A tripod of geography, history, and law

In a long section entitled “Preparation for Civilization” Stegner explores the history of Cypress Hills,

The forces were powerful enough sooner or later to overrun any divide, but for a long time power flowed around the flanks of the Cypress Hills as once ice had. But once history touched the hills, once the stalemate was broken, the stages of the Plains frontier would go through them like fire through prairie grass. As late as 1868, when the American frontier was in its very last phase, it had hardly begun here. The fur trade, already by that year a fading memory south of the border, was just reaching out to this remote tumble of high land. The tribes lay in precarious balance. The métis who with luck might have made a mixed blood nation, a sort of Mexico, in the Canadian West, had not yet made their first rebellious move on the Red River, and their hivernant skirmishers had barely felt their way into the dangerous divide.

Within little more than a decade, fur traders, métis, and Indians would find their whole world collapsing under them, the buffalo would be all but gone, and law and order in a red coat would be patrolling the coulees where a few years before hardly any man, red or white or halfway between, would have dared go.

and, particularly, the effect of the establishment of the border between the United States and Canada:

[the 49th parallel] … exerted uncomprehended pressures upon affiliation and belief, custom and costume. It offered us subtle choices even in language (we stooked our wheat; across the Line they shocked it), and it lay among our loyalties as disturbing as a hair in butter. Considering how much I saw of it and how many kinds of influence it brought to bear on me, it might have done me good to learn something of how it came there. I never did until much later, and when I began to look it up I discovered that practically nobody else knew how it had come there either. While I lived on it, I accepted it as I accepted Orion in the winter sky. I did not know that this line of iron posts was one outward evidence of the coming of history to the unhistoried Plains, one of the strings by which dead men and the unguessed past directed our lives. In actual fact, the boundary which Joseph Kinsey Howard has called artificial and ridiculous was more potent in the lives of people like us than the natural divide of the Cypress Hills had ever been upon the tribes it held apart. For the 49th parallel was an agreement, a rule, a limitation, a fiction perhaps but a legal one, acknowledged by both sides; and the coming of law, even such limited law as this, was the beginning of civilization in what had been a lawless wilderness. Civilization is built on a tripod of geography, history, and law, and it is made up largely of limitations.

Though I live just a few miles from the border and have a sister-in-law whose a Canadian citizen, I’ve never really given much thought to the border. However, Stegner makes a convincing argument that this Medicine Line, as the Indians called it, because of it’s power, had a defining effect on Cypress Hills.

Stegner’s also convinced that Canadian dealings with the Indians was much more effective than American dealings, though he admits historically that might have been because America had been settled first:

The important thing is the instant, compelling impressiveness of this man in the scarlet tunic. I believe I know, having felt it, the truest reason why the slim force of Mounted Police was so spectacularly successful, why its esprit de corps was so high and its prestige so great. I think I know how Law must have looked to Sioux and Blackfoot when the column of red coats rode westward in the summer of 1874.

Never was the dignity of the uniform more carefully cultivated, and rarely has the ceremonial quality of impartial law and order been more dramatically exploited. Since the middle of the 18th century the red coat of the British dragoons had meant, to Indian minds, a force that was non and sometimes anti-American. The contrast was triply effective now that the blue of the American cavalry had become an abomination to the Plains hostiles. One of the most visible aspects of the international boundary was that it was a color line: blue below, red above, blue for treachery and unkept promises, red for protection and the straight tongue. That is not quite the way a scrupulous historian would report it, for if Canada had been settled first, and the American West had remained empty, the situation might well have been reversed. Certainly Canada had its own difficulties with the tribes when the buffalo disappeared and the crisis came on; and though its treaty system was better considered and its treaties better kept than the American, still Canada in red coats hunted down its hostiles in 1885 just as the bluecoated Long Knives had used to do. But given the historical context, red meant to an Indian in the 1870’s friendship and protection, and it is to the honor of an almost over publicized force that having dramatized in scarlet the righteousness of the law it represented, it lived up to the dramatization.

Considering America’s constant betrayal of its treaties it’s not surprising the Indians trusted the British more than the Americans, particularly since the Canadians gave refuge to Sitting Bull after his clash with Custer.

More importantly, though, the Canadian Mounties brought order and justice to the frontier in ways Americans either couldn’t or wouldn’t, starting with the suppression of the American whiskey runners:

Uncontrolled from 1868 to 1874, the whiskey traffic on the Whoop Up Trail had gone a long way toward demoralizing Blood, Piegan, and Blackfoot, had brought on riots and murders, had pauperized families and made drunks out of hunters and squalid drabs out of hunters’ wives. Left to run its course, it could hardly have avoided stirring up in the Alberta country a racial war as vengeful as the Minnesota Massacres of 186162, and it would as certainly have brought defeat and tribal collapse to the Blackfoot. The pattern had been repeated many times south of the Line. It was by no means out of the question that the Black foot might choose at any time to take the risk and wipe the little force of a hundred and fifty Mounties out. If the police had worn blue coats instead of red, the Blackfoot might well have tried.

Instead of that, and within a month of his coming, Macleod made a firm peace with the confederation which had never submitted and never did submit to the United States. As combined magistrate and peace officer, he would have his patrol duties, and occasional incidents of violence or illegality to handle, but to all intents and purposes he took care of the critical Whoop Up problem the first winter. He took care of it, one might say, simply by being there. Altogether, his was a remarkable demonstration that law, when strictly and equitably enforced, is incomparably stronger than the random or violent powers ranged against it. Rechtssicherheit proved a quicker and surer way to peace with the Blackfoot than carbines and promises.

Perhaps the latest news from Iraq has me unusually depressed, but you have to wonder if the Americans have ever learned that “ law, when strictly and equitably enforced, is incomparably stronger than the random or violent powers ranged against it.” Does our celebration of the “Wild” West, and celebration of outlaws like Jesse James reveal a terrible flaw in our national culture? Is greed, disguised as some misguided form of Capitalism, inherent in our culture, willing to justify the exploitation of other countries if it makes a profit?

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