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Indigenous Immigrants and Refugees in the North American Borderlands by Brenden W. Rensink, Texas A&M Press, 2018
Q&A Blog

Why Does Native but Foreign cover Cree history so much more than Chippewa history?


On January 31, 2019, I published a short piece with Public Radio International’s The World and Global Nation entitled Ignored and deported, Cree ‘refugees’ echo the crises of today. The Chippewa Cree Tribe of Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation shared it on their Facebook Page and the following question was asked:

How come there is very little mentioned about Chief Rocky Boy and his part in establishing Rocky Boy and his journey where his band came from?

This is an excellent question and one that I have been waiting for a reason to address.

As this project developed as a doctoral dissertation and into a book manuscript, there were persistent problems of scope and focus. The project evolved as a comparative historical examination of Native peoples who crossed international borders into the United States, persisted as “foreign” Indians, and eventually successfully secured federal tribal recognition as “American” Indians. Thus the half of the book that covers Crees and Chippewas in Montana was not planned as a definitive and/or comprehensive history of the peoples that became the Chippewa Cree Tribe of Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation. Instead, it was more narrowly focused on the histories of border crossing, prejudice against “foreign” Indians, and US policies towards them.

Crees under the leadership of Big Bear, Little Bear, Little Poplar, and others fit within this scope and the majority of the Montana portion of Native but Foreign focuses on their experiences. A quandary arose, however, when towards the end of the Cree experience of being unrecognized landless they combine forces with Rocky Boy’s band of Chippewas and are settled together as a single tribe. Rocky Boy’s band of Chippewas had a different history than Little Bear’s Crees and while many of them had relations and ties across the US-Canada border, their entry into Montana was not one of recognized border-crossing and granting of asylum as refugees – as had been the case with Little Bear’s Crees in 1885. The restrictions of word count in the book allowed for a necessary, albeit brief, discussion of Rocky Boy’s background, but did not allow for a full accounting of he and his peoples’ past. Such an account would be valuable, but fell slightly outside the narrow scope of the comparative thematic foci.

This reality has bothered me from the dissertation to the present. The history of Rocky Boy’s Chippewas, Pembina Chippewas and Metis, Little Shell’s Band of Chippewas, and so many others is relevant to the broader context in which the Cree story unfolds. I wish there would have been time and space to figure out a way to integrate a fuller accounting of their history and experiences that stretched from Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba and other locales in the east, all the way across the Northern Plains to Montana (often along the 49th parallel). Should Native but Foreign be developed for an expanded and updated 2nd edition at some point, this topic is at the top of the list for inclusion.

Sidebar: My regrets about not being able to include a more comprehensive telling of Rocky Boy and associated Chippewa and Metis histories were compounded when I discovered that a crucial footnote regarding Rocky Boy was missing for the book’s footnotes! I included it here on the website.

The restrictions of thematic focus and word count played out similarly for the PRI article. It focused specifically on the refugee status and experience of Little Bear’s Crees. Rocky Boy’s history plays a huge part in the establishment of the eventual reservation and securing of federal tribal recognition, but was not directly related to the focus of the piece.