Gabriel Dumont’s West

Gabriel Dumont’s West: Remembering Métis History Across the Medicine Line[1]

by Michel Hogue

Ride “swift-safe in the night, ride without rest,” writes poet Marilyn Dumont, urging Métis leader Gabriel Dumont to flee as Canadian troops close in on the Métis at Batoche in May 1885. She then admonishes him to “rest only beyond the border / safe from the Canadiens that stalk your breath,” and thus evokes the peril the Métis leader faced as he fled Saskatchewan and sought the safety that crossing the 49th parallel offered.

This evocation of Dumont’s ride south also reminds us that much of Plains Métis history has been wound around the 49th parallel. As his many biographers have detailed, Gabriel Dumont lived his life on both sides of that border. And, in that sense, his life story helps to illuminate how the national borders that were created in the nineteenth century did not neatly contain Plains Métis lives.

The Métis Borderland World of the Nineteenth Century

When Dumont arrived in Montana in May 1885, he returned to the lands that had been at the heart of a sprawling Métis borderland world through much of the nineteenth century. This world owed a great deal to the mobile buffalo-hunting brigades, which were among the principal drivers of the Plains Métis economy. Durable ties forged through marriage (or other kin relationships) held together the social and political world of these brigades. Métis women, like Dumont’s wife Madeleine Wilkie, were at the centre of these extended family networks—networks that provided social and economic cohesion to these communities as their members ranged from the Red River Valley and the Parkland fringe across the Plains. As the buffalo herds contracted, these brigades were drawn farther south and west. By the 1870s, hundreds of Métis families had established a shifting network of communities that coalesced on both sides of the 49th parallel, in a region roughly bounded by the Missouri River to the south and the Cypress Hills and Wood Mountain to the north. The intense competition for their buffalo products that existed along the border provided a sharp boost to the economic lives of these communities and drew still more families south.

Convinced that these growing communities interfered with the administration of American Indian reservations and the expansion of the ranching economy in places like Montana, American authorities pressed the army to disperse those settlements south of the border and prevent Métis hunters and traders from congregating there. These efforts gained steam in the 1880s, especially with the collapse of the buffalo hunt and the emerging consensus in Canada that the government’s plans for resettling the Prairie West required suppressing Indigenous mobility. The two countries began to cooperate more closely in their efforts to expel the Métis and First Nations from the region. American military maneuvers—what historian Nicholas Vrooman calls the “Milk River Clearances”—combined with policies of enforced starvation by Canadian officials to disperse the large Métis and First Nations communities from the borderlands along the 49th parallel in the early 1880s.

Patrolling the Border, Shadowing Dumont

Dumont’s flight across the border in 1885, though, brought renewed attention to the cross-border networks of Indigenous people that continued to exist despite the best efforts of the governments of the U.S. and Canada to dismantle them. From the very outset of the conflict in 1885, Canadian officials eyed circumstances in the U.S. warily. Observers had long predicted that parties from Métis communities or Indian reservations in the U.S. would cross the border and join the fighting. So Canadian officials asked their U.S. counterparts to investigate recurring rumours of imminent invasions and prevent any such movement. War Department officials obliged. They ordered patrols across the northern Plains into the field to search for evidence that war parties were bound for Canada. The patrols sent from these border army posts did not find any evidence to support the rumours, but their troops and scouts maintained a close watch on the border through the spring and summer.

Even after the fighting subsided, American officials continued to work with their Canadian counterparts to monitor the border and keep Canadians apprised of movements of Métis “refugees” like Dumont in Montana and North Dakota. Reports that Dumont had arrived in Montana caused officials to watch and report his every move to their superiors in Ottawa and Washington. The Mounted Police sent spies and other informants south to monitor Dumont’s activities, and kept files on his activities through 1889. These efforts to shadow Dumont were part of a larger, more coordinated effort by Indian Affairs officials and the police to monitor the back and forth movement of Indigenous peoples across the international boundary, and to intercept their communication with each other. Some of the correspondence the police intercepted showed family members sharing information about economic opportunities that existed on one side of the border or the other and documented the continued seasonal migration of Métis families across the 49th parallel.

The reports that agents compiled about the activities of these Métis refugees thus unwittingly documented how kin ties or other cross-border networks remained critical to Plains Métis communities even after 1885. When Dumont travelled to Lewistown, Montana, for example, he found shelter among the Wilkies, his wife’s extended family. His most recent biography details how those kin connections were central to his life in the U.S. Most of the Métis who left for or returned to the United States did as Dumont did, and drew on the assistance of relatives living in Montana and North Dakota. Although such movements occurred within a political and social landscape that had changed dramatically from that of the preceding decades, they nonetheless pointed to the continued existence of this web of relations that transcended the border and shaped the contours of a Métis homeland.

In an important sense, then, Dumont’s flight, and that of the hundreds of other “refugees” of the military confrontation along the South Saskatchewan in 1885, together with the repressive measures that ensued, provide a vivid reminder that the making of the Canadian West depended on the dismantling of these Indigenous homelands. The events of 1885 marked an inflection point in the efforts by the U.S. and Canadian government to suppress the mobility of Indigenous peoples and to confine Indigenous peoples within national boundaries. This was a continental story in which the dismantling of these cross-border ties was seen as necessary to the region’s resettlement. The persistence of the kin and other social relations that had long structured Plains Métis life stands as a quiet rebuke of the tendency to sever Métis history at the border and as an invitation to pay close attention to those cross-border stories.

 

Michel Hogue is an associate professor in the Department of History at Carleton University in Ottawa. He is the author of Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press; Regina: University of Regina Press, 2015).

[1]. Medicine Line: The stretch of the border between Canada and the United States (49th parallel) from the western plains to the Pacific Ocean. During the conflicts between American troops and First Nations tribes, Indigenous warriors would attempt to cross into Canadian (British) territory to escape the Americans; hence the notion that the border had the magical power to stop soldiers in their tracks.

Menu