Trip to the Archives: An Odawa Petition for a Catholic Missionary

[This month Cushwa welcomes 2015 Research Travel Grant recipient Jason Sprague to discuss an archival source critical to his dissertation research at the University of Iowa. (Thanks to Kevin Cawley and Charles Lamb of the Notre Dame Archives for providing photos -- below the jump cut.) Jason's current research interests are in Great Lakes Native American religions, American Catholicism, and new religious movements in the United States. He is interested in lived religious experience, kinship networks, women’s religious roles, Catholic/Protestant tensions, education, religious hybridity, identity formation, colonialism and the state, and power relationships. And speaking of research travel grants -- we are currently sending out award letters for an exciting group of 2016 projects. By next month we should be able to link to a complete list of recipients.]

Jason Sprague

My dissertation examines Odawa Catholicism in the L’Arbre Croche region of northern Michigan as it was practiced in the absence of a priestly presence between 1765 and 1825. Part of my study addresses the effort to reestablish the Catholic mission at L’Arbre Croche in the 1820s. I argue that encroaching pressures from the American state and Protestant missionaries were contributing factors to the timing of this endeavor.

This work hinges on a very curious document: a petition from the Odawas of L’Arbre Croche to President James Monroe for a Catholic missionary. I argue that this letter, dated August 12, 1823, is one example of the Odawa Catholics of L’Arbre Croche using their Catholic history and identity to create a dialogue between themselves and the encroaching American state. Through the hand of a Catholic priest, Father Gabriel Richard, the Odawas were able to establish a line of communication with the American government to express their desires. [1] Although not initially effective, it made the Catholic hierarchy aware of the Odawa’s longing to reestablish an official Catholic presence and shaped future relations with the United States government.

I first came across this letter in John Gilmary Shea’s 1855 History of the Catholic Missions Among the Indian Tribes of the United States. After finding additional transcriptions and references to the letter in other sources, I discovered that a copy resides at the University of Notre Dame Archives -- but after examining the archive’s copy I realized that Shea’s transcription is from a similar but different document.

Miguissanessi (Bear’s Paw), Chief and Others to the President of the United States, Petition for ministers of the Catholic religion to come and teach religion, arts and agriculture, 12 August 1823, in Macate Binessi (Miguissanessi, Indian for Bear’s Paw) Chief of the Ottawas to President of the U.S. James Monroe, Oversized Box #8, Detroit III-2-f-g (University of Notre Dame Archives)

My transcription of the letter at Notre Dame reads as follows:

 We the undersigned Chiefs, head of families or other individuals of the Tribe of the Ottawas residing at Waganakisi, (The Arbre Croche, i.e Crooked Tree) take this mode to communicate our wants and wishes to our most respected father, the President of the U.S. we return our best thanks to our father and to Congress for his and their exertions to bring us, your very affectionate children, to civilization and to the knowledge of JESOUS, the Redeemer of the red skins as well as of the white people.

Trusting on your paternal affection, we come forward, and claiming the Liberty of conscience, we most earnestly pray that you may be pleased to let us have a teacher or a minister of the Gospel belonging to the same Denomination of the Spiritual Fathers which were sent to our parents by the French Government and have long many years resided amongst us occupied and cultivated a field on our own ground. We are willing to be taught Religion, Arts, and Agriculture by Ministers of the same Religion (which is called the Catholic Religion. We further invite such Teachers appointed by your Paternal affections to come and settle on the same spot, formerly occupied by Frs. LeFranc, Fr. Dujaunay and others, that is to say on the shore of Lake Michigan near the lower end of our village at the Arbre Croche. 

 For so doing and granting your children their humble petition, they will for ever feel grateful and will pray the Great Spirit to bless you and your white children. – In witness there of we have made our Tautems (marks) on this day the 12th. August 1823 [2] 

Below the final paragraph and onto the following page are the names and totems of the twenty two signatories to the letter. These are some of the most eye-catching elements of the letter. Most people who have seen this letter misidentify the pictures as either cute drawings of local fauna or Native signatures denoting individual names. Shea is an example of the latter case. He conflates the signature drawings with the surrounding text to create a singular name. Thus, Wenginiwanani/ours [French for "bear"]/(picture of a bear) gets reduced to the individual name “Bear.” The misunderstanding that the animal pictures were simply Richard’s doodles of local wildlife is best exemplified in a piece by William B. Treml, titled “The Power of this Holy Man.” [3] Tremel includes a picture of a section of the letter containing the animal drawings and a caption that reads, in part, “Richard has drawn pictures of birds, animals and fish native to the area.”

Unlike these previous interpretations, and drawing on a brilliant article by Heidi Bohaker [4], I argue that the pictures are actually the clan totems of each signer and are drawn in their hand, not Richard’s. The French words accompanying each picture are descriptions of each clan totem drawing. The French is not a translation of the individual’s name, but a designation for the picture accompanying it. The words written in Odawa are the names of the individual signers. Bohaker argues that in these types of documents “the images clearly represent the nindoodemag, or kinship networks, of those Anishinaabe signatories.” In other words, the images represent collective identities, not individual names.

The language and content of the letter reveals some interesting information about its intent and the larger historical context in which it was composed. I contend that the phrase, “on our own ground,” suggests an understanding of Native land ownership and an awareness of U.S. government attempts to obtain Native lands. These attempts were recent and contentious. The Odawa of L’Arbre Croche first negotiated a treaty involving the transfer of land when they negotiated with Michigan Territorial Governor, Lewis Cass, during his 1820 summer visit to L’Arbre Croche and Michilimackinac. The Odawa directly ceded the first portions of their own territory, the St. Martin Islands, in exchange for goods received at the signing of the 1820 Treaty of Michilimackinac. The following year the Odawa refused to send representatives to the treaty negotiations in Chicago, believing that if they did not participate in the treaty or consent to its terms then the U.S. would not be able to take their lands. However, a minority faction among the Grand River Ottawa joined their Potawatomie neighbors as signatories to the treaty, ceding most of southwestern Michigan south of the Grand River. The result of the treaty and the way it was conducted signaled to the Odawa that they would have to reckon with U.S. power instead of ignoring it. As a result, the Odawa began preparing for a defense of their territory and political sovereignty by appealing to sacred power and the education of their children in the hope that the younger generation could maneuver through the American political and legal system. This appeal drew upon their Catholic history and identity and culminated in the 1823 letter to the president.

Furthermore, I argue that the language of the letter also appeals to the aims of the government’s civilizing mission. Words such as “civilization”, “teacher”, and “agriculture” would have been interpreted by government officials and Protestant missionaries as a desire to assimilate. Protestant missionaries often served as agents of Americanization, so I surmise that the Odawa used Catholicism as a means to resist Protestantism while still appealing to the "civilizing" goals of the American state. Religion and politics were drawing inspiration from the same sources to deal with encroaching American power. By the time the Odawa made their appeals to the president they were already familiar with Protestant missionaries, even though there were no Protestant missions established among them. In June, 1820 the Odawa rejected the spirited appeals of Reverend Jedidiah Morse, the father of the inventor of the telegraph. Morse accompanied Governor Cass to the treaty council at L’Arbre Croche as Secretary of War John C. Calhoun’s representative to witness the treaty signing. Morse pressured the Odawa to adopt the American civilizing mission by accepting a Protestant missionary among them. His unwelcomed fire and brimstone speech received no response from the Odawa. Despite receiving the cold shoulder, Morse used this experience to urge William M. Ferry to establish a nearby mission on Mackinac Island three years later. Ferry organized the first Presbyterian congregation on Mackinac Island on February 23, 1823. On October 19 the Ferry family moved to the island and set up a boarding school. Keith Widder argues that, counter to their intentions, these missionary efforts actually “resulted in the revival of Catholicism.” [5]

In this context, some of the reasons why the Odawa wanted not just any Christian missionaries, but Jesuits, become clearer.The letter makes a general reference to the Jesuits and a specific reference to two Jesuit priests, Father Lefranc and Father Du Jaunay. These were the last two permanently assigned priests to the L’Arbre Croche and Michilimackinac missions before the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1765. In a January 9, 1824 letter to his Sulpician Superior General in Paris, Richard discussed the Odawa desire for a return of the Jesuits to L’Arbre Croche, and specifically mentions the August 12 letter to the president. He states that “the Jesuit Superior here, to whom I gave the preference for these missions which were begun by the Jesuits, is to write to the Superior General at Rome, who will conclude the matter with our Bishop.” (Appeals to the Jesuits proved fruitless and a permanent priest was not assigned to the area again until Father Pierre DeJean became resident pastor to L’Arbre Croche on May 27, 1829. The Odawa sent additional letters between August 12, 1823 and the refounding of the mission in 1829, making a similar appeal; many of these letters are also to be found in the Notre Dame archives.)

Rev. Gabriel Richard, from Francis B. Clark Collection,
Box 26, Folder 18 (University of Notre Dame Archives)
 [1] I was able to confirm Richard’s authorship by comparing the handwriting of the letter to known correspondences by Richard that were available at the University of Notre Dame Archives. Although Richard was a Catholic priest his political role in these affairs should not be forgotten. Richard was elected to Congress as a nonvoting delegate for Michigan Territory and served in that position from March 4, 1823 to March 3, 1825. Nor was this Richard’s first letter to the president. Richard composed another letter years earlier on Oct. 12, 1810 (George Paré, The Catholic Church in Detroit 1701-1888 (Detroit, MI: The Gabriel Richard Press, 1951), 311-312). 

 [2] Miguissanessi (Bear’s Paw), Chief and Others to the President of the United States, Petition for ministers of the Catholic religion to come and teach religion, arts and agriculture, 12 August 1823, in Macate Binessi (Miguissanessi, Indian for Bear’s Paw) Chief of the Ottawas to President of the U.S. James Monroe, Oversized Box #8, Detroit III-2-f-g (University of Notre Dame Archives).

 [3] William B. Treml, “The Power of this Holy Man,” The Ann Arbor News, September 28, 1980, in III-2-n-4 Misc. Undated Papers, Archdiocese of Detroit Collection Box III-2-n to III-2-p (University of Notre Dame Archives).

 [4] Heidi Bohaker, “Nindoodemag: The Significance of Algonquian Kinship Networks in the Eastern Great lakes Region, 1600-1700,” William and Mary Quarterly 63, no. 1 (January 2006): 25.

 [5] Keith R. Widder, Battle for the Soul: Métis Children Encounter Evangelical Protestants at Mackinaw Mission, 1823 – 1837 (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1999).


pjhayesphd said…
Excellent research. In my own archive I have some records and a lengthy manuscript by Fr. Simon Saenderl, CSSR, the first Redemptorist to minister among this indigenous population beginning in 1832. The manuscript is a transliterated catechism given in the local language (as well as Latin rubrics) drawn up for future missionaries. Several of Saenderl's letters are also at Notre Dame: Happy hunting!

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