Sitting Bull Wasn’t American: Interpreting the Messy History of the Border at Fort Walsh

I recently visited the Cypress Hills: a gorgeous landscape full of history. It’s also the site of the infamous Cypress Hills Massacre. This event and the early history of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) are commemorated at Fort Walsh National Historic Site.

Overall I was very impressed with my visit. In the dynamic, newly redesigned displays of the interpretive centre, they clearly made an effort to add nuance and empathy to the story of the Cypress Hills Massacre, in which over 70 Nakoda people, mainly women and children, were killed by Americans who falsely blamed them for horse thefts. This horrific event was one of the catalysts for the formation of the now famous Mounties. This police force was sent West to impose Canadian law for the first time in the territory. The new exhibits made a point of using Indigenous languages throughout. I was particularly impressed by a display which had audio recordings of accounts of the massacre from the Nakoda perspective (from both oral histories and contemporary depositions). They were available in three languages: English and French (as required by the official languages act) and Nakoda. I thought this was proper and respectful.

The site has a reproduction of the Fort itself as well as a Métis camp and trading post which interprets late fur trade history. As someone who is more used to fur trade history from a generation before (1820s – 1850s), I found the little differences from the 1870s fascinating. They had early canned goods! They also had three costumed staff there, on a weekday, interpreting Métis history, and the interpreter that showed us around was very engaging and knowledgeable. I think it would be too easy to present the Métis and First Nations history as peripheral at this site, but they did a decent job at interpreting the stories not just on the Mounties but the other folks who were living out there already. I recognize this effort particularly because I believe that it represents a shift in trying to tell a broader narrative than a narrow focus on just the Mounties.

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My partner and I went on a tour of the fort itself right after we arrived. We had to skip the exhibit until afterwards, doing it out of the intended order. Luckily, we already knew some of the context of this site’s history! The tour guide was an excellent speaker and was very dynamic in their presentation style. I walked away with a clear sense of the day to day life of these men in the fort. Our favourite part of the tour was a mock trial of several troublemakers pulled from the audience. Aside from being an interesting snapshot into the kinds of crimes that were common during that period, the interpreter’s comedic timing was on point! I’m also particularly fascinated by material culture so I really appreciated, for instance, explanations about what kinds of saddles were used when and why by the Mounties. Practicality is paramount! As a whole, I was pleased with the tour and what I learned.

However, there were a few offhand remarks made by the guide that really got me thinking about the narratives Canadians tell about their history, and whose perspectives are highlighted and whose brushed aside. This isn’t a critique of our guide in particular, but of the common narratives around the history of the Mounties in Canada. Namely, one often hears about the early history of the Mounties without contextualizing a very messy history of a decade of abrupt transition from a buffalo economy to control by the British/Canadian colonial state. The guide did talk a bit about Indigenous relations throughout the tour, particularly in the introduction, but several comments really brought home to me how glossed over some of the more problematic aspects of the relationship between the Mounties and Indigenous people has been, not only at this site but whenever a triumphalist Canadian history narrative is told.

One of the key messages the interpreter had was that the relationship between the first Mounties and local Indigenous people at that time was based off of mutual respect but also intimidation. That seems contradictory to me: it can’t have been a relationship on equal footing when the Mounties were continuously doing manoeuvres with their field guns as a show of force. Mounties were also imposing a very specific worldview on the West and punished those who did not fit into that mold, criminalizing some acts that hadn’t been crimes before. I’m thinking particularly of the restriction of free movement in ancestral territories and the imposition of American and Canadian nationalities upon local people who didn’t define themselves by an invisible line (the border at the 49th parallel). Individual Mounties may have had decent and relatively respectful working relationships with some First Nations leaders, but the tour glossed over several points for me. Namely, we were laughing about arresting horse thieves at the mock trial, but who were these horse thieves? I would be shocked if they were all Euro-Americans or Euro-Canadians. Differing cultural views of what horse stealing was all about clashed in this time period and a lot of First Nations were viewed as inherent criminals because of their traditions of horse theft.

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Reproduction Treaty medal at Fort Walsh National Historic Site.

Maybe this was a slip of the tongue on the part of the guide (though part of the history section of the website uses similar wording), but I think the following example really brings home the need to think critically about the narratives we’ve all been told and have told about Mounties during this time period. Namely, the guide was describing the Lakota Refugee Crisis; Chief Sitting Bull and others were fleeing conflict in what is now the US after the Battle of Little Big Horn but were refused entry into “Canadian” territory by the NWMP because, quote, “they were American.”

No, they weren’t. Sitting Bull  and his people were at war with the Americans. The Americans were an invading force who had drawn an invisible line on a map from thousands of kilometres away and sought to claim Sitting Bull’s territory for the United States. Sitting Bull was not an American. He was not a Native American. He was a Lakota man at war with Americans. It is true to say that the British/Canadians at the time considered Sitting Bull to be American, or at least an American problem, and that is why they took the actions they did. But perceptions are not reality. Explaining historical perspectives is fine, but if you are speaking as an interpreter out of character, in third person, you are able to make these distinctions in a way that a person interpreting in character (in first person) cannot. I would argue that interpreters have a duty to do so, to give nuance to a story that we may understand better in hindsight with greater context than in the limited views at the time.

The decades of the 1870s and 1880s are a fascinating time of transition and conflict in the West. The near-annihilation of the buffalo changed everything on the prairies. The arrival of the Mounties and the delineation and enforcement of the border at the 49th parallel wasn’t inevitable as it is often portrayed to be. It would have been hard at that place and at that time to see the larger picture that was taking shape and just how much and how rapidly things were changing. This time of uncertain politics and culture clash is incredibly fascinating to me because it isn’t as straightforward as is often portrayed in textbooks, high school classrooms, or museum exhibits. I’ve written before about NWMP encounters with people accused of being wendigos or wendigo killers. Too often we’re told the history of this messy period from the perspective of those writing the documents: the lawmen, who were too often new to to the region and had little understanding of the cultural context in which these “crimes” (according to the state) were committed. If you killed a suspected wendigo, were you a person doing what was necessary to save your community from a monster who might kill and eat people, or were you a murderer who killed a mentally ill person, sometimes at their own request? I find those messy narratives even more interesting than the misleadingly straightforward, triumphant one we often hear about: the simple narrative of the men in red uniforms coming in and imposing “peace, order, and good government” upon a lawless West.

I find it useful sometimes to think of this time period as a post-apocalyptic landscape. The Mounties arrived at a time of great disruption, after waves of disease, warfare, and the displacement of people. The near-destruction of the great bison herds wasn’t just the loss of an essential food source, but something much more profound. LeRoy Little Bear, an elder of the Kainai First Nation, has described it this way: “If you’re a Christian, imagine what would happen if all the crosses and corner churches disappeared … you still have your beliefs and ideas, but there’s no external connection to it anymore.” Imagine that every cultural institution (churches, museums), plus every shopping mall, grocery store, hardware store, and even Tim Hortons, all closed down within a single lifetime. Imagine the disruption to your life. That is the situation the Mounties were walking into.

So in summary, delve deeper into the history of the 1870s and 1880s in the West. Challenge the dominant narratives and think of how things could have been different. Seek out perspectives told by Indigenous people (yes, contemporary accounts also exist). Be fascinated, as I am, with the messy complexities and contradictions of this time period. The Mounties came in to combat the destructive whiskey trade and to stop some of the violence being committed against Indigenous people by settlers. Yes, celebrate the stories of the good things the police did, and tell the stories of early respect between NWMP and Indigenous leaders, but don’t lose sight of the wider colonial role and context of the Mounties.

It’s a part of our history.

Further References

  • Visit Fort Walsh National Historic Site and take in their interpretive displays in their visitor centre. Take one of their tours.
  • Hogue, Michel. Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
  • Wilkins, Charles. The Wild Ride: A History of the North West Mounted Police 1873–1904. Stanton Atkins & Dosil, 2010.
  • Wilson, Garrett.  Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West. Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2007; 2014.
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2 thoughts on “Sitting Bull Wasn’t American: Interpreting the Messy History of the Border at Fort Walsh

  1. Anonymous

    Great lens on, as you say “messy”, period in our history. Thanks for delving into some of the nuances of Mounties as they arrived in the west. Always interesting, Lauren!

  2. Pingback: Governor James Douglas and the Ambiguities of Race at the Edge of an Empire – History Research Shenanigans

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