George Copway (Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh; Ojibwa) (1818-1869)
A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Students need information about the Ojibwas as a group. They also need
to understand the relationship between Copway's autobiography, the Indian
Removal Bill, and the attempts to move the Ojibwa out of Minnesota. They
need as well an understanding of how Native American autobiography differs
from that of non-Indians. See discussion below.
Students respond much more enthusiastically to Copway's description
of traditional life than to his references to Christianity. (For Indians'
attitudes toward conversion to Christianity, see the comments on Occom
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The Ojibwa or Chippewa are numerically the largest tribe in the United
States and Canada. A member of the Algonkian language family, they are
spread out around the western Northern Great Lakes region, extending from
the northern shore of Lake Huron as far west as Montana, southward well
into Wisconsin and Minnesota, and northward to Lake Manitoba. In early
historic times, the Ojibwa lived in numerous, widely scattered, small,
Families hunted individually during the winter but gathered together
as groups during the summer. Thus, the term "tribe" is appropriate
in terms of a common language and culture but not in terms of an overall
political authority. In the seventeenth century, they were mainly located
in present-day Ontario. Their hereditary enemies were the Hurons and Iroquois
on the east and the Fox and Sioux on the west.
Copway's autobiography, his plan for a separate state for Indians, and
his history of the Ojibwas were undoubtedly responses to efforts of the
Lake Superior Ojibwa to resist removal from 1847 through 1849. In 1850
President Zachary Taylor authorized immediate and complete removal of the
Ojibwas from the lands ceded in 1842 (Kobel 174-82).
One important issue is the fact that Copway presents himself as a "noble-but-literate
and Christianized" savage, an example of what Indians can become if
whites educate and Christianize, rather than eradicate, them. By describing
the achievements of his father and ancestors, he emphasizes the nobility
of his lineage and thus legitimizes his narrative. (Emphasizing one's heritage
was a technique also used by slave narrators.) Related to this is the issue
of his difficult task of creating audience sympathy for the Ojibwa people
and their beliefs while showing the necessity of Christianizing Indians.
Another issue is the techniques he uses to describe the Ojibwas and
their traditions to convince readers that Indians were human. Copway emphasizes
the basic humanity and generosity of the Ojibwas toward one another, values
that non-Indian Christians would recognize as similar to their own. He
also humanizes his people by citing examples of how his parents cared for
and loved their children. These examples counteract the stereotype of the
bloodthirsty Indian ever ready to violate a fair maiden or dash out the
brains of an innocent baby, depictions all-too-common in the captivity
narratives popular well into the 1830s.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Copway's Life, Letters and Speeches is the first book-length
autobiography written by an Indian who was raised in a traditional Native
American family. The pattern of including oral tradition, history, and
personal experience is one that characterizes most later Indian autobiographies.
This mixed form, which differs from the more linear, personal confession
or life history of non-Indian autobiographies, was congenial to Indian
narrators accustomed to viewing their lives within the history of their
tribe or band, clan, and family.
Copway uses a romantic style designed to appeal to the popular taste
of the period. His emotional appeals and oratorical style capture his audience's
attention. He also uses literary allusions to demonstrate his literacy--the
reference to viewing his life "like the mariner on the wide ocean"
making "his way amidst surging seas" is undoubtedly meant to
remind his audiences of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. The lines of
poetry, probably written by his wife, Elizabeth Howell, also add to this
image of Copway as an educated and accomplished man. His romantic tone
and language, like that of Robert Burns and other authors before him, allow
Copway to cast himself in the image of a person of humble beginnings who
has become a writer. Giving students some understanding of the backgrounds
of English and American Romantic attitudes toward idealizing humble life
and using representatives of the lower class as the subject of literature,
particularly in the late eighteenth century, will help students understand
why Copway creates himself as he does.
Copway's primary audience was non-Indian. A powerful platform speaker
dressed in full Ojibwa regalia, he aroused considerable public enthusiasm
for his lectures on traditional Indian life during his tour of the eastern
United States and later during his tour of Great Britain, where the second
edition of his autobiography was published.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Copway's description of traditional Ojibwa life and mores can be compared
to those incorporated into the stories by Jane
Schoolcraft (Ojibwa). The selection can also be compared to Occom's
"Short Narrative of My Life." The issues Copway raises with regard
to Indian-white relations can be compared with those raised by Occom and
Apess. Copway's description
of Ojibwa world views and his stress on the importance of oral traditions
can be compared to those expressed in the selections of Native American
oral narratives and poetry.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
An important question for both reading and writing is how Copway presents
or creates himself to show the Indians' essential humanity and their potential
for being assimilated into the dominant culture. Discuss Indian world views
and the importance of oral traditions as reflected in Copway's autobiography
and selections from Native American oral literature. An additional topic
would be Copway's use of Romantic language and tone. Students might compare
his style with that of other early nineteenth-century American writers.
Students might also compare Copway's description of Native American people
and their lives with captivity narratives by John
Williams and Mary
Boatman, John. My Elders Taught Me: Aspects of Western Great Lakes
American Indian Philosophy. Lanham: University Press of America, 1992.
Densmore, Frances. Chippewa Customs. Bulletin of the Bureau of American
Ethnology, No. 86. Washington, D.C., 1929. Minneapolis: Ross and Haines,
1976. Essential work.
Landes, Ruth. Ojibway Religion and the Midewiwin. Madison: University
of Wisconsin Press, 1968. Basic work on the subject.
The Northeast. Ed. Bruce G. Trigger. Vol. 15. Handbook of North
American Indians. Ed. William C. Sturtevant. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian,
Ritzenthaler, Robert E. "Southeastern Ojibwa." In The Northeast,
edited by Bruce G. Trigger. 743-59.
Robers, E. S. "Southwestern Chippewa." In The Northeast,
edited by Bruce G. Trigger. 760-71.
Tanner, Helen Hornbeck. The Ojibwas: A Critical Bibliography.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.
Vizenor, Gerald (Ojibwa). The People Named the Chippewa. Narrative
Histories. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Warren, William Whipple (Ojibwa). History of the Ojibways, Based
on Traditions and Oral Statements. Collections of the Minnesota Historical
Soc., 5 (1885). Rpt. Intro. by W. Roger Buffalohead. Minneapolis: Ross
and Haines, 1957; Minneapolis: Minnesota Hist. Soc., 1984.