Missionary Work among the Ojibway Indians

Edward Francis Wilson’s Missionary Work among the Ojebway Indians provides a valuable insight into the efforts of European missionaries to spread the Christian faith among various Aboriginal communities in Upper Canada in the late nineteenth century. The text particularly focuses on the Church of England, in which Wilson was a minister, and the ways it successfully managed to convert many Indigenous people from their traditional belief systems to Christianity. The book is presented in narrative form beginning with Wilson’s arrival to Canada and follows him throughout the various Anishinaabeg reserves he travels to and lives among. The text focuses on themes of religion, culture, education and language, and how Aboriginal views of these concepts changed with the presence of Europeans.

Frequently throughout the text, Wilson outlines the eagerness of Aboriginal peoples to convert to the Church of England. Upon his arrival to the Sarnia Reserve, for example, the majority of its inhabitants were enthusiastic about a Church of England minister living among them. Wilson highlights how an overwhelming amount of people volunteered free labor to erect a church and minister’s residence for the community.[1] Many people were even willing to pay for any additional labor that was required to build the church. This eagerness to incorporate a church into the community at the Sarnia Reserve clearly displays the influence that European religion imposed rather quickly over Aboriginal communities. Wilson was greeted with similar enthusiasm at several other reserves he visited and temporarily lived among, including the Garden River, Neepigon and Kettle Point reserves.

The text also shows how, in addition to the Church of England, other Christian denominations competed for influence among Aboriginal communities. As Wilson traveled throughout various communities he discovered that many indigenous people had already converted to Catholic, Methodist and other Christian faiths. When erecting his Church in the Sarnia Reserve, Wilson received his only form of opposition from the local Methodist Church, who made attempts to prevent its construction.[2] This competition between Christian denominations suggests that Aboriginal communities were often confronted by multiple “new ways” of learning and understanding, perhaps creating divisions within their own traditional communities.

In addition to religious beliefs, the text also displays the ways in which English missionaries influenced Aboriginal communities in terms of their daily customs and practices. Wilson strongly believed that “poor Indian” communities needed a much stronger influence of European culture.[3] One example of this imposition of culture is education. Wilson strongly encouraged native children to partake in a British-style education as part of the church mission, which was, according to Wilson, frequently well accepted both by children and parents. Wilson claimed that some parents were so eager for this opportunity that they were willing to send their children great distances to board at these school systems.[4] This acceptance of European-style education displays a significant shift in the ways aboriginal people understood their concepts of literacy and learning, as it is vastly different from tradition Indigenous practice.

Hope MacLean, in her article “A positive experiment in aboriginal education: the Methodist Ojibwa day schools in Upper Canada, 1824-1833”, suggests that a cooperative system of education did exist briefly in Upper Canada near the beginning of the nineteenth century.[5] This system of education, operated by the Methodist Church, incorporated both the English and Ojibwa languages into the school curriculum. As Protestant theology strongly taught that the Bible was the sole form of truth, literacy in both languages was strongly encouraged to allow Ojibwa people to read scripture.[6] Through this process, English religion, education and language were successfully spread through Ojibwa communities. MacLean claimed that had this style of education continued to exist in Upper Canada, it could have served for a much better alternative to the infamous residential schools that existed well into the twentieth century.[7] Wilson’s belief was that Christian missionaries significantly improved the life of Aboriginal people in Upper Canada in the nineteenth century; by reading MacLean’s article we can see that there is some truth in this.

Despite efforts to impose English religion and culture upon native communities, Wilson’s narrative suggests that Anglicans allowed for some aspects of aboriginal culture to remain within their communities. A good example of this is language, particularly in naming customs. While living at the Sarnia reserve, Wilson was offered an aboriginal name, Puhgukahbun (Clear Day-light), which he graciously accepted.[8] Taking an Ojibwa name allowed Wilson to become more accepted into the Indigenous community, and therefore more embedded into their close-knit community. The closeness of native communities is one aspect of Aboriginal life that Wilson seemed to appreciate and wish to have continue. Although baptismal names were given to Ojibwa children who converted to the Church of England, these traditional names remained important with the community.

Missionary Work among the Ojebway Indians suggests that European colonist made great efforts to incorporate their cultures, customs and religious beliefs into Aboriginal communities in the late nineteenth century. However, it also displays certain aspects of Indigenous life that Europeans did not try to eliminate entirely. Following a narrative form, the text is able to provide a first-hand account of how Europeans travelled and lived among Indigenous communities, their ways of interacting with vastly different cultures and the successfulness of the missions. Throughout the text, Wilson displays good intentions in his missionary cause, believing that it was in Aboriginal communities’ best interest to convert to the Church the England. The results of his missionary work, however, created a drastic change in Aboriginal ways of life that existed for generations. The text is a valuable source when considering the ways that the Indigenous peoples of Upper Canada experienced a shift in their understanding of spirituality and learning. It would be an excellent resource for anyone who is interested in studying Aboriginal-European interactions, the vast differences in their cultures, and the ways they influenced one another in nineteenth century Upper Canada.

Bibliography

Craig, Gerald M. Upper Canada: the formative years, 1784-1841. Toronto: McClelland and

Stewart, 1963.

This book gives insight into life in Upper Canada in the nineteenth century. This is a useful resource for additional information about the history of area in which English missionaries operated, as Wilson’s text does not provide much information about Upper Canada outside of Ojibwa communities.

MacLean, Hope. “A positive experiment in aboriginal education: the Methodist Ojibwa day

schools in Upper Canada, 1824-1833” Canadian Journal of Native Studies 22 no.1

(2002): 24-63.

This article offers an example of cooperation between Methodist missionaries and Ojibwa communities in Upper Canada in the 1820s and 30s. MacLean suggests that prior to the creation of the residential school system, a positive, cooperative system of education briefly existed within Ojibwa communities.

Prochner, Larry, May, Helen and Kaur, Baljit. “The blessings of Civilisation: nineteenth-century

missionary infant schools for young native children in three colonial settings – India,

Canada, and New Zealand 1820s-1840s.” Paedagogica Historica 45 nos. 1-2 (2009):

83-102.

This article outlines the efforts made in Great Britain to educate and “civilize” indigenous children throughout the dominions. It displays the efforts to instill “proper” British culture and daily customs in vastly different cultures throughout the Empire. This is similar to the ways in which poor children within Britain were taught at a young age.

Wilson, Edward Francis. Missionary Work Among the Ojebway Indians. New York: E & JB

Young Co., 1886.

[1] Edward Francis Wilson, Missionary Work Among the Ojebway Indians (New York: E & JB Young Co., 1886), 23.

[2] Wilson, Missionary Work Among the Ojebway Indians, 23.

[3] Wilson, Missionary Work Among the Obebway Indians, 46.

[4] Wilson, Missionary Work Among the Ojebway Indians, 51.

[5] Hope MacLean, “A positive experiment in aboriginal education: the Methodist Ojibwa day schools in Upper Canada, 1824-1833” Canadian Journal of Native Studies 22 no.1 (2002), 24.

[6] MacLean, “A positive experiment in aboriginal education: the Methodist Ojibwa day schools in Upper Canada, 1824-1833”, 36.

[7] MacLean, “A positive experiment in aboriginal education: the Methodist Ojibwa day schools in Upper Canada, 1824-1833”, 24.

[8] Wilson, Missionary Work Among the Ojebway Indians, 33.

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