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.

20180710_123819

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.

20180710_121445

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.
Advertisements

​Canada150 Road Trip: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

In 2017, Canada is celebrating 150 years of confederation: being an independent(ish) country in the Western sense. However, as many First Nations and historians remind us, 2017 is not Canada’s 150th birthday, no matter how pithy the expression “Happy Birthday Canada!” is. “Canadian History” did not begin on July 1st, 1867. This summer, I want to highlight some excellent, intriguing, and thought provoking Canadian historic sites and monuments. I thought it appropriate to begin with one that really emphasizes just how far back Canada’s history goes: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump UNESCO World Heritage Site. I can honestly say it’s one of my favourite museums of all time and definitely has the best name. (A distant but beloved second in the category of “historic sites with awesome names” is the Demons’ Hand Print on the Rocks Shrine in Morioka, Japan.)

Head-Smashed-In interprets 6,000 years of buffalo hunting by Indigenous peoples and is comprised of the buffalo jump itself (an archaeological site) as well as an amazing interpretive centre. It tells an archaeological story, but also shares Blackfoot culture with visitors. As far as I can tell, all of the site’s interpretive guides are Blackfoot. They’re telling the stories of their own people and heritage, which is very powerful. The museum does an excellent job of weaving oral history, Blackfoot perspectives, the natural history of the region, and the archaeological record together in a cohesive, respectful, and absolutely fascinating way.

Replica Medicine Pipe Bundle
Replicas were sometimes on display where, for example, actual medicine bundles would have been inappropriate for the public to view.

The museum building was built into the cliff itself, making it feel a natural part of the landscape. What I really love about this site is that they really give you a good sense of place. The story would not be nearly so powerful if told elsewhere. They encourage you to start your visit with a view from the top of the cliff: the top of the buffalo jump itself. Before you even read any interpretive panels or look at any historical images or artifacts, you look out at the landscape itself and get a real feel for the immensity of the buffalo jump.

While we were admiring the view, we met one of the Blackfoot interpretive guides, Stan Knowlton, who has lived in the area his whole life. He shared some amazing stories about his encounters with buffalo; rancher-owned buffalo in the area sometimes escape and he once memorably encountered a bull and a few cows at the top of the buffalo jump’s cliff. (They ran off after snorting at him.) He parsed meaning from the landscape for us, pointing out, for instance, spots where buffalo used to cross the river. We followed him inside the museum and learned some of the deeper symbolism of the Blackfoot tipi and Blackfoot place names for this region. Stan blew my mind when he made the connection between the Belly River, the Elbow River, and other sites explicit; they are all the body parts of the Old Man who is lying down on this land. For some reason I had never stitched those disparate place names together before! What I am saying is that I heartily enjoyed listening to him speak and spark connections in my mind. While the artifacts and the displays were very informative and well-designed, I always believe that it is the staff that bring really meaningful connections with visitors.

 

We finished our visit after the museum building closed with a walk at the base of the buffalo jump. We bought the $2 walking tour pamphlet which helped us understand what we were seeing. We stood on the spot where hundreds of bison were butchered. We saw a tipi ring that was left behind by people an age ago. We learned that while the cliffs are now “only” 10 metres high, they were once twice that tall; the ground is composed of layers and layers of buffalo bone beds, covered with dirt blown by the fierce prairie winds. We saw berry bushes in bloom which are still used by Blackfoot people today. We saw deer browsing on bushes, ground squirrels scurrying through the long grasses, marmots posing on boulders, and Northern Harriers gliding in the strong wind. The atmosphere of the wide open space was incredible. And in the distance, in some rancher’s paddock, just barely visible to the naked eye? A small herd of buffalo.

Historic sites and nature preserves are not separate, in my mind. All natural places have a history. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump does an excellent job of blending history, natural landscapes, and contemporary cultures.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is just 15 minutes West of Fort MacLeod, conveniently on your way between the city of Calgary and Waterton Lakes National Park.

Further Resources

  • Brink, Jack W. Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2008. (The definitive published work on this buffalo jump. Free ebook PDF available on the publisher’s website if you can’t get a hold of a hard copy.)
  • Bryan, Liz. Stone by Stone: Exploring Ancient Sites on the Canadian Plains. Edmonton, AB: Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., 2015.