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North American tribal people have dealt with the complex issue of cross-border migration since the mid-19th century, negotiating boundaries set by treaties between the United States and Mexico to the south and Canada to the north. The Yaquis of northern Sonora crossed into what became Arizona in search of freedom from persecution as well as economic opportunity. When Mexican policy and practice enslaved and deported the Yaquis from their home regions, many crossed into the United States as refugees. On the northern border Crees crossed from Canada into U.S. territories, particularly Montana. They established camps but retained their nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, repeatedly crossing the border, which they referred to as the Medicine Line. After the 1885 North-West Rebellion, their desire to be in the United States took on new meaning, as they also sought refuge.

In his Spur Award–winning Native but Foreign: Indigenous Immigrants and Refugees in the North American Borderlands author Brenden W. Rensink delves deep into the stories of the Yaquis, Crees and Chippewas, who ventured to the United States to improve their lives, as well as those Indians who crossed borders to escape military pursuit in the United States—notably the followers of Geronimo and other Apaches in the south, and the Lakotas who followed Sitting Bull and the Nez Perces who went with White Bird to Canada.

What motivated the Yaquis to enter the United States/Arizona?
That depends on when. Yaquis come into what would become Arizona as far back as the 1700s. In the mid- to late-1800s many crossed north as a much-desired work force, applying their expertise in mining, railroad and irrigation construction. Finally, in the late-1800s and early 1900s a wave of Yaqui political refugees fled north to seek refuge from a state-sponsored campaign of extermination, enslavement and deportation to the Yucatán.

Were the Yaquis fleeing persecution or seeking prosperity?
Sonora had long been a landscape of violence and many Yaquis were simultaneously pushed by violence and pulled by economic opportunity across the line. In the latter stages, however, the push of violence motivated many who had weathered previous periods of violence to flee.

‘American newspapers depicted Yaquis as savage, indomitable, and perpetually troublesome. This caused trouble for them in Arizona. Even with such negative coverage, however, many reports often expressed awe at their fierce independence’

How did Arizonans generally regard Yaqui refugees of the early 1900s?
Mixed and complicated. They were prized as skilled laborers by many industries and highly sought after. At the same time, however, continual violence in Sonora between their compatriots and the Mexican state cast a continual shadow of suspicion over them. A third complicating factor is that they did gain sympathy when American media picked up on the extermination, deportation and enslavement occurring in Mexico. What is unclear is if this sympathy was more driven by altruistic desires to provide them sanctuary or by the opportunity for Americans to cast judgment on Mexico for malfeasance. The irony of America wagging its finger at Mexico for doing many of the things the nation had done itself mere years earlier was not lost on some observers.

How did the attitude and perception of the Yaquis compare with the feelings and actions related to African Americans in the US?
Americans regularly viewed Yaquis as just a different group of “Mexicans.” Many Mexicans had Indigenous heritage, but Americans failed to understand the unique nature of Yaqui independence and opposition to Mexico in Sonora. When grouped with Mexicans, they faced the same prejudice Americans expressed towards other Mexican and Latin American communities. The comparison to the treatment of African Americans is less direct.

What effect did newspaper and other reports have on the Yaquis?
It had a significant impact. During periods of warfare in Sonora (often involving Yaquis), American newspapers depicted them as savage, indomitable, and perpetually troublesome. This caused trouble for Yaquis in Arizona. Even with such negative coverage, however, many reports often expressed awe at their fierce independence. This again may have been motivated by an unspoken desire by some Americans to disparage Mexico, and praising their “uncivilized” Yaqui adversaries certainly demeaned them. Later, after the threat of deportation waned in the mid-1900s, Yaquis rose in prominence as newspapers reported on their Easter celebrations – making them something of a cultural phenomenon and tourist attraction. Later generations built on this goodwill while organizing politically and seeking white allies in the state.

In 1909 Harper’s Weekly reported the “tragedy of the Yaquis is perhaps without a parallel in American history.” Was that an exaggeration?
This is a perfect example of America deflecting guilt for its own mistreatment of native peoples by highlighting Mexico’s mistreatment of Yaquis. There may have been some sincerity in this and other similar reports, but it could also serve a political purpose. In 1909 the United States was fresh off the Spanish-American War, newly active in global affairs and carefully trying to differentiate itself from European empires—something many Americans were uncomfortable with being compared to. Highlighting the flaws of other nations served the purpose of elevating America above the fray.

How did Cree border crossings compare with those of the Yaquis?
Interestingly, Cree migrations compare closely with Yaqui examples. Crees had long histories in what would become the United States (even predating American settlement) and were welcomed as an economic force early on (fur trade) but later turned away. Both groups faced different receptions, depending on surrounding circumstances.

Did the Yaquis or Crees make any treaties with the U.S. government?
None. By the mid-1800s, when the United States was attempting to settle and populate Montana and Arizona with white Americans, the government was not accepting any more Indian wards than they already had. The origins of the Crees and Yaquis made for an easy out—simply label them as “foreign,” declare they did not belong and demand they leave.

‘The government was not accepting any more Indian wards than they already had. The origins of the Crees and Yaquis made for an easy out — simply label them as “foreign,” declare they did not belong and demand they leave’

How were Crees perceived amid the unique circumstances of the fur trade era?
Lewis and Clark wrote about them positively and guessed they could be used by American fur trade networks. This changed when the fur trade collapsed and Montana was organized as a territory soon thereafter. Interested in attracting white settlement, investment, and industry, Montana Territory had no interest in uncontrolled, non-treaty, non-reservation confined Indians —especially if they were viewed to rightfully be wards of Canada. As whites settled on lands Crees had frequented for decades, subsequent tension, violence, cattle thieving and other negative interactions further soured Montanan views of Crees.

What role did Little Bear play in the Riel Uprising?
In the years just prior Little Bear had been in Montana with various bands under the leadership of his father Big Bear, among others. By 1885 they had returned to Canada, signed a treaty and settled on a reserve. During the Riel Rebellion, or Northwest Rebellion, a massacre of whites took place at Frog Lake and Big Bear’s Crees were present. The best survey of sources attests that Big Bear desperately tried to avert violence, but some of his young braves did not listen. With the army in pursuit, Big Bear told his son Little Bear to take followers south to Montana. “Across the line there shall be liberty for you,” he told his son. Big Bear remained himself to distract the pursuing troops. 

After the uprising how did the Crees deal with their refugee status? 
When Little Bear’s bands crossed the border and presented themselves at Fort Assiniboine, the commanding officers were ready to force them back across the line. However, word was received from Washington, DC, that they were being granted political asylum and would be allowed to stay. However, with that protection, little else was provided. They were left to wander, struggle, and starve.

What was John J. Pershing’s role in removal of the Crees from Montana? 
In 1896, eleven years after Little Bear’s Crees had been allowed to stay (while being subsequently ignored), the United States appropriated $5,000 to round them up and deport them. From Fort Assiniboine, Pershing commanded the 10th Cavalry regiment of African American “Buffalo Soldiers” in the deportation effort. Hundreds were deported, including many American-born Crees, Chippewas, Métis, and others.

How did Montana newspapers cover the issue?
Much of the Montana press was elated. After a decade of complaining and campaigning to have the federal government get rid of the Crees, they finally had. When the majority of the Crees immediately returned back to Montana, many were incensed. A prime exception was the Great Falls Tribune, which had long been sympathetic to the Cree plight. They cried foul at the deportation, citing Crees’ amnesty and right to remain in the United States.

Can you compare how the Crees in Montana were treated with how Sitting Bull and his Lakota followers and White Bird and his Nez Perce followers were treated after they crossed the border and spent years in Canada?
The key difference in these examples is that the United States had existing treaties with Lakota and Nez Perce peoples. They were viewed as domestic Indians, and the U.S. government actively tried to get Canada to deport them back. Viewing Crees as foreign, there was no desire to have them under U.S. jurisdiction.

Why did it take so long for the Yaquis to receive reservation lands as compared with the Crees? 
Ironically, Yaquis longer saga for federal tribal recognition (1978) versus Crees (1916) has a lot to do with their relatively greater success integrating themselves into the labor markets that Arizona desperately needed to build itself. This relative economic success allowed them to form communities and some stability, although plagued by the uncertainty of potential deportation, not owning land, etc. Crees, on the other hand, did not have many desirable labor skills, so they wandered. Crees were forced to live in city garbage dumps, migrate continually in search of work or support, and this made them more conspicuous and easier targets of Montanan prejudice. In a cruel and ironic twist, their 1916 securing of recognition and reservation lands to settle came because many Montanans were tired of seeing their poverty at the door. In Arizona, Yaqui struggles and problems were less visible because they were not a wandering people.

What other groups found themselves in the similar position of crossing either the northern or southern border as refugees into the U.S.? 
There were other Native peoples crossing the borders, including the Chippewas with whom Crees were granted a reservation as a newly minted joint tribe. However, others were not entering the United States as “refugees,” not even those associated Chippewas. Some Natives had sought asylum in Canada or Mexico by leaving the United States, but Yaquis and Crees are unique in crossing into the United States for that purpose. 

Do any groups today face scrutiny over border crossings?
Yaquis, Crees, and Chippewas maintain relations with family and cultural communities in Canada and Mexico and are working hard to strengthen those ties. This has become more difficult post-9/11. Peoples like the Toronto O’Odham or Akwesasne Mohawks are directly bisected by the border. This complicates the maintenance of family, culture, and religion with related communities who live just miles away, across the international border. In the Pacific Northwest, there is an increasing amount of cross-border collaboration with Salish-speaking peoples. Other groups, like the Blackfeet who have associated communities on Canadian reserves do likewise.

‘Yaquis, Crees, and Chippewas maintain relations with family and cultural communities in Canada and Mexico and are working hard to strengthen those ties’

What research challenges did you face?
 One of the biggest challenges was finding archival sources. For other American Indian groups, records are organized neatly at the National Archives in RG 75—not so for Crees or Yaquis. For the pre-recognition period I was researching they were not considered “American” Indians. So, it took a lot of digging and finding relevant records tucked away in unexpected placed. Many published works that did mention them, did so only in a footnote. It is shocking how much our archival systems, and by extension, existing research is defined by national narratives. When Crees and Yaquis crossed borders, they fell out of the Canadian and Mexican archives and national stories and were not successfully integrated into the United States archives and historiographies into which they should have entered. This made research a challenge, to say the least.

What new subject are you researching/writing about?
I am wrapping up a collection of essays on the 21st century modern West, to be published by the University of Nebraska Press (likely in 2021). I have also begun research on a cultural and environmental history of Western wilderness landscapes and the types of experiences peoples have come to them to have. My work helping run the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, managing and editing the Intermountain Histories digital public history project, and hosting and producing the Writing Westward Podcast keep me plenty busy!

Anything else to share?
You can link to the companion website, where I have posted additional sources and topics. WW