Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer 2007, pp. 208-09.
Before getting into my admittedly narrowly constructed remarks, I wish the reader to understand that overall this volume is a good and useful one. Despite its claim to be an examination of the "Regional History of the Forty-ninth Parallel," most of the nineteen essays focus exclusively on Great Plains history (about six have a decidedly non-Plains focus, while a few address more general area-wide topics). The value of the book is in its commitment to exploring how the imposition of the border affected people throughout the region, given the reality that no natural physical features exist to mark such an arbitrary division of peoples referred to as "Children of a Common Mother" on the "Peace Arch" straddling the Washington-British Columbia border. Yet, as editor Sterling Evans reminds us in his afterword, the area's Indigenous people may not be inclined to accept such sentiments, and this recognition is the foundation for what follows.
While certainly not true of all of the book's contributions-Bruce Miller's essay on the effects of the border on West Coast Indians and First Nations people being a commendable exception-when an essay addresses issues encompassing the Indigenous population, readers may feel that its author is relegating Native people to positions of "reactors" to settler initiatives, ignoring the real possibility that Indigenous people are often the main "actors" in the unfolding events that shaped the lives of everyone in the region.
Let me point out a few instances where I see this problem manifesting itself. Consider, for example, these statements by Marian C. McKenna in "Above the Blue Line": "Traders venturing into this territory risked losing not only their goods but also their scalps" (82); "the territory was the home of many warlike tribes" (95); or this (quoting the novelist Wallace Stegner) "the 49th parallel [as enacted by law] was the beginning of a civilization in what had been a lawless wilderness" (104). What exactly do these characterizations bring to mind? Now that you've conjured up those images, what do you make of these statements, also by McKenna? "[The traders] were mainly responsible for the frequent clashes and atrocities in this region"(82); "The white traders did not hesitate to use their rifles on the Natives, whether wantonly or in drunken abandon .... [and] shamefully abused the men and debauched the women" (82); "In a single region of [Montana], there were more than thirty Indian massacres after 1860" (95), apparently as "the authorities went about finding methods of pacifying the Natives" (84) due to their being "human obstacles to future white occupation" (96). McKenna also explains that "the Blackfoot were conciliated sufficiently to tolerate the construction of Fort Benton" by the 1840s (86-87, emphasis added).