Assiniboine River, Manitoba To Elk Island, Alberta, Metis Country


"From the waterfall he named her, Minnehaha, Laughing Water." The Song of Hiawatha (1855), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Winter began moving into the Great Plains of Canada in 2016 during the last week of September. I passed modest undulations of cultivated land alternating with flatness stretching hundreds of miles from Winnipeg across the Manitoba/Saskatchewan border in the wet. Rain is a somber nutrient for the vast fields of wheat, barley, soybeans and a multitude of crops the make Manitoba and Saskatchewan prosperous but thinly populated. The Assiniboine River basin, along with the Saskatchewan River(s) -- a north and east branch, are the major depressions that carve out irrigation channels within the prairies stretching from the Dakotas to the Arctic lands in the far boreal north.

Josiah Gregg, who crossed the Plains of the US numerous times in its early development days, wrote in Commerce of the Prairies that the prairie country was dangerous but not in the way most people image. Gregg said the danger lay not in Indians but in the magic elixir of freedom and lonesome individualism. "The air of the Plains rendered civilized men unfit for the East–its towns full of narrow streets, its houses full of airless rooms, its people confined by girdles and neckties." (from the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, edited by David Wishart).

Some First Nations (native American) populations in this area are assigned the Assiniboine name, but their closest relations are the Lakota people or the Sioux, who also inhabit large parts of Alberta, Montana, and the Dakotas. The Assiniboine are also known as the Hohe and by the endonym Nakota (or Nakoda or Nakona). They were members of the so-called Iron Confederacy with the Plains Cree.

The Lewis and Clark expedition's journals mention the Assiniboine, whom the American explorers heard about while returning down the Missouri River. Apparently they never met members of this tribe, however. In their time, rain and snow falling on the eastern side of the Plains supported a "veritable meadow": grasses six feet high (tall grass prairie), set among deciduous trees like oak and hickory. To the west, typically at an elevation of 2,000 feet, that virgin prairie gave way to a steppe-like hills where trees were scarce, except for stream bank cottonwoods, and the grass was shorter.

Buffalo herds have given way to hay bales and fenced grain land where high plains prairie grass once blanketed the fertile land mass leading up to the mountains. Oil and natural gas were discovered in the sedimentary rock basin along the southern tier of mostly Saskatchewan; so modern investors in natural resources and fuels mingle with the farmers who manage tracks of cultivated fields that seem to disappear at infinity.

Remaining pure-blood Indian populations of central Canada are significantly fewer today than the larger mixed-race descendants of the early trappers and settlers who trespassed the region. According to Wiki, the Metis people's history begins in the 17th century with the unions of various French colonists, typically trappers and traders, and Algonquian women, including but not limited to Mi'kmaq, Algonquin, Ojibwe, and Cree peoples. French voyageurs and coureurs de bois (woodsmen), plus Hudson's Bay Company employees, typically took country wives during the long winters of separation from the towns and cities east of here.

And there are tales that transcend the borders of the U.S. and Canada today. Norwegian Jacob Fjelde's sculpture Hiawatha and Minnehaha (posted here) stands in Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis, next to Minnehaha Falls. I passed it while strolling with friends in the city's popular park just a day or so prior to entering Canada on my 2016 survey of that country's western region.

In 1855, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published the famous book-length poem entitled The Song of Hiawatha, a muse set among the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) and Dakota tribes of the region. The poem's story was based on traditional Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) tales purportedly collected by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft.

"From the waterfall he named her, Minnehaha, Laughing Water." The Song of Hiawatha (1855), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Fjelde immigrated to Minnesota in 1887 and was commissioned to create a sculpture for the Minnesota Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Some critics at the time attacked the caricatures as not being Indian enough.

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© 2023 by Edgar David Boshart, edboshart@gmail.com

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