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.
This early documentary film takes the form of a story; and aims to show the life of a family of Algonquians (Ojibwa) through different activities of everyday life, such as hunting, picking berries, and the manufacture of baskets, skins, and clothes.
Part 1: Presentation of the family: Cheenama and his wife Penni, their son Oka and Blue Jay their youngest child. We see the fauna and the surrounding flora, scenes of everyday life: picking of berries, soaking of skins, manufacturing of buckets and moccasins, hunting, and fishing.
Part 2: In a continuation of the first part, we see the family of Cheenama cooking by their tent. Cheenama and his wife are smoking, discussing when to move camp. Construction of a new canoe with birch bark.
Part 3: Continuation of the construction of the new canoe. After hunting and fishing, they dry the meat and the fish. The camp is dismantled, they leave and settle in a new place. Cheenama made a fire. We see fields, lake. Oka is hunting ducks.
Part 4: During the period of the harvest we see Cheenama and his wife Penni in a canoe in the fields of wild rice. Cheenama beating rice. Once the harvest is ended, Penni places birch bark to hold the rice to dry in the sun, then on the fire. Cheenama digs a hole to trample the rice there. Finally Penni gets the black rice in birch back baskets and covers it with skins for transport.
By an Act of Congress on March 3, 1873, a township of land was purchased on what is now the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota for the expressed purpose of resettlement of the Pembina Band of Chippewa, including the Turtle Mountain Band, so that the United States would have the ability to abolish the claims of the Pembina/Turtle Mountain people to over 9-million acres of lands in northern North Dakota.
In 1874, the government successfully relocated about 543 people to White Earth by withholding treaty annuities unless persons took the step to self-relocate to the Agency at White Earth where they would be issued their annuities. This practice of withholding annuities created a severe hardship for the Chippewa in North Dakota, and in many cases those who did relocate to White Earth were not content with their decision. Missing home, many left the reservation and returned to Pembina and the Turtle Mountains.
Even more so, the great leader Little Shell and his headmen steadfastly refused the order to relocate, worrying that any such self-removal would be seen as the abandonment of the land they claimed in North Dakota, and that if they did relocate – even temporarily to receive annuities at White Earth – it would be a legal relinquishment of their title to their homeland. Thus, in 1874, Little Shell and his sub-chiefs traveled to Washington, DC, and pressed their claim to title and expressed their refusal to relocate.
Undeterred and turning a deaf ear to the Chippewa leadership, the government continued to withhold annuities from the Pembinas who remained at Turtle Mountain, creating significant hardships and near starvation conditions each winter. In 1880, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs noted that: “[the] portion of the Pembina band, numbering 250 persons, still [refuse to relocate to the White Earth] reservation, and are roaming over the Territory north and west, as destitute vagabonds. No better illustration of the improved condition of the Indians upon reservations over those who endeavor to subsist elsewhere could be had than the thrift, industry, and comfort, of the one, and the filth, idleness, and pitiful poverty of the other.” Congress continued to debate ways in which to force or coerce the remainder of the Pembinas to leave the Turtle Mountains, but Little Shell and his leadership would not budge.
In response, President Chester A. Arthur issued three successive executive orders creating and then diminishing the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. The first executive order was issued on December 21, 1882, identifying 20 townships as the boundaries of the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. However, two years later, President Arthur issued a second order reducing the size of the reservation from 22 to 2 townships on March 29, 1884. The rationale for reduction of the reservation was based on questionable census data and quandaries over blood quantum. The third order was issued on June 3, 1884 to remedy an oversight by the federal government regarding the location of a township adjacent to the US/Canadian international border.
Even after the creation of the reservation, the government continued to punish the Turtle Mountain people by short-changing them on annual annuities, withholding annuities, and allowing corrupt agents and others to punitively issue annuities to some people and not to others. This led to a terrible incident over the winter of 1887-1888, when 151 persons died of starvation in the Turtle Mountains. As noted by Father Genin, the Priest in charge of the Turtle Mountain Mission: “[in that year, the] United States government was made to believe so many bushels of wheat, corn and potatoes had been distributed… [however] so many things never reached the unfortunate; or, if any at all was obtained, it was only by a few favorites, while the others were rebuked and sent to do for themselves.” Genin also noted that some of the worst victims of this starvation effort were the Indians and Metis (mixed-bloods) who were part of the band, but who were seen as originating in Canada. They were provided no assistance at all and were the hardest hit. In an effort to raise money to help buy their own provisions, the Turtle Mountain people began to cut wood so they could sell it. However, in response the government sent local law enforcement to arrest the men for cutting their own wood without permission of the local agent. This event almost led to an armed conflict between the Chippewa and the police officers, and the elderly sub-chief Red Thunder was arrested and held in jail following this confrontation.
The punishment of the tribe finally ended with the negotiation of the 1892 McCumber Agreement, which settled the tribal claims to the title to their land, allowed for enrollment, and provided for the honest issuance of annuities to the Turtle Mountain Band at the expense of having to cede interest in millions of acres of land to the United States.
Ferris, Kade M (2012). Starvation in the Turtle Mountains. Turtle Mountain Heritage Center Blog.
Lafountain, L, Richard, O, et al (2007). Who I Am: A Guide To Your Turtle Mountain Home. Turtle Mountain Community College, North Dakota: Belcourt.
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Red Lake Delegation
During the negotiations of the Old Crossing Treaty of 1863, the U.S. commissioners under Alexander Ramsey continued to press the Red Lake chiefs for a treaty. The government wanted title to the Red River valley, on both sides of the river (an estimated 20,000 square miles), and was willing to pay $20,000 per year for twenty years. The Red Lakers appointed Little Rock to speak for them. After shaking hands with Commissioners Ramsey and Morrill, Little Rock spoke, according to a reporter, "with somewhat undue violence of vociferation, but with neither immoderate nor ungraceful energy of gesticulation." Paul Beaulieu interpreted for the chief, who said:
Whenever I look around I see and I suppose you see it also--I see gold glittering on the soil we inherit. The land belongs to us. We should be very sorry for you to set a value upon the land for us and make us an offer... before you have heard our offer.
I want to give you an answer to one thing you said yesterday--about the road which passes through here and the river. You told us they were not of much importance to us. The Master of Life gave us the river and the water thereof to drink, and the woods and the roads we depend on for subsistence, and you are mistaken if you think we derive no benefits from them. The Master of Life gave it to us for an inheritance, and gave us the animals for food and clothing....
About the road and that river which flows in that direction, which the Master of Life has given me--there is where I get my living. My independence is upon that prairie. The Master of Life has placed upon these prairies animals from which I live. Their meat is my food, and their skins are my clothing. It seems now that the white man is passing backward and forward and wresting these prairies from our hands, and taking this food from my mouth.
My friend, when we take anything which has been left upon the ground, even though it be of small value, we feel bad. We are afraid to look the owner in the face until we restore it. Now about committing depredations and stealing, we are well aware that the Great Spirit has given us the animals for our support. When your young men steal anything you make them pay for the depredations. That is the way we look upon those white men who drove away the animals and fish the Great Spirit has given us....
Do you suppose we are ignorant that the amount of money you offer us is a mere handful and would not go but a little way towards paying for what I think you alluded to (compensation for depredations).... We want you to distinctly understand that the proposition you made to us yesterday ($20,000 for the right of way) we don't accept. We do not think of it at all....
Despite the initial determination of the band to resist the sale, the commissioners eventually had their way and the treaty was signed by six of the seven Red Lake chiefs.
Source: St. Paul Daily Press, October 23, 1863. "May-dwa-gun-onind [He Who is Spoken To], a tall, noble-looking and keen-faced Indian, is the head chief of the Red Lakers, but like other great men talking is not his forte. Little Rock, his more than peer in stature and in influence, a man of character with a massive brow and an intelligent and open face, is the orator and statesman of the Red Lake hierarchy, functions which the Pembinese devolve on old Red Bear." St. Paul Daily Press, October 4, 1863.
A letter written in 1898 from Little Shell to J.B. Bottineau expressing the need for the Band Council to travel to Washington, DC, to push their claims for assistance in the face of ongoing starvation and the unequal distribution of funds and rations to the band.
Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians of North Dakota, Belcourt, N. Dak., January 26, 1898.
From the Chief and all the Councilmen to John Bte. Botttneau, at Washington, D. C.:
The Chief Little Shell here speaks: We are tired, fatigue, since so long waiting for the settlement of our claim. Even though we are so fatigue we keep strong, firm, to stay by you and your efforts in our cause; we are always ready to go or do as you say, to hell pushing our case.
In regard to the affairs and doings of the three commissioners – the Ten-Cent Treaty commissioners – we are very much troubled in here about it; but I repeat to you here again I did say while in Washington to the House Committee of Indian Affairs, that I would never sign their affairs, the ten-cent treaty. I am all the same yet and now.
My greatest fatigue is to see my people so poor and going so hungry. In regard to our proposed amendment to secure fifteen thousand dollars for relief pending the settlement of our claim, I would like to see all the members of our tribe (the Turtle Mountain) get some of it equally, and not like they have done with the appropriation of 1895, and give it only to those favored ones which were put on the list (rolls) by the commissioners. Have this appropriation so arranged to protect us all equally.
In regard to the conditions of our affairs, we have asked your uncle Charles for your attention to get some means from the Government which will help us to go to Washington. It will give you more force to push our case through, even if you have to do so yourself as you have done, to bring our delegation to Washington. The last time we were there in May and June, 1896. It is the greatest hope and desire of the chief and all the councilmen of the tribe, because we know we could help you and help our cause greatly, and we would accomplish something; and it is important we should go now because our pecuniary condition and the necessity demands it, and we know we could accomplish something for the benefit of the tribe through our friends in Congress, with the help of our present Commissioner of Indian Affairs, who, you say, is the true friend of the Indians. We wish to see him and talk to him ourselves now, and we ask you to help us in some way which will give us means to bring us to Washington as soon as possible.
The chief, Little Shell, and all the councilmen send you their best respects.
Little Shell, Chief (his x mark).
Sasswain, Henri Poitra (his x mark).
Gourneau, Baptiste Champagne (his x mark).
Bayriss, Cuthbert Grant (his X mark).
John B. Reno, Secretary of the Council and of the Turtle Mountain Indians
Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians to Court of Claims, House and Senate Reports: Reports on Public Bill, March 24, 1898, Committee on Indian Affairs. US House of Representatives
Two years after the battle at the Little Big Horn, and his subsequent escape to Canada, Father Jean Baptiste Marie Genin reported in May 1878, that Sitting Bull appeared to be strengthening himself militarily so that he could come back to his homelands in the United States without fear.
Colonel MacLeod, the Fort Walsh commander at Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan, hired a Metis man named LaRiviere to keep him informed of all the movements of the Lakotas and their possible build-up. LaRiviere reported that Sitting Bull had 80 lodges at Pinto Horse Butte, 200 lodges on Frenchman's Creek, 250 lodges roaming about, and an additional 50 lodges of Lakota moving towards Sitting Bull’s camp. In addition, there were 80 lodges of Santee at Wood Mountain, and a large group of Cree and Assiniboine under Chief Big Bear (about 300 lodges) were camped near the mouth of the Red Deer River. Rumors had it that Sitting Bull had seven tribes in his camp, and that some small groups of Assiniboin and Yanktonai from the US were coming to join him.
Despite the worries of this build up, MacLeod didn’t believe the movements of the Lakota and others were threatening. He reported this to US authorities. Even if he wasn’t an immediate threat, intelligence reported that Sitting Bull was nonetheless trying to gain support from anyone who would lend it.
It was known that he had sent emissaries with tobacco to the Sissetons at Lake Traverse, asking them to join his cause. He even sent tobacco to the Ojibwe camps at White Earth and Pembina. His message was carried by a Cree to Pembina, and then by a Pembina man to White Earth. His message reported read as follows:
“Chippewas of White Earth and all the Chippewas of Minnesota: I send... tobacco for you and the Half-breeds to smoke, to tell you to look at me. I ask you not to help the whites by acting as scouts against my people. I do not wish to war against the whites, but they are after me and my people to destroy us. But when they attack us we must fight in self-defense. Look at the whites and see what they have done. They have robbed us of our lands. If you are treated as we are, fight. Do as we do. Our lands will then be regained.
I now have six tribes ready to join me, and I have notified the Indians and Half-breeds of the Plains to keep away from the directions we are to travel when we go to war.”
All of the Ojibwe bands refused to help, with the exception of Little Shell and his warriors, who indeed went north to Wood Mountain against the protest of Chief White Cloud and others.
R. W. Scott to MacLeod, January 23, 1878, MacLeod to Scott, January 29 and July 9, 1878, GGO, PAC; (Bull's letter copied in) Charles A. Ruffee to E. A. Hayt, July 16 and August 3, 1878, NARG 75, Letters Received, Chippewa Agency, roll 166; Turner, NWMP, 1:400.
If You Do Not Help Us, We Will Die in Our Poverty. Flat Mouth (II), Little Rock (Asinewub), and White Cloud, 1877
Each summer from 1873 through 1877, a disastrous cloud of locusts invaded the Minnesota farm country, devouring almost everything green in sight. By the winter of 1876-77 the situation was drastically affecting the Ojibwe reservations in northern Minnesota. Various chiefs began to write to their foremost influential friend, Bishop Henry Whipple, for assistance. Flat Mouth II wrote from Leech Lake on January 13, 1877:
My people are starving and freezing, and no work is being done for us. We received at our annual payment a very few goods, and our children are consequently suffering. Within the last two or three years the administration of our affairs have been such as to show no improvement, and we appear in a worse condition than formerly. We desire you to write to Washington to explain our situation and to control our affairs.
A month later Whipple received a letter from Little Rock on the Red Lake reserve:
Our friend, we met in council today--[and] thought of you in our necessities. You are our friend and you are one whom we know would help us. You know very well our poverty. We have never had any help since we went to see our Great Father at Washington and we would like very much to go and see him once more before our annuities expire, and thought only of you who would help us to go on, and we wish to borrow money from you out of monies due us from the government next fall, or sooner, if we get help from our Great Father.... We wish to bear our own expenses. If you can help us in this matter, it will show us that you are our friend.... if you do not help us, we will die in our poverty. You know we cannot follow any religion naked. We must have help from our Great Father.
Then, in May 1877, Whipple heard from White Cloud at the White Earth reserve:
When you were here last summer, you saw the grasshoppers, and now their children are among us, threatening to destroy everything again this year as they did last. The last time I saw you, you said you would come here soon and see us again. I looked and watched for you, but you came not. I afterwards heard that the Great Father had sent you to see the Sioux and heard of the success of your work among them. I would like to have you write and advise me in my new mode of life. Maybe you may not think me worthy, but I shall deem it my duty to advise my people.
Sources: Flat Mouth to Whipple, Jan. 13, 1877, Red Lake chiefs to Whipple, Feb. 13, 1877, and White Cloud to Whipple, May 18, 1877, Whipple Papers. One result of the complaints was that the White Earth agent, Lewis Stowe was replaced by the old trader and mail route operator, Charles A. Ruffee. White Cloud's activities in getting Stowe replaced caused missionary J. A. Gilfillan to give him a poor historical reputation. See Frederick W. Hodge, ed. Handbook of American Indians, Part 2 (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1979), 885.
In 1948, the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribal council traveled to Washington, D.C. to express the dire conditions of the reservation and the problems facing the people there. Before the Congressional hearing, Representative William Frederick Lemke (August 13, 1878 – May 30, 1950), of North Dakota, took a moment to speak on behalf of the tribe...
Going back to my early childhood when these Chippewa Indians used to have these two-wheel carts and the pony hitched to them and they went out and collected buffalo bones. They used to pass over the only usable bridge over the creek near our home and they used to have trains 2 miles long all loaded with buffalo bones headed for Devil's Lake.
Later on as we developed they used to come and help us harvest the crops. They brought their whole families, their children and everything to the farm. They lived in tents even when there was snow on the ground. We used to run the threshing machines late into the year.
And then one winter I remember, somebody came into our home at night. It was 40 degrees below zero outside. The next morning, we found Indians in our home. One of them was none other than Little Shell, your former chief. Some of the pullman cars are named after him now on the Great Northern. When we got up they were cooking their food, their bacon, and they told us that they were on their way to see the Great White Father on foot as they had to walk to Devils Lake where they took the train to Washington, D.C.
My father asked Chief Little Shell what he wanted to see the Great White Father about, and he replied, "Get paid for the land he took away from us."
My father then asked, "Where is this land he took away from you?” “Well,” he said, “the land you are living on used to belong to us, and the Great White Father took it away, and we want to be paid for it.”
I do not believe he was ever paid for it. Now, these Indians are here now because they are in a desperate situation. The Red Cross has been taking care of them. Think of it. Government wards are being taken care of by the Red Cross while we are sending millions and billions of dollars abroad. It seems to be inconsistent. These Indians are here this morning to give us their viewpoint as to what should be done. I think the Chippewa Indians are in the worse condition of any of them because they have just about 40 acres of ground to an individual, or family, I forget which.
Mar. 16, 1948, House Subcommittee on Indian Affairs; Committee on Public Lands. House.