The Hundred Cuts
Colin Morton’s most recent book, The Hundred Cuts, tells the story of Canada’s first big refugee crisis, when 5,000 Lakota people under the leadership of Sitting Bull arrived at Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan with the U.S. Cavalry in pursuit. It was 1877. A year earlier the Lakota had defeated the U.S. Seventh Cavalry under Custer at the battle of the Little Big Horn (also known as Custer’s Last Stand). News of the defeat and the deaths of all its soldiers reached Americans just in time for their centennial celebrations on July 4, 1876.
It was the September 11 of the nineteenth century, and Sitting Bull was as popular in the U.S. as Osama bin Laden is now. When the Lakota arrived in Saskatchewan, Canada was ten years old, and its foreign policy was still managed from Whitehall. Canada’s claim to the North-West Territories (now Saskatchewan and Alberta) had still to be tested. The forty-ninth parallel had been marked on maps and by a string of stone cairns on the ground, but it was an open question whether that border would hold.
Sitting Bull’s people were greeted on their arrival by the entire Canadian presence in the region: a few traders, fewer than a hundred members of the newly-formed North-West Mounted Police, and the Metis scouts and interpreters who worked for them. For Major James Walsh of Fort Walsh in Wood Mountain, it was the challenge of a lifetime.
The cover photo of The Hundred Cuts shows Sitting Bull’s war bonnet, which he presented to Major Walsh in 1880 when he returned to the United States. The gift is the measure of the respect that developed between the two men.
Colin Morton has searched the archives and histories to find the words of people who witnessed this relationship: Sitting Bull’s mother Her-Holy-Door and his wife Seen-by-the-Nation; the interpreter Louis Léveillé and artist Henri Julien; bugle boy Fred Bagley and junior constable Billy Walsh.
Spotted Eagle Speaks
You know how a pelican
having snared its fish
plays it and tosses it
till scales and all it slides down the throat.
This is how the Long Knives
play my people’s hopes and soon
America will swallow us whole
then settle down to sleep while we digest.
Spotted Eagle’s prediction is precisely what Sir John A. MacDonald would like to happen. In his brief appearance, MacDonald upbraids Walsh: “Get to the point, man. Don’t tell me of their humanity. I don’t care a dram for Sitting Bull. His people are nothing but an expense and embarrassment to me. What galls is when some little police inspector spouts off to the press on Dominion policy and talks to Yankee officials without going through channels.”
After quietly kicking over the spittoon in MacDonald’s office, Walsh reflects
. . . all my heroes died in battle.
I am sure my country would love me better
if I did the same.
But Wolfe died winning an empire,
Brock and Nelson, saving their country.
My thankless task – not to win a war
but at any cost to smother one.
One of the first in a long line of Canadian peacekeepers, Walsh died at his home in Brockville. Sitting Bull returned to the U.S., to prison and a tour with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. He was murdered in 1890, shortly before the massacre at Wounded Knee. In a postscript, Colin Morton writes of visiting Sitting Bull’s grave at Standing Rock in North Dakota, “behind Taco John’s”, where the chief might or might not be buried.
This is one of the year’s worthwhile reads: a mature poet writing about a significant moment in Canadian history, and channelling the voices of its many actors. You come to the end of this book with a sense of regret – for an opportunity missed, for a people humbled, and because you’re at the end of the book.