By Maurice Switzer
CURVE LAKE FN – Some wonder why so many First Nations people cling to Christianity, given the belief system’s active participation in such destructive and colonizing forces as the Indian Residential School system.
Calgary-based scholar Donald B. Smith has spent a good part of his academic life researching archives that offer one explanation.
“When European settlers came it was like extraterrestrials landing,” Smith told his audience during an energetic presentation as part of the Curve Lake First Nation Speaker Series. “It was devastating. First there was the War of 1812. Then thousands of settlers. With the Europeans came disease – smallpox, measles – that were fatal to the Anishinaabe. Over 60 per cent of the people of New Credit died within a generation—of these diseases, alcohol and substance abuse. The Anishinaabe were decimated.”
The Professor Emeritus at University of Calgary has written extensively on the Mississaugas, the term British settlers used for Ojibwe who populated the north shore of Lake Ontario. The book jacket of Smith’s latest title – “Mississauga Portraits: Ojibwe Voices from Nineteenth Century Canada” – says the Mississaugas, who in the early and mid-nineteenth century occupied what is now the most urbanized region in Canada, “ lived through a time of considerable threat to the survival of the First Nations, as they lost much of their autonomy, and almost all of their traditional territory.”
“Why Christianity?” he asked his audience. “Its words spoke to core values of the Anishinaabe. Hymns were being sung in Ojibwe.”
Smith presented quick biographies of three prominent Mississauga figures, all of whom converted to Christianity and are among the eight Anishinaabe he wrote about who lived during this turbulent period.
George Copway – Kah Ge Ga Gah Bowh – “One who stands strong” –was born in the Rice Lake area in 1818 – the same year as six Mississauga chiefs accepted the terms of Treaty 20. A Lindsay Post report of the day listed the terms of the treaty, which included $10 annual payments to band members, but individuals born after 1818 would receive nothing. “Seven Ontario townships really passed from the hands of the Indians for a beggarly dole of merchandise”.
“He had a traditional upbringing,” noted Smith. “Then in 1828 his parents converted to Christianity, his father (John, a Mississauga chief) quit drinking.”
Copway attended a mission school, worked with a Methodist minister as a missionary near Lake Superior, helped translate some Bible chapters into Ojibwe, and was ordained as a minister after the church provided for his education in Illinois.
During a chequered career, Copway was married, convicted of embezzlement from the Ojibwe General Council, defrocked, and moved to New York where in 1847 he wrote a memoir that was the first book published by a First Nations person from Canada. The best-seller had six printings in its first year. In 1851 he became the first Canadian Indian to start a newspaper – the weekly “Copway’s American Indian” — that published for three months, and advocated for a Native American Territory in the American Midwest.
He returned to Canada in 1868, served as a medicine man for Algonkin and Iroquois near Oka, Quebec, and died the following year after converting to Catholicism.
Smith also offered a whirlwind summary of the life of Shawundais (“Sultry heat”) – John Sunday – the last traditional chief at Alderville First Nation, who he described as “a tough cookie”.
He served in the War of 1812, helping Mohawk and Mississauga warriors repel American invaders at the Battle of Crysler’s Farm along the St. Lawrence River.
Before becoming “a member of Team Methodist” in 1836, it was said that John Sunday only knew three words in English: “Pint, quart, and whiskey.”
“He was a great speaker,” said Smith, “and gained the esteem of his people. It was during his leadership that the 200 Mississauga living on 10 acres of land on Grape Island in the Bay of Quinte relocated to the present site of Alderville First Nation. John Sunday was renowned as an advocate for Christianity as well as Indian land claims — before his death in 1875.
“This was the golden age of the Mississauga,” said Smith. “In the 1820s and thirties they could mostly read and write. The Methodists gave them good teachers. Many Anishinaabe were better educated than the settlers!”
Smith wrapped up the evening with a profile of Peter Jacobs – Pahtahsega (“He who brings light”) – who was born at the eastern end of Lake Ontario about three years before the War of 1812 broke out. He belonged to the Reindeer (Elk) Clan, and grew up an orphan. His parents died of alcohol abuse and he developed an intense resentment against “whites”. After being taken in by a settler family in Belleville, he began his education and his future as a Methodist minister was not in doubt after he learned from his charismatic mentor – chief and preacher Peter Jones – that he “could communicate in Ojibwe with God”.
Jacobs died in 1890 in Rama after a long and successful career as a minister, teacher, translater, and merchant.