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.
This is day two without electricity so I will keep it short. We’re camped right now beside a graveyard, at a small Greek Orthodox church on the NWMP trail. When he could see us far off, struggling through the heat on the final stretch of our 15 miles or so today, a man at the church rang the bell to call us home. Now it’s dark. The graveyard beside our tents overlooks the vast open prairie. There are little solar lights beside the graves, which is perhaps nice, but a touch freaky for us in the tents.
Today was also the day that we were sent off by two RCMP officers, one in serge, and then smudged at the Lakota First Nation as we walked through. Not only that, but we happened to arrive at lunch and were given a wonderful hot meal by them.
So much to say, but not now. After all those miles, many of them through thigh-high grasses and rough pasture (fell into a badger hole once), it’s time for sleep.
My North West Mounted Police Trail walk (AKA Sitting Bull Trail Walk, Lakota Trail pilgrimage, Metis Trail pilgrimage) begins very shortly, on July 17th! Our small group of pilgrims will be greeted at Wood Mountain (Lakota) First Nation with a smudging ceremony and a blessing to send us off. As well, there will be a Royal Canadian Mounted Police ceremony to send us off, as we begin our three week walk. If you would like to donate to help create the documentary of the walk, please see https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/walking-the-medicine-line#/story. We have already met our initial goal, but additional funds raised will go toward hiring a sound person and camera-person to make the documentary even better. Thank-you!