Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Retracing historic Mandan Trail

Natives from Canada, U.S. to join Unity Ride

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COULTER -- Two centuries ago, while Maj.-Gen. Sir Isaac Brock was defending Canada from the United States in the War of 1812, a massacre of aboriginal people took place near Turtle Mountain.

About 30 people were slain. It was aboriginal-versus-aboriginal violence, with Sioux, Hidatsa and Métis people perishing.

The most accepted version of the massacre is that a gang of aboriginal bandits had surprised Hidatsa tribe members and murdered them. Métis hunters came upon the scene shortly after and took retribution. The oral history comes from one surviving eyewitness, an elderly Métis man who was a young boy in the hunting party.

The massacre was an offshoot of the War of 1812 (which lasted until 1815). Many warrior-aged, aboriginal men had left the area to fight with Brock and the British forces, leaving their communities vulnerable to attacks. Marauding bandits saw an opportunity to pillage.

(Aboriginal people played a vital part in the war. Dakota warriors from what would become Manitoba fought in a half-dozen battles. The biggest of those battles, and the farthest east, was at Detroit.)

In response to the massacre -- and this is, if you haven't guessed, Manitoba's chapter in the War of 1812 -- a brigade of 1,400 aboriginal people from seven tribes in the region joined forces to police much of the Mandan Trail. It was a rare and extraordinary display of unity by the tribes to set aside their differences. The seven tribes were Dakota, Hidatsu, Assiniboine, Mandan, Chippewa, Ojibwa and Cree.

In June, aboriginal people on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border will commemorate the event by retracing the brigade's route on horseback, led by Dakota elder Gus Higheagle on the Manitoba side.

The re-enactment is to draw attention to this little-known piece of aboriginal history, said Higheagle.

It's being called the Unity Ride because it will symbolically "reunite" the seven tribes, just as what happened 200 years ago, said Higheagle, who is from Canupawakpa Dakota Nation, south of Virden.

The native riders will start the historical trail ride at Coulter Park, also called Sourisford, in Manitoba, and end in New Town, N.D., on the Missouri River. They camp out on June 10 in Coulter Park and depart June 11.

They will ride on highway shoulders and in ditches. Much of the trek will be done by relay, but some people like Higheagle plan to ride every day. Some riders will camp at night in tents or teepees. Their route will be almost 400 kilometres and the trip is expected to take nine days.

"I think its cool. It's very interesting," said Doug Hevenor, CEO of the International Peace Garden, who has sent a letter of support for the memorial ride to Parks Canada. The ride will go past the Peace Garden on Highway 10. Heritage Canada has recognized the event behind the pilgrimage.

The Mandan Trail was an important trade route, and the Mandan settlement was the financial centre for tribes in the region. So it was vital to the Mandans to protect their trade route against gangs. But it was an uneasy truce in the intertribal brigade, wrote one member, a white man, John Tanner. Tanner was famously kidnapped by the Shaunee in Kentucky as a child and traded between tribes before eventually being adopted and raised by an aboriginal family.

"Men were assembled from a vast extent of country, of dissimilar feelings and dialects, and of the whole 1,400, not one who would acknowledge any authority superior to his own will," Tanner wrote. There were many desertions before the army reached the Mandan village, he said. By journey's end, only a couple hundred people were still with the ride.

Nevertheless, they received a hero's welcome. The Mandans put on a giant feast and celebration for the police force, said James Ritchie, a historian based in Boissevain, who has acted as consultant to the historical ride.

"The brigade didn't fight any pitched battles, but they did drive off bandits from the Mandan-Brandon House trade route for the season," said Ritchie. The brigade continued to patrol the route until the Canada-U.S. war ended.

The riders on the memorial ride will not be novices. Higheagle and his friends like to organize trail rides with historical or geographical themes. One year, they rode the Dakota Trail from Lower Brule Sioux Nation in North Dakota, to Mankato, Minn.

However, Higheagle, 59, allowed "I'm going to cheat" this year. Wife Emily will be following in an RV and will prepare meals for the riders.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 23, 2012 A5

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