British Association for American Studies


Book Review: A Line of Blood and Dirt: Creating the Canada-United States Border Across Indigenous Lands by Benjamin Hoy

Oxford University Press, 2021. £25.49


In Benjamin Hoy’s book, A Line of Blood and Dirt: Creating the Canada-United States Border Across Indigenous Lands, Hoy states: ‘the Canada-US border was born in blood. Violence served as both a motivation and a tool for federal control’.[1] This analysis offers a much-needed historical perspective of the racialised history of the border and the subsequent development of US immigration policies since cruelty is often used as a deterrence factor for border control. During the Trump administration, this was especially true due to the zero-tolerance border policy which placed a priority on separating families as evidenced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions explicitly stating in 2018: ‘We need to take away children’.[2] Although nativism was a central part of President Donald Trump’s presidency, Hoy’s book demonstrates that the historical roots of border control have always employed racist policies along with an unequal application of federal power at and beyond the border.

Throughout the twelve chapters of Hoy’s research, the reader is effectively transported through time and space as wars, treaties, and surveys divide Indigenous territory and define the North American boundary under the authority of American, British, and Russian officials as the author defends three arguments. These arguments address the uniqueness of the Canada-US border due to similar cultural and militaristic ideologies, how the border embodies the racist colonial practices of preferential treatment towards European immigrants, and how border control policies rely on direct control at the border and indirect control throughout the interior of both countries.[3] Furthermore, these arguments are developed across three developmental stages of the border, childhood (1775-1865), adolescence (1865-1914), and early adulthood (the early 1900s), as the border is physically defined, movement is regulated, and policies are enacted. Similar to how the Canada-US border was layered on top of preexisting Indigenous territorial boundaries, this book layers the transnational history of the border across multicultural populations and socio-cultural traditions.

Although the perspective is US-centric, Hoy offers an invaluable investigation of life along the 49th parallel. My main critique of the book revolves around the desire for the author to provide further explanations of how historical events correlate with current legal and political matters. Hoy successfully made this connection when elaborating on the historical basis of US immigration policies, which were initially intended to deter Chinese migration through the passage of the Page Law (1875), the Chinese Restriction Act (1882), and the Chinese Exclusion Act (1888).[4] However, the recounting of the loss of territory for Indigenous nations could have benefited from references to recent litigation that further demonstrates the illegality of the actions by surveyors in comparison with territorial boundaries decreed by treaties. E. Richard Hart, an expert on this subject, wrote on the importance of utilising historical documentation for tribal litigation to achieve recognition of treaty rights by federal authorities, including the right to traditional territories for water, fishing, and hunting.[5] Thus, we can view Hoy’s book as developing arguments along these lines but not following every historical thread that links the harmful border control policy of the nineteenth century with modern-day impacts. Overall, A Line of Blood and Dirt positions Hoy as an expert on the history of the Canada-US border and accomplished the monumental task of explaining how Indigenous peoples across the expanse of 8,891 kilometers (5,525 miles) experienced the development of this boundary and the division of their lands.

While modern interpretations of controlling border movement generally mean building a physical structure, the initial means of border control developed by US and Canadian federal authorities perfected a strategy of deploying power across the border and throughout the interior of a country by implementing indirect policies that decimated the strength of the Indigenous communities through restricted access to food, education, and employment. Hoy’s research demonstrates that starvation, malnutrition, fear, and disease are some of the most preferred means used by federal authorities during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to control the mobility of populations across the border. The technique of using starvation for population control is a tragic genocidal template also found repeatedly used in Europe during political conflicts such as the Ukrainian Holodomor and the Jewish Holocaust. Restricted access to food is an extremely pertinent topic since it can also extend to current conversations on the importance of food sovereignty and how indigenous food security can be reclaimed through tribal food sovereignty initiatives.[6]

A Line of Blood and Dirt utilises the act of surveying the border to fuel the narrative plot structure with the Civil War creating the turning point in the book as western expansion, Indigenous resistance, and US military ascendancy combine to make a volatile transnational region erupt into violence and genocide. This is a persuasive use of temporality since during the post-Civil War era the strategic and excessive use of US federal power against Indigenous and migrant populations increased and many of the now familiar methods for controlling population mobility were developed. Although Hoy does not apply the term social death to his study, it is used by Orlando Patterson in his model of slavery and offers an appropriate description of the actions by federal and local authorities toward sovereign indigenous nations since they appeared to treat indigenous peoples as a ‘domestic enemy’[7] and forced many communities to be uprooted from their ancestral territory, placed on geographically isolated reservations, and banned from practicing their social traditions. Patterson specifically identifies that social death for the Nuxalk people meant the loss of ancestral myths and being removed from an ancestral home. Thus, social death appropriately describes the systems outlined by Hoy, which were implemented with the purpose of ‘breaking the social bonds that connected communities’[8] such as disregarding and terminating treaties, exhuming the bodies of deceased Indigenous soldiers, and applying the practice of forced assimilation.

Andrue Berding observed the border in 1938 as ‘more symbolic than real’.[9] Yet, this observation mainly applies to the experience of European immigrants since marginalised people encounter the border ‘through direct and indirect means–controlling minds as much as bodies’ [10] at the boundary line and far into the interior of a country. Today we see similar border control practices as agents from ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) arrest immigrants throughout the United States even years after a person crosses the border. This means that the historical description by Hoy of a less burdensome, less memorable border experience of European immigrants is still an accurate description of the current method of controlling the border because immigrants from European countries are still viewed by North American society as more desirable inhabitants. Through Hoy’s valuable scholarship, we see evidence that the burden of crossing the border and the memories of the experience are specific strategies used by both countries to prevent future attempts of crossing. Yet, Hoy reminds the reader that this is one of the most significant differences between US and Canadian border policies since Canadian narratives ‘romanticize’ [11] their less aggressive treatment of Indigenous peoples with the assumed goal of attempting to maintain the moral high ground on the issue of the history of securitising the border.

Although A Line of Blood and Dirt does not offer distinct correlations between historical border developments and current events, Hoy successfully supports his three arguments and provides a foundational understanding of the racialised history of North American border control policies and their impact on Indigenous communities. Since the movement of people in the Americas is a prominent topic in today’s policy debates, this book offers an indispensable description of how current immigration policies were first developed to control the mobility of these Indigenous populations along with the formerly enslaved and Asia-Pacific immigrants. Through Hoy’s scholarship, we see that any discussion of border control must also extend to debates on the unequal application of federal power at and beyond the border along with addressing colonialised border control policies which specifically target marginalised populations.



  1. Benjamin Hoy, A Line of Blood and Dirt: Creating the Canada-United States Border Across Indigenous Lands (Oxford University Press, 2021), 74.
  2. Michael D. Shear, Katie Benner, and Michael S. Schmidt, “‘We Need to Take Away Children,’ No Matter How Young, Justice Dept. Officials Said”, New York Times (6 Oct 2020). <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/06/us/politics/family-separation-border-immigration-jeff-sessions-rod-rosenstein.html>
  3. Hoy, A Line of Blood and Dirt, 6-8
  4. Ibid., 53
  5. E. Richard Hart, American Indian History on Trial: Historical Expertise in Tribal Litigation (The University of Utah Press, 2018).
  6. NCAI, Tribal Food Sovereignty Advancement Initiative. <https://www.ncai.org/initiatives/partnerships-initiatives/food-sovereignty>
  7. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (Harvard University Press, 1982), 39.
  8. Hoy, A Line of Blood and Dirt, 38
  9. Ibid., 2
  10. Ibid., 225
  11. Ibid., 118

About the Author

Amy Ruckes is a graduate student in the American Studies program at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA), Ruprecht-Karls-UniversitŠt Heidelberg in Germany. Her studies focus on political science and history and utilize digital methods for her methodology. Her intention is to ground her research in a sociocultural understanding of the historical exploitation of marginalized populations through a mixed methods approach. Amy's research and advocacy involve the areas of online disinformation that target marginalized populations.