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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 2 page 15


Fudging the line

The Medicine Line
Life and Death on a North American Borderline

by Beth LaDow
ISBN 0-415-92764-1

reviewed by
Ian Allaby

It's a switch to see a Yank trying to soothe an identity crisis by scratching our myths. Yet that's what Beth LaDow is up to in this fine history of medicine line country, a patch sweeping from the Missouri River in Montana to the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan and bisected by 100 miles (160 kilometers) of 49th Parallel. The plains indians called that border the "medicine line" — the magic line dividing one white man's rule from another's.

"The prairie stretches seamlessly outward," says LaDow. "Natural boundaries are absent." The border seems an arbitrary, derisory stripe across chaste nature. During the half-century (the scope of LaDow's book) after the 49th was surveyed in 1872, medicine line country remained a "cross-border frontier" blithely crisscrossed by indians, cowboys and settlers. Yet, by the time of her Montana childhood, the border had assumed a presence — a mystique, let's say — that ultimately motivated LaDow to confront "the conundrum of what it means to be an American."

For example, Chief Sitting Bull, pursued by bluecoats after his 1876 victory at Little Bighorn, fled Montana with 1,000 Sioux and found sanctuary north of the medicine line. His case "is still used to illustrate the Canadian government's relatively amicable relationship with native groups," LaDow protests. But the Mounties were only superficially hospitable. Their orders were to convince the Sioux to leave. And if reason couldn't remove the Sioux, as one official coldly remarked, then hunger surely would. The buffalo gone, Canada had no jobs for nomads. In 1881, facing starvation, Sitting Bull returned south where the Americans gave him life on a reservation plus a stint in Bill Cody's Wild West Show.

Canadian and U.S. aims were identical — to clear the way for White settlement. Louis Riel is Sitting Bull's counterpart. Hunted in Canada after the Red River Rebellion, Riel took refuge in Montana. He made the mistake of coming back. Canada hanged him.

So, the Canadians are sinners too! And all these years they've been putting on airs! At least it's a relief to know that one's do-good northern neighbor shares the original sin of nation-building. Or, on second thought, not sin exactly: in LaDow's view, humans are largely the puppets of physical and social circumstance, institutional imperatives, and raisons d'état.