Friday, November 20, 2015

WHOOP-UP COUNTRY: The Rest of the Story

Canadian Shield Pre-Cambrian igneous rock

What the rest of the story of “Whoop Up Country” reveals is that it was an ecological and cultural unity, developed in spite of the boundary between nations, which was finally pulled apart by back east financial, political and industrial forces from both countries, plus internal entities of several kinds, and a few players as far away as Russia (because of Alaska) and the British Empire.

First, the geologically created areas, beyond the grassy prairie or its cordilleran western boundary.  “The Canadian Shield, also called the Laurentian Plateau, or Bouclier Canadien (French), is a large area of exposed Precambrian igneous and high-grade metamorphic rocks (geological shield) that forms the ancient geological core of the North American continent (North American or Laurentia craton), covered by a thin layer of soil. It is an area mostly composed of igneous rock which relates to its long volcanic history. It has a deep, common, joined bedrock region in Eastern and central Canada and stretches North from the Great Lakes to the Arctic Ocean, covering over half of Canada; it also extends South into the Northern reaches of the United States. Human population is sparse, and industrial development is minimal, while mining is very prevalent.”

Euro peoples came upon a grassland with huge masses of buffalo herds moving back and forth, followed by the nomadic tribes of people whose lives were then exploded by horses, guns, and metal objects acquired by trade for fur skins.  This trade was divided between north and south at the 49th parallel which was largely ignored for a while, because the natural geography and commerce created a shared area.  The Missouri River complex allowed travel to Fort Benton via steamboats which, like guns, were the entering wedge of industrialism.  

African-scale herds

The early transportation industry was mostly wagons taking “whisky” (at least that’s what they called it) and other supplies (blankets, hatchets, flint strikers, smallpox) into the back country and bringing out furs.  When the furs had all been trapped out, bison hides and coal came out while commodities went in to the reservations and army outposts.   The significance of the precambrian shield was that mining without agriculture didn’t support enough of a population for shipping, so that even Canadians sending supplies and hides “out” to the Northwest dropped down into the “High Line” country to move them to market in Western Canada by traveling through Western US country.

The foundation of empires is trade.  Dry land shipping with wagons and bull trains is not that different from sea voyages.  The paper bookkeeping businesses that controlled trade -- investment, interest, insurance -- applied just as easily.  Only the rhetoric was different, since it addressed homesteading and the other claims on territory like government, both as it formed and as it was claimed from back east.  So there was more concern about boundaries and loyalties, national issues.

The point of “Whoop Up Country” is not just that a whisky trail came through here, but that the development of cultural overlay and divvying up new layers of ecology could have gone very differently.  At play were the consequences of Hudson’s Bay giving up “Rupert’s Land,” which caused a lot of Americans to suggest that the States just annex it as part of their desire to dominate the whole continent.  This caused the British Empire to suddenly realize that something was happening in a place they were used to safely ignoring and made them wonder whether they shouldn’t open negotiations with Russia to buy Alaska, since it was a long coastline on the Pacific.  Orders kept coming to the high prairie from big shots far away who had no mental picture of what the situation really was.  This scared everyone, both in London and Fort Benton.

Those persistent and bitter Fenians thought Rupert’s Land would make a great Metis country.  Most of the mixed children were half Brits created in trapper days.  Conversations with Louis Riel began.  In the middle of this, Sitting Bull -- under bloody suppression and harassment by the US Cavalry still sore over Custer -- took the Sioux into Canada.  The canny leader declared that the Sioux perceived that the United Nations were pretenders and that the  Sioux tribe had not participated in the Revolutionary War.  Therefore they were not American -- they did NOT break away and they remained at least Canadian tribes, but certainly under the Queen.  But one of the Canadian officials scrambling to feed and pacify a thousand broad-chested, keen-eyed armed tribesmen, suggested that since these were essentially American Indians, a bill for their care should be sent to Washington, D.C.  The two countries were nonplussed and stalled.  What if the Fenians, the Red River Metis, and a unified coalition of plains tribes gathered to oppose the American claim to the prairies?  At the very least it would be a bloody disaster.  No one could figure out what they were even hoping for -- except survival.

The lines among states and provinces had not yet been developed.  They gradually accrued over the decades of papers stacking up, needing filing and a central location, or the need to build a road between growing towns or legal territories for policing and trials.  The story of these bi-national systems, is that slight differences of attitude became rather distinctive and had major consequences.  It's complex to read, which is no doubt why it's history that no one really knows.  Much of it involves impatient men trying to secure fortunes and thus forcing events in ways that would let them do what they wanted.  They created order, but they also created confusions and conflicts.

Industrialization, in the guise of railroads, broke the deadlock.  The trails and the rivers were no longer the only routes of trade.  Eventually there would be a Canadian railroad just north of the 49th Parallel, and two more through the American plains, one just south of the parallel and one farther down.  Now gold seekers and homesteaders flooded in, only held back when the economy went into recession and then only temporarily.  The dams and mines and schools and post offices and churches jumped up like mushrooms.  The idea of hamstringing the tribes by killing all the buffalo worked very well.   Except when they got  really hungry and resorted to eating cattle. 

In less than a century the natural ecology of animals, plants, mineral deposits, and waterways was destroyed and rebuilt to suit a different kind of people, too numerous and greedy to resist.  The rebuilding continues, though we appear to be in an awkward time of reconstruction again.  This time it is the rooted people who are in excess again, but what food source can we eliminate that will destroy them?  Even the bonanza of oil and coal in this area is being by-passed like the Pre-Cambrian Canadian shield, because we have so much sun and wind, which are "free."  On the other hand, pipelines and transmission wires require constant monitoring, to say nothing of highways and bridges or the infrastructure of towns.  The resources of coal, asbestos, and uranium turn out to have their dark sides, and the reclamation of old mines is a pressing need to save the quality of our water.  Our major money-making enterprises include private prisons and mega-hospitals.  They're expensive.

The kind of person who lives here must change again if we want our children to stay.  For some years we’ve been telling them to get out, get educations, get to a big city and live big.  Now we’re looking for skilled local people who can repair a waterline and maintain a computer ISP.  This is the way an ecology works: yesterday’s systems run to failure or add new dimensions -- then everything else has to adjust, uncomfortable as that may be, but possibly breaking through to a new order, new wealth.

The Pre-cambrian Canadian Shield was the kernel of a new continent that formed around it. It remains at the center.  What is our social international kernel of development besides greed and rivalry?  Can we avoid the dark side of progress?  We still appreciate our whisky, but there are lots of other illegal things slipping along the Whoop-Up Trail.  Every culture has its underculture.

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