The idea of a “border wall” is not a new one – Americans might be surprised to hear that Indigenous peoples thought of it first, and it was to keep Americans out! In July 1874, one of the British-Canadian border surveyors along the 49th parallel named Albany Featherstonhaugh encountered a group of Assiniboine and Sioux south of Wood Mountain. They queried him closely about the purpose of the survey. When he told them (somewhat disingenuously) it was NOT to prepare for a railway, Featherstonhaugh reported that they were relieved. But they were disappointed, he went on, that some sort of wall or continuous embankment was not to be set up across the plains, since they’d been led to believe that was what was coming. (David McCrady, Living with Strangers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006, 56). Given history, they’d probably have asked for a wall on the east, too.
“Well, you know, it’s just across the Line,” my aunt said to me, about a town in North Dakota that my cousins were visiting. I haven’t heard that word for a while. In Montreal they don’t use it. But I grew up in Saskatchewan hearing it. “The Line”. Do you know where that word for the US border comes from, I asked my aunt? “No idea,” she answered.
Today is national aboriginal day. The 20th such day, and the first since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its recommendations. Though it’s a small thing, one of the things we who are Settlers can do to mark this day is to remember where some of our words come from. They’re signs of a history willfully forgotten.
I grew up in Treaty Four land – except there were no “Indians”. The First Nations were, for me, like the ancient Egyptians: important people no longer around. What I DIDN’T know, because it wasn’t in my schoolbooks or taught in my classes, or talked about by my parents or grandparents, was that the original inhabitants had only been gone 85 years or so when I was born. The big secret I learned only years later was that they had been pushed off the land they had just signed title to, to make way for people like my grandparents and me.
Using the word “The Line” for the border is a relic of the days not so long ago when the 49th parallel was called “The Medicine Line” by the First Nations, especially the Lakota. They could cross it and the American Army, who were fighting a vicious battle with them south of the border, would not follow. This was good medicine, and at the time, the Canadian government was generally respected for such protection. Soon enough, our government starved the Lakota back south, and pushed the so-called ‘Canadian Indians’ north by starvation, an intentional policy to make an “Indian-free” land-belt for the railroad and its Settlers.
When we say “the Line” for the border, we echo those days. Even better, then: let us actually remember them – with honesty, apology, and intent to make good what was wrongly done.