- Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People by Michel Hogue
Metis and the Medicine Line comes at a time of renewed focus on Métis history, one that recognizes the immense complexity of nineteenth century Métis life. Michel Hogue’s work contributes to this discussion by handling Métis as complex boundary-crossing subjects who, while having a clear sense of themselves as Métis, 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 Métis 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 Métis 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 Métis 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 Métis adapt identity boundaries to meet their ongoing needs. Unlike older works, Hogue does over-determine Métis-First Nations separation, nor does he overstate their interchangeability. From the outset, Metis and the Medicine Line respects Métis social and political distinctiveness, while at the same time highlighting the closeness with which Métis held their “Indian” kin. It is clear from this work that Métis 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 Métis 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 [End Page 562] categories given form mostly by outsiders. These newly-formed policy boundaries often placed Métis families outside of Indianness, but complex kinship relations and still-unclear policy categories allowed Métis (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 Métis identity. Going beyond historical scholarship, Métis and the Medicine Line details the origin of the Métis-First Nation distinction in Western Canada, and its arbitrary and racialized application.
While Métis and First Nations were busy frustrating the Indian/Half-breed identity borders imposed by colonial states, Hogue also chronicles the ability of Métis 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, Métis used the...