George Copway (Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh; Ojibwa) (1818-1869)

    Contributing Editor:
    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 and Apess.)

    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, autonomous bands.

    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.

    Original Audience

    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 Rowlandson.


    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, 1978.

    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.