- The 2016 Stubbendieck Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize WinnerMichel Hogue’s Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People
Editor’s Note: The 2016 Stubbendieck Distinguished Book Prize was awarded to Michel Hogue, Department of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, for Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People (The David J. Weber Series in the New Borderlands History), University of North Carolina Press (2015). Given annually since 2005, the award comes with a cash prize of $10,000 and the Stubbendieck Distinguished Book Prize medallion. The prize was created to emphasize the interdisciplinary importance of the Great Plains in today’s publishing and educational market. Only first-edition, full-length nonfiction books published in 2015 were evaluated for the award. We asked David Wedin, chair of the book prize committee, to talk about the characteristics of Hogue’s book that led to its selection as the winner of this year’s award.
The story of the Metis people of the northern Great Plains is familiar to most Canadians, especially in Manitoba. Their story is much less known in the United States, but Hogue’s new book will go a long way toward educating people on both sides of the international border regarding this important part of our history. As the nineteenth century began, these descendants of French Canadian fur traders and Native people (mainly Cree, Assiniboine, and Ojibwa) assumed a key role in the economy of the Northern Plains. That economy depended on bison, which the Metis hunted, processed into pemmican, dried into meat or hides, and traded to the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Montreal-based Northwest Company. The “medicine line” is what some Indians called the US-Canadian border, because it seemed to magically stop American soldiers from pursuing them further. Hogue’s meticulous research reveals this unappreciated and critical component of northern Great Plains history. By midcentury, the Metis’ famous two-wheeled Red River carts were shipping bison products to Fort Garry (Winnipeg), St. Paul (Minnesota), and American fur trade posts along the Missouri River. Each summer, thousands of Metis left Pembina and other Metis settlements along the Red River in large, well-organized expeditions to hunt and process bison. In one 1840 expedition alone, over 200,000 bison may have been killed to supply pemmican for 1,200 Red River carts. By 1850, bison hides were the dominant commodity and were being shipped by Red River carts to St. [End Page 253] Paul and by Missouri River steamboats to St. Louis. A 1889 map by prominent nineteenth-century zoologist William T. Hornaday documents the northern bison herd shrinking under this constant harvest, disappearing first from the Red River valley (1840), the Saskatchewan River valley (1850), the eastern Dakotas, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan (1870), and finally contracting to the Missouri and Yellowstone River region in Montana by the early 1880s. Americans interested in the history of bison, the US national mammal as of May 9, 2016, cannot ignore the role of the Metis.
Hogue’s Metis and the Medicine Line, researched and referenced from both Canadian and American primary and secondary sources, demonstrates that in the making of the international border stretching across the northern Great Plains, the Metis had a more important role than simply bison hunting. As Hogue states, “The rigid legal distinctions on the 20th century Plains that separated U.S. and Canadian citizens, on the one hand, and Indians and non-Indians, on the other, suggest a human landscape marked as precisely as the 49th parallel represented the territorial limits of Canada and the United States. Such durable distinctions stand as a testament to the success of 19th century border-making projects” (228). Hogue’s book covers the nineteenth century, ending with the disenfranchising of Metis in the early twentieth century as they lost legal status as Indians on both sides of the border, and in some cases US residency in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana. Hogue considers the 1870s as a pivotal point in the evolution of the border and the transformation of the northern Great Plains. In fact, the border itself, which had been established as the forty-ninth...