In my first years of college, I took a class that focused on the intellectual heritage of the Western world. And as I read those works, I started wondering, what history is there of indigenous intellectuals in North America? I was excited to discover that there is actually a fairly long history of Metis and Anishinaabe writers, especially historians.
Probably the most famous Ojibwe historian of the 19th century is William Whipple Warren. The son of an American trader and a mixed-blood Ojibwe woman (the daughter of Michel and Madeline Cadotte, two high profile local figures), he was born at LaPointe in modern Wisconsin and was educated in several schools out east intended for Native American pupils. He is most well-known for his work History of the Ojibway People, written in the 1840s and published in 1885 after his death, in which he synthesized Anishinaabe oral tradition with Western historiographical tradition. Modern Blackfoot/Ojibwe historian Theresa Schenck has edited a version of this work which is a really fascinating look at the Dakota-Ojibwe conflicts of the 1700s and 1800s.
Another major figure is Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, the child of an Irish fur trader and an Ojibwe chief’s daughter, who lived from 1800 to 1842. A prominent figure in Sault Ste. Marie, she wrote poetry in both English and Ojibwe along with traditional stories learned from her mother, some of which was published in a local literary magazine. Her work is particularly important to American literature as a whole because the stories from her mother became the basis for Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha,” Lonfellow having learned them from Jane’s American husband Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Henry, an early figure in American anthropology, published a number of his wife’s stories in altered form, and she went largely unknown for years. An excellent book about her life and writings is available, titled The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky. More information and some of her writings are available on the book’s website.
A number of early Anishinaabe writers were Christians and missionaries. Peter Jones was a Mississauga Methodist preacher in the early 19th century who devoted his life to spreading the word of Christianity to other indigenous people. On top of his extensive traveling to give speeches advocating assimilation, Jones worked on translating the Bible and numerous prayers into Ojibwe, and wrote a history of the Ojibwe people. George Copway, another Mississauga, converted to Methodism along with his parents at an early age and served as a missionary until being defrocked for embezzlement. He was briefly a celebrity among the East Coast elite for his autobiography and history of the Ojibwe people published in 1850.
Although he was Odawa rather than Ojibwe, another significant Anishinaabe writer was Andrew Blackbird. He attended school for several years, including a stint at Eastern Michigan University, and served as a translator and mediator between local Odawa and Ojibwe people and the US government. In 1887 he published a history of the Odawa and Ojibwe in Michigan as well as a grammar of the languages. Another non-Ojibwe Anishinaabe writer was Simon Pokagon, a Potawatomi activist who became quite popular among Chicago elites in the late 1800s. His work included criticisms of the US treatment of Native people along with historical accounts of local history. You can read his “Red Man’s Rebuke” online, which he distributed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition.
Those are just a few of the historical writers that I know of. Anishinaabe people were some of the earliest Native people to produce English works, likely because of their longtime contact with fur traders and officials. They were significant for producing indigenous perspectives on history early on. Modern Anishinaabe writers such as Anton Treuer, Patty Loew, Erik M. Redix, and Theresa Schenck (among many others) are today continuing to push the boundaries of indigenous history by challenging the biases and methods of historiography and choosing to indigenize them in various ways. In doing so, they are drawing on a long tradition of Anishinaabe historians that came before them.