography than because of it), and in how it has escaped becoming part of the American union. That the Canadian-American borderlands have been a blind spot in nationalist historiographies is the result of all this cultural and historic baggage.

History is not found, but certainly constructed. Borderlands are constructions, and contested constructions at that. People on both sides use boundaries tactically. In North America, Aboriginal peoples, while retaining a strong sense of their own identities, used the boundary tactically. Examples can be drawn from all over the Canadian-American borderlands: Sitting Bull and his Sioux followers fled the United States after the Little Bighorn for southern Saskatchewan to evade the US Army; Gwich’in people from Forty Mile, Yukon, moved en masse to Eagle, Alaska, in the early 20th century because the latter had a hospital; Iroquois reserves made the front page of national newspapers at the end of the century as hotbeds of cigarette “smuggling,” using provisions in the Jay Treaty to refute the authority of the border.

Western boundary studies have been appearing over the past decade. Aboriginal peoples as players in the colonial struggles in the East have burgeoned, but companion pieces from the Eastern borderlands are much rarer. This book is a welcome start. Lines Drawn Upon the Water collects papers from twelve mostly emerging scholars from an emerging field. The essays examine the impact of the Canadian-American border on individuals and communities, highlighting efforts of the Canadian and American governments to enforce the boundary while Aboriginal peoples steadfastly defended their interests and contested the artificial divisions imposed by the boundary.

This is an interesting and eclectic collection of papers about the lived experiences of individuals and communities in the Great Lakes borderlands. Mark Meuwese writes about the Flemish Bastard, a Mohawk leader who mediated between the Mohawks and the French, Dutch and English in the 17th century. Phil Bellfy looks at Anishinabeg who lived on both sides of the boundary and who signed treaties with both American and British officials. Catherine Murton Stoehr shows how the participation of Anishinabeg in colonial conflicts south of the Great Lakes ultimately contributed to their decision to embrace Methodism. In doing so, she also effectively demonstrates how such transboundary histories are unrecognized and untold in nationalist historiographies. Karl Hele, in mapping out the persistence of Aboriginal cross-border movement in the Sault Ste. Marie area, nonetheless shows how the Canadian and American governments used policy, legislation, mineral leases and timber licenses to turn this borderland into bordered land. Other contributions take a broader view of borderlands—exploring metaphysical and epistemological borderlands, the boundaries between concepts and intellectual space, and the space where law, politics, gender and race intersect. At times, the link between these essays and the borderlands becomes a little tenuous. The two papers on the Baldoon community (which are certainly important both intellectually and topically) examine events that occurred near the line, but which had little to do with it. The essays are weighted rather heavily toward the Canadian side of the border. Most of the authors are Canadian or working at Canadian universities, and most of the essays look at people, places and events in Canada.

Edited and with an introduction by Karl S. Hele, a member of the Garden River First Nation and director of the First Nations Studies Program at the University of Western Ontario, Lines Drawn Upon the Water is an important contribution to Native and newcomer relations. It will be of interest to scholars and students in the interdisciplinary fields of Aboriginal Studies and Canadian-American boundary studies and will be of significant comparative interest to scholars studying the international colonial borderlands.

Page revised: 21 May 2016

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