The Indian Chief

In The Indian Chief, Conrad Van Dusen tries to depict the plight of the Ojibwa peoples land claims, and the Crown’s acquisition of their land in mid 19th Century Southern Ontario. Dusen writes exclusively about the Ojibwa groups in the Owen Sound area, with special interest on Chief David Sawyer (Kezigkoenene), who was also a Methodist minister. For scholars interested in using this book as an additional resource to Indigenous language texts, it would be useful. The book is valuable because of its description of the land claims issues that detail the deception of the Indian agents to procure the Ojibwa land. The book however does need to be read critically as it does misrepresent the past. Van Dunsen portrayal of David Sawyer as a noble figure and success story of the civilization process does not match other descriptions.

The land issues in question is the surrendering of land by the Ojibwa bands on the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula, on part of trickery and coercion by the Indian Department. In total there were ten “surrenders”, the book only details half of them, as some happened after its publication. The ones that are shown are; the first surrender, which was the largest that happened in 1836 and included 1.5 million acres, the three between 1836 and 1854, one in 1857 at Newash, and another at Colpoy Bay in 1861.[1] During this time, the Ojibwa people in the area created petitions to stop the acquisition of their land, and to receive payments for land already surrendered. Dusen uses these petitions throughout most of the book to show the unethical practices in which the Indian Department used to acquire the land. Trickery is the common method that is shown in the book. One example read is of Captain Thomas Gummersall Anderson, an agent in the Indian Department conducting buisness with the bands with people whom were adopted into the tribe and were not in a postion of authority.[2]

What these correspondence also show though is that the Ojibwa tribes within the area were willing to work with the Indian Department in the process of their “civilizing” the Indigenous populations of Canada. In a letter to Lord Bury to they want the the governement to send the surveyors early, so that they can receive their land deeds and make improvements to their land.[3] It is strange that they would want the government to survey and be giving title deeds to land that they already own, but many Ojibwa saw the benefit of owning the land in the western sense. Their land would be protected from settlers by the European idea of ownership, while the land would allow them to be protected from European diseases and influence, and allow them to practice their own customs.[4]  In the same letter they were asking for an industsrial school to be built as well,[5] in hindsight we know this would not benifit the Indigenous population, but it was not uncommon for individual communities to ask for a school, espically ones with a strong Christian influence. This is also seen in Peter Jones’ writings about the Credit River band, near Mississauga, ON who were described as being eager to learn.[6] The reader does need to be critical of these claims as they can be exaggerated, to gain support and more funds for their missionary cause.[7]

Van Dunsen’s description of the land issues shows that he was against the unethical practices of how the Crown aqured land from the Indigenous peoples, and of not receiving the land they were promised. Dunsen however was not against the civilization process, which required the Indigenous peoples to have and hold land in the context of thier European colonizers.[8] This then changes how one should read this book as Dusen’s purpose for the book was to draw on sympathy from the Christain population and so it was a peice of propaganda for the Methodist church’s missionary work. This does lend the book to misrepresent the relations between individuals within the Ojibwa bands and omits important facts. David Sawyer is an significant part of Dusen’s narrative, he was an Ojibwa Chief, but also one of the first Indigenous Methodist ministers, a teacher, intepreter and writer.[9] He was used to represent a success story of the civilization process, of how Christianity can save the Indigenous peoples of Canada from their savage and pagen ways. Dusan believes that this is truly the way, and even at the beginning of the book writes that the first step to civiliazation is through Christianization.[10]

Sawyer though is portrayed differently by historian Peter Schmalz, mostly being seen as the cause of unrest within the Ojibwa in the Saugeen Peninsula and is described as a dictator, wanting to usurp the power of the chiefs.[11] This is some what a reaction to the religious conflict that occurs, that is only briefly mentioned by Dusen and is extremely downplayed. There was an extreme divide between the Methodist church and the Roman Catholics and factions were created within the bands. Sawyer and other Indigenous Methodists objected to Peter Kegedonce Jones being a chief,[12] who was an adopted Sioux in the Newash village and was baptized into the Methodist congregation by the Mississauga Missionary Peter Jones, which is where Kegedonce gets his English name. They objected mostly because of the fact that he had  Roman Catholic learning’s[13] and for opposing the Methodists missionary’s civilization process.[14]

These criticisms do not hurt this book’s usefulness in being an additional resource to Indigenous language texts. As long as the reader is aware of the text’s use as a propaganda tool. Its description of the land issues faced by the Ojibwa leads to its value as a resource. It provides many primary source documents that offers insight into how one Indigenous population dealt with the changing nature of their situation.


1 Peter S. Schmalz, The Ojibwa of Southern Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 131

2 Conrad Van Dusen, The Indian Chief: An Account of the Labours, Losses, Sufferings, and Oppression of Kezigkoenene (David Sawyer) A Chief of the Ojibbeway Indians in Canada West (London: Printed by William Nichols, 1867), 99

3 ibid, 74

4 Peter S. Schmalz, The Ojibwa of Southern Ontario, 132

5 Conrad Van Dusen, The Indian Chief, 74

6 Donald B. Smith, Sacred Feathers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, n.d. ), 10

7 Peter S. Schmalz, The Ojibwa of Southern Ontario,176

8 Conrad Van Dusen, The Indian Chief, 56

9 Peter S. Schmalz, The Ojibwa of Southern Ontario, 152

10 Conrad Van Dusen, The Indian Chief, 5

11 Peter S. Schmalz, The History of the Saugeen Indians (Ottawa: Ontario Historical Society, 1977), 35

12 ibid, 31

13 ibid, 23

14 ibid, 31


Schmalz, Peter S. The History of the Saugeen Indians. Ottawa: Ontario Historical Society, 1977

Schmalz, Peter S. The Ojibwa of Southern Ontario. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991

Smith, Donald B. Sacred Feathers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, n.d.

Van Dusen, Conrad. The Indian Chief: An Account of the Labours, Losses, Sufferings, and Oppression of Kezigkoenene (David Sawyer) A Chief of the Ojibbeway Indians in Canada West. London: Printed by William Nichols, 1867

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