Building Borders on Aboriginal Lands

1860 - 1930

In 1879, Sir Edward Thornton, the British Minister at Washington, decried that it was impossible to police the boundary between Canada and the United States. The western portions of each nation were too unsettled for an expansive bureaucracy and the Sioux, Nez Perce, Coast Salish, Blackfoot, Cree, Métis, Chinese, and Europeans who lived along the boundary ignored the border whenever it suited their interests. Canada and the United States had made grand claims to land they could not rule over in practice. This divergence between claims of power and the historic realities of administration has created confusion, omission, and error in historic accounts that has distorted the national narratives in both countries.

Led by Dr. Benjamin Hoy, the Building Borders on Aboriginal Lands Project attempts to map and quantify Canadian and American attempts to expand their administrations and exert control at their peripheries through an ever-greater network of agencies and departments. By mapping both the presence of government officials and the concerns they expressed, this project is building a map of federal power and engagement between the 1860s and the 1930s that shifts as people were hired and fired, as posts were built and fell into disrepair, and as crises grew and faded.

This project is also working towards expanding and publicizing the extensive, but little-known, contributions that First Nations made to the formation and defense of the U.S.-Canada border in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Native Americans, for example, contributed close to 8,000 person-days of labor as part of the Northwest Boundary survey team alone and made meaningful contributions to the defense of the border as provisioners, soldiers, scouts, and informants. This occurred during times of peace as well as during times of war. Indigenous communities supported the border’s creation for many internal reasons that had little to do with either government’s broader aims. Borders could be used to secure preferential trading rates and goods, reinforce a specific tribe’s control over resources like buffalo herds, create opportunities to avoid prosecution by moving between legal jurisdictions, and built sanctuaries for those fleeing violence. Indigenous communities challenged the creation of the border, but they also helped build it. This complexity has been lost or underplayed, in part, because of the suffering these communities later endured as the border hardened and because of the cultural momentum that national narratives of expansion often possess.

The final results of the project are available at:


  • Benjamin Hoy, Principal Investigator, Department of History, University of Saskatchewan
  • Kris Inwood, Collaborator, Departments of History and Economics, University of Guelph
  • Jon Bath, Collaborator, Art & Art History, University of Saskatchewan
  • Tyla Betke, Graduate RA, History, University of Saskatchewan
  • Tarisa Little, Graduate RA, History, University of Saskatchewan
  • Chris Marsh, Graduate Contributor, History, University of Saskatchewan
  • Arya Adityan, Graduate RA, Society and Culture, IIT Gandhinagar
  • Meagan Breault, Undergraduate RA, History, University of Saskatchewan
  • Katherine McPhee, Undergraduate RA, History, University of Saskatchewan
  • Kevin Winterhalt, Undergraduate RA, History, University of Saskatchewan
  • Tenille Holm, Undergraduate RA, History, University of Saskatchewan
  • Erin Isaac, Undergraduate RA, History, University of Saskatchewan
  • Himanshu Chuahan, Undergraduate RA, Chemical Engineering, IIT Gandhinagar
  • Steven Langlois, Undergraduate RA, History, University of Saskatchewan