The ‘Medicine Line’ is what the indigenous people called the colonial-enforced US/Canadian Border.
Prior to the establishment of the border, Indigenous people moved freely across their territories. Their boundaries were the various rivers, mountains, and streams which they used to note where they had unquestioned tenure and rights to use the lands and resources.
However, once the US and Canada established their border, it was made clear to the Indigenous groups that the border now existed and that they were to choose which side they were to live and stay on. While this was some cause for concern and was viewed as an impediment, many native people wisely saw this as an opportunity. When conflicts arose between some natives and the government, the Medicine Line served as a “magical” reprieve. If pursued by soldiers, all that was needed was to flee north (or south) into British/Canadian territory (or US territory) because soldiers and police were forced to stop at that point of the border.
During the late 1800s, the border famously allowed Sitting Bull to escape to Canada following the battle at the Little Big Horn, and it also allowed for a rising growth of illegal trade in whiskey and guns to develop, with the half-breed Metis serving as successful smugglers of both forms of contraband.
During the spring of 1871, it was noted by US authorities that many of the Metis from Saskatchewan and Alberta were carrying on illegal trade of liquor. It was noted by military authorities attacked a half-breed encampment at Fort Peck. The officer in charge wrote:
“Last winter it was found necessary to have the aid of the military to suppress the illegal traffic carried on between the Red River half-breeds of the North and the Indians under charge of the United States. An attack was made on the half-breed camp, and all their liquor and contraband goods destroyed. About one hundred barrels of whisky and large quantities of other liquors were destroyed at Fort Peck, on the Missouri River, being destined for the Indian trade; and the Department is to be congratulated that the vigorous means adopted have accomplished such desirable results, and that the convictions obtained in the spring of 1871, and the prompt pursuit of parties starting out into the Indian country with liquor, and the destruction of their stores and equipment, have resulted in so much benefit.”
While the smuggling of liquor was problematic, after the incident at Little Big Horn and in the time leading up to the Metis rebellion in 1885, gun running became an even more serious concern. Authorities noted that large numbers of Metis half-breeds were freely crossing the border, and they were travelling quite frequently with some of the renegades who had fled to Canada under Sitting Bull. Complaints were made that the Metis from Canada were trading with the potential hostiles in the US and furnishing them with ammunition. US Colonel Miles was sent from Fort Keogh, Montana, with a strong force to break up their camps and force them to return north of the boundary. It was noted:
“On July 31, Colonel Miles reported that the main hostile camp [of Sitting Bulls followers] had retreated north, across the boundary, to Wood Mountain; the column followed and halted on the main trail at the British line, whence it returned to Milk River. Attention was then turned to the camps of the half-breeds which had formed a cordon of outposts around the main hostile camp, furnishing the Indians with guns and ammunition. On August 4, Captain Ovenshine, Fifth Infantry, with a portion of Colonel Miles' command, arrested a band of half-breeds on Porcupine Creek, capturing one hundred and forty-three carts and one hundred and ninety-three horses. On August 5, four camps of half-breeds were arrested, numbering three-hundred and eight carts. On August 8, Colonel Miles reported the total number of half-breeds arrested by various detachments eight hundred and twenty nine, with six hundred and sixty-five carts.”
This problem was also noted by Canadian authorities who worried about the Metis being armed from the US side of the border by Metis in Montana who could access guns more freely. Authorities noted that during in early 1885, the Metis in Saskatchewan were actively being provided the latest and best make of American rifles by smugglers from the south. In October, forty rifles were received in one lot alone by Gabriel Dumont, who kept a small general store at his ferry. When questioned about the guns by the police, Dumont told them that the rifles belonged to a party of white gentlemen who were going north to hunt moose, and that he was “holding them for them”. In addition to arms, large quantities of ammunition were also being smuggled across the border from the United States, and sent north to Batoche. All the while, Louis Riel continued to carry on a correspondence with his friends in Montana, requesting more assistance and aid from Montana, and elsewhere in the United States.