BOOK REVIEW: “Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People” by Michel Hogue

I came to this book with an academic background not in history but, rather, in issues associated with philosophical change in Canadian postsecondary education. One of my interests is implications for humanities research, including historical research, of postmodernism. I’ve also had a longstanding interest in Canada’s First Nations people, but mainly in the present context. (I worked for a few years for CESO on a Native youth employment program that gave me the opportunity to visit several reserves in northern Quebec and BC. The experience left a very strong impression.)

Frankly, I’m generally wary of the work of academic historians. So much of such work buys into, if not explicitly then implicitly, the binary logic that has held sway in Western universities since their inception. This system of logic no longer generally prevails in modern democracies like Canada so, at best, such work is merely outdated. Often, such work is not only outdated but also conceivably could do harm. (I could say more about how such harm may occur, but this isn’t the place for another one of my screeds about academic humanities research.)

Although Michel Hogue is a professor in the History Department at Carleton University and “Metis and the Medicine Line” is published, in Canada, by the University of Regina Press (it originally was published in the US by the University of North Carolina Press), I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in Canadian Metis history and culture and/or the history of the Canada-US border–even to those skeptical of academe. I also would recommend it to any culturally responsible Canadian whose knowledge of plains history is, like mine was before I read this book, basically confined to compulsory high-school history classes and watching “Dancing With Wolves,” who should know more–even if they don’t yet know it. (I saw “Dancing With Wolves” a second time, on APTN, after reading this book, and the movie was more interesting the second time around.) I also would recommend it to academic historians, regardless of their areas of specialization, as a model of how academic historical work can remain relevant, and be beneficial, in the current era.

Because of its rich detail, “Metis and the Medicine Line” sometimes can be tough reading, even for academically trained readers. But getting through the book’s densely packed pages is worth the effort. (To be fair, there are several interesting historical photographs interspersed throughout the book.) These details are included not merely to illustrate particular points but also themselves effectively comprise two central points of the book.

The first is that Metis history is much more rich and complex than has traditionally been portrayed. As Hogue recounts, when the North American plains were first being colonized, the Metis people crossed many of the conceptual ‘borders’ that the White colonists, who themselves thought in binary terms, tried to impose on them: these include ‘borders’ relating to race, culture and nationality. The second is that the development of the physical border between Canada and the United States in western North America was a more complex, and more conflict-ridden, process than is usually understood, owing in large measure to the cross-border travel in pursuit of buffalo, and cross-border shenanigans, of migratory plains people, most notably the Metis. (The meaning of “the medicine line” in the title of the book is related to some of these shenanigans. If you want to know more, you’ll have to read the book.)

A stylistic device that Hogue employs throughout this book that helps to organize, and to bring resonance to, details he provides about Metis life and culture and Canada-US border creation issues is to follow a single Metis family, the family of the peripatetic trader Antoine Ouellette and his wife Angelique Bottineau, through the period covered in the book. It’s a very clever, very elegant, device that draws readers back in when the details may be starting to wear them down. It worked that way for me, anyway.

Because I’m not a historian specializing in Metis culture and/or Canada-US border development, I don’t know if and, if so, to what extent, Michel Hogue’s book, and his related academic work, is precedent setting. I’m curious to know. I would suggest that with “Metis and the Medicine Line”, Hogue not only has written an important book about a people that crossed racial, cultural and national borders, but also has done some significant border-crossing himself, bringing a fresh, non-traditional, non-binary, perspective to this subject. He is to be commended–as are his publishers.

A relatively minor shortcoming of this book, in my view, is that I wish that Hogue had said a little more about himself in his book, and what led him to write it. The combination of his first and last names suggests his family backgound is culturally mixed, including some French or French-Canadian. In a book like this, I think he owes it to his readers to let them know at least if he is, or isn’t, Metis. . . . Actual Metis, that is, and not just any old border-crossing, contemporary, Canadian who identifies with these border-crossing people.

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