In the hot summer of 1845, Mississauga Anishinaabe missionary Kahgegagahbowh, better known as George Copway, hosted a large camp meeting in the village of Saugeen in the Province of Canada where he was serving as a minister under the auspices of the Canadian Methodist Conference. Anishinaabeg ministers, chiefs and elders travelled from bands scattered around the Great Lakes to discuss their prospects for the future. European farmers had been encroaching on their lands and, despite mounting conflicts, the Canadian government had proven unwilling to intervene effectively. The gathered leaders had concluded that to assert their rights they would need to unite politically. At the centre of the tent meeting, from an improvised stage, community leaders praised Jesus Christ, Ke-sha-mon-e-doo O-gwe-son (that is, the Benevolent Spirit’s son), asking him to send aid where the government would not.1 Notions of Indigenous sovereignty, including the drafting of their own code of laws and plans for consolidating their remaining lands into one super-reserve dominated the discussion and were summarized by Copway into a five-point plan.2 The Saugeen tent meeting proved to be a significant turning-point in Copway’s life and he reflected on it glowingly in his 1846 autobiography:
Never was I more delighted than with the appearance of this body. As I sat and looked at them, I contrasted their former (degraded) with their present (elevated) condition. The Gospel, I thought, had done all this.3
In the young missionary’s mind, only through the fusion of Indigenous political resistance and Christian religion could North American Indigenous peoples envision a future that ensured their survival and sovereignty in the face of spreading settler colonialism.
Settler Salvation and Indigenous Survival
Since his childhood in the Mississauga community of Rice Lake near present-day Peterborough, Ontario, Copway had shown promise as a potential leader of his people. As a result, his parents and the Methodist ‘black coats’, or missionaries, had successfully encouraged him to pursue a career as a missionary. From 1834 to 1843, Copway learned to read and write in English, aided in translating the Books of Luke and Acts into the Anishinaabemowin or Ojibwe language, and served as a missionary throughout the Great Lakes region before settling into a more permanent position at Saugeen in 1843.4 Despite his excitement at the growing sense of Anishinaabeg national identity in the region, the Canadian Methodist authorities made it clear that the 1845 Saugeen camp meeting was, in their mind, a blatant misuse of denominational resources. His orchestration of this event combined with a pattern of unapproved financial expenditures led Copway’s European supervisors to push him out of his clerical position. Within a year, he was charged with embezzlement at his new position as a Rice Lake band clerk, was briefly jailed, and as a result the Canadian Methodists severed ties with him completely.5
Though he was not aware of it, these apparent setbacks would lead him to New York City where his writings and lectures on ‘Ojibway’ culture and history as well as his own life experiences would launch him on a transatlantic, decade-long career as Canada’s first international literary celebrity.6 In addition, the ideas proposed at the Saugeen conference would form the foundation of his most ambitious project: the radical transformation of American society in ways that he believed would ensure both the spiritual redemption of European newcomers and the survival and political sovereignty of Indigenous peoples. Entangled with his pursuit of fame and power, these dual goals characterized the heart of Copway’s attempts to envision a future wherein Indigenous and newcomer peoples could coexist in a mutually beneficial relationship. Though it stretches the historically grounded meaning of the term, an analysis of Copway’s political vision through the lens of reconciliation reveals the long, and often forgotten, history of attempts to theorize ways in which settlers and Indigenous people could share the land in the best, or least harmful, way possible.
The roots of Copway’s vision for long-term Indigenous political and social agency began to take shape during his time at school in the late 1830s. Attending a treaty signing in the summer of 1837, he witnessed the cession of what was to become eastern Minnesota and central Wisconsin. At another in 1842 he left angered by the deceptive and condescending attitudes of the government agents.7 Similar surrenders and unfair land purchases had been taking place in southern Ontario since the early nineteenth century, and some Methodist missionaries had supported Indigenous leaders in opposition to land speculators and Indian agents.8 Methodist missionaries were unusual in this regard and, along with the promotion of Indigenous education and opposition to the liquor trade, these policies made them successful in Anishinaabeg communities where Catholic and Moravian missionaries had received much cooler welcomes.
Many of the values that brought success to the expansion of Methodism were rooted in its theological emphasis on principles of spiritual equality and social justice, which expressed themselves most famously in prominent Methodists’ challenges to the Atlantic slave trade. Canadian historian Neil Semple argued that these progressive ideas originated in denominational founder John Wesley’s theological critique of Calvinism. Interpreting Calvinism’s notion of an elect community especially pre-ordained for salvation as ‘logically and scripturally absurd’, Wesley argued that all humans were spiritually equal in their fallen state prior to salvation and equal in their responsibility to use their inherent will and conscience to approach God as individuals seeking salvation.9 Regardless of race or status, salvation was understood to be a gift offered freely and universally to all humankind.10 Copway’s description of himself as ‘saved by grace, by grace alone’ and not by any individual merit reflected this Wesleyan soteriology.11 This theological egalitarianism was an important influence in Methodism’s approach to race. Wesley himself fought against slavery and exclaimed in a letter to his friend William Wilberforce that this institution was ‘the vilest that ever saw the sun’ and that it was ‘villainy’ that an African man’s oath was not considered legally equivalent to a European’s.12
This unusual approach to race influenced the policy of Methodist missionaries in Upper Canada, often leading them to unintentionally contribute to a space that encouraged the Indigenization of Christianity in unanticipated ways. One of their most influential policies was the training of Anishinaabeg as semi-independent missionaries. This included George Copway, who himself had been converted by Anishinaabe Methodists declaring the arrival of ‘Jesus Christ, Ka-sha-mon-e-doo O-gwe-son [the son of Gichi-Manidoo]’.13 The resulting religious syncretism and anti-colonial political movements often brought British missionaries’ notions of civilization and racial hierarchy into conflict with their theological ideal of the equality of all human beings before God.
Methodism’s abolitionist focus on social and political action dovetailed with Copway’s observations of the injustices done to Indigenous communities, and as a result his Anishinaabe Christianity blurred the line between religion and politics, growing into an almost proto-liberation theology that grew increasingly critical of the settler-colonial order. In his 1850 autobiography, Copway followed an exhaustive description of the various traditional territories of the ‘Ojebwa, or Chippeway, Nation’ with an appeal to the reader to put a stop to the illegal seizure of their lands, rooting his argument in a theological idea of racial equality:
The Great Spirit is no respecter of persons; He has made of one blood all the nations of the earth; He loves all his children alike … If this be so, – and who dare doubt it? – will He not stretch out his hand and help them, and avenge their wrongs?14
One of the earliest examples of Copway’s theology in action was the Saugeen tent meeting, which was in many ways nineteenth-century Anishinaabe Methodism coming into its own. Surprisingly, Copway’s expulsion from the Canadian Methodist Conference only strengthened his belief in the significance of Christianity to the preservation and assertion of Indigenous rights, albeit in a more ecumenical form.
Copway’s Methodist education also provided him with a moral and theological language comprehensible to non-Indigenous audiences, which he used to call for the acknowledgement of and atonement for the wrongs committed against his people. In doing so, Copway often directly attacked the theological arguments that underpinned the settler colonial project. One of the most direct examples of this critique can be found in his 1851 travel narrative, Running Sketches of Men and Places in England, France, Belgium, and Scotland, where he openly criticized the common Euromerican practice of using biblical narratives of the providential downfall of the unrighteous to justify the conquest of North America:
I read in a different light from this the character of the God whom you love and serve. His benevolence is written in the page of nature around me; and every blade of grass, and the sweet sounds that vibrate on my ear, and salute my heart with feelings of warm emotion, tell me that the God who made the earth is a God of love. The God that we adore, my brethren, is not the author of the downfall and ruin of the North American Indians.15
Here, Copway combined an appeal to Christian notions of general revelation with naturalistic portrayals of Indigenous spirituality to challenge the roots of colonialism itself, declaring that a God of love would not have ‘crushed and made few the noble sons of America’.16 By critiquing the logic of Euromerican theological justifications for colonialism, Copway implied that their conception of God was in fact completely opposed to his actual nature. In this way, Copway asserted that he, an Anishinaabe clergyman expelled from his denomination, could possess a more accurate understanding of true Christian theology and morality than Euromerican religious leaders.
Speaking from this position of moral and theological authority, Copway firmly placed the blame for the suffering of Indigenous peoples on settler society, highlighting the hypocrisy of Euromerican declarations that the fate of Indigenous peoples was pre-ordained by God. In his 1847 autobiography he claimed he had forgiven these wrongs, but followed this statement with indictments of the British government, which he referred to as ‘that pseudo Christian nation’ which ‘grossly abused, deceived, and cheated’ the Ojibwe throughout the treaty signing process [emphasis in original].17 In another passage, Copway used a biblical metaphor for Satan, ‘a roaring lion ... seeking whom he may devour’, to describe the European colonists who had invaded his people’s lands: ‘The white men have been like the greedy lion, pouncing upon and devouring its prey. They have driven us from our nation, our homes, and possessions.’18 By twisting a commonplace Christian description of the devil, Copway revealed the sinfulness of settler colonialism and the hypocrisy of Euromerican Christianity in a way that would have been unsettling for a readership well versed in Victorian Protestant symbolism and morality.
One of the most scathing examples of Copway’s subversive use of Christian theology and language appears in 1851 in a printed transcription of one of his lectures published in the inaugural edition of his short-lived literary journal, Copway’s American Indian. While arguing in front of a packed hall in favour of the establishment of an Indigenous aid society in New York City, he had employed apocalyptic Christian imagery to deliver a prophetic judgement on Euromerican society:
The heavens that have long been overcast with the vengeance of the Great Spirit upon the white man, are now beginning to break forth; and when a Society is formed in the City of New-York, it shall be one of the means to send its prayers to the God of the Universe, to avert the thunderbolt that Jehovah, in the hands of Gabriel, has now set in motion in the skies – that some day must come and rake up the bones of our ancestors, in the face of the prosperity of the white man, tells you that God shall become the accuser of the wrongs of my poor brethren [sic].19
While some of Copway’s audiences found the presence of this suit-wearing, English-speaking, Christian ‘son of the forest’ to be a reassurance of the rightness of the colonial project (see Figures 1 and 2), those in attendance during this particular lecture likely found him to be an unsettling figure whose message conveyed disturbing theological implications regarding their spiritual future. Copway openly declared that non-Indigenous Christians had lost sight of God’s true nature and that to avoid a future outpouring of divine wrath they would need to repent and atone for their complicity in the sins perpetrated against Indigenous peoples in North America.
Besides spiritual salvation, Copway’s future vision also centred around the physical and political survival of Indigenous peoples. This second key element of his reconciliatory vision was precipitated by his engagement with the myth of the ‘vanishing Indian’, a widely accepted notion that the impending extinction of Indigenous peoples was inevitable, natural or even divinely ordained.20 In an 1850 lecture in Liverpool, England, he captured his emotions regarding the future of his people in verse:
I will go to my tent and lie down in despair;
I will paint me with black, and will sever my hair;
For my kindred are gone to the mounds of the dead;
They died not by hunger, nor wasting decay,
The steel of the white man hath swept them away.21
Troubled by the numbers of immigrants arriving in North America each year, the growing liquor trade, and Indigenous deaths brought about by European diseases, Copway believed that Indigenous peoples were indeed headed towards annihilation.
For Indigenous Christians, the theological implications of this myth were especially troubling. In 1850, Copway wrote a letter to the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post wherein he challenged the belief that responsibility for the destruction of North America’s Indigenous peoples ultimately lay in the hands of God:
The ministry of this country, and the sluggards in the cause of humanity, say now: There is a fate or certain doom on the Indians, therefore we need do nothing for them. How blasphemous! First you give us rum by the thousand barrels, and, before the presence of God and this enlightened world, point to God, and charge him as the murderer of the unfortunate Indians … save us from such orthodoxy!22 (emphasis in original)
Though Copway accepted the myth of the vanishing Indian, he argued that this future was the direct result of human action, not divine providence. If Indigenous peoples were to be saved, then immediate action had to be taken.
For Copway the theology and morality of Christianity seemed to offer a means to preserve Anishinaabe community and political identity in the face of such a bleak future. In an 1850 political treatise titled The Organization of a New Indian Territory, East of the Missouri River, Copway argued that Indigenous adoption of Christianity and literacy was a central aspect of ‘the only means which [could] be used to save the Indians from extinction’.23 But it was not the simple appropriation of Euromerican ways of knowing and being that would avert the coming Indigenous apocalypse. In that same essay Copway went on to present his fuller vision for the future survival of Indigenous North Americans: a wholesale restructuring of American society through the creation of a pan-Indigenous state along the eastern banks of the Missouri River. He proposed that this new land be named Kahgega, a shortened version of his own anglicized Anishinaabemowin name.24
By the mid-nineteenth century, multiple visions of how colonial society could take shape in the future had already been theorized, promoted, discussed and rejected. As a political solution to the so-called ‘Indian problem’, Copway’s proposed transformation of the American West expanded on ideas promoted by earlier thinkers like William Augustus Bowles. These plans served as potential compromises within the larger discourse on the future of Indigenous America, discourse that was based on the myth of the vanishing Indian. In 1781, Thomas Jefferson expressed his belief that ‘the wilderness’ and its Indigenous population would inevitably give way to a European-American agricultural society.25 Jefferson cushioned the violence and disruption of removal with the idea that Indigenous populations could perhaps be saved and improved by assimilating into Euromerican culture.26
Pretences of compassion were abandoned in 1833, however, when President Andrew Jackson stood before Congress and declared that the Indigenous population was incapable of improvement and needed to vanish in order to make way for American civilization.27 Jackson’s aggressive Indian policy was continued in 1850 when President Zachary Taylor authorized the forced removal of Anishinaabeg communities from Michigan and Wisconsin to Minnesota.28 On the day that Taylor died, while still in office, Copway jotted down his thoughts, referring to Taylor not as ‘President’ but as ‘General Taylor’, and stating that he hoped ‘the Great Spirit had forgiven him for killing so many of the red men of my country’.29 Copway waded into this political discourse full of optimistic ambition, embarking in 1849 on a tour of the western territories in order to find a suitable geographical location for his self-titled state.
A year later, on his way to Frankfurt as an American representative to the Fourth International Peace Congress, Copway delivered public addresses throughout Great Britain, most prominently in Leeds, Liverpool, London and York. Sometimes he appeared as one of a series of lecturers, but other gatherings were formed exclusively to listen to his political cause. Despite British audience’s confusion at how exactly they fitted into his scheme, Copway enjoyed a warm reception overall, and his speeches often ‘drew down thunders of applause’.30 Openly explaining that he was no longer a ‘Wesleyan’ minister, he instead appealed to the British people ‘on the broad basis of humanity and justice’ and hoped that the ‘British public would awaken to a sense of their sins, and do all they could to save the [Indigenous] remnant now left’.31 Most of these meetings were organized through Christian temperance organizations and Copway bound together the negative effects of alcohol consumption with colonialism as he asked for donations to aid in the creation of Kahgega. In his mind, Christianity was not only important for Indigenous people to adopt, but also in its ability to save the souls of Europeans who had sinned in their oppression of Indigenous North Americans.
While Euromerican society understood Indigenous people to be facing a choice between assimilation and extinction, Copway attempted to present a third option. He asserted that while the adoption of Christianity and English literacy in his new territory would ensure the physical and spiritual survival of Indigenous peoples, the exclusion of all non-essential Euromericans and the establishment of an Indigenous territorial legislative body would ensure the future realization of a fully-functioning Indigenous state. In addition, he proposed that it be made illegal for non-Indigenous people to purchase or own land within Kahgega and that it be held by Indigenous peoples in perpetuity.32
In his 1850 history of the ‘Ojibway Nation’, Copway argued that the creation of Kahgega would mark the beginning of the end for colonial paternalism: ‘the government and its agents style us “My children.” The Indians are of age—and believe they can think and act for themselves.’33 It was this concern for long-term survival and preservation (and a characteristic touch of narcissism) that Copway likely had in mind when he named the territory after himself, translating Kahgega to mean ‘firm, or ever; which would mean ‘Ever-to-be Indian Territory’.34 Despite this ideal of independence, Copway believed that for Indigenous people to ultimately achieve social and political equality with Euromerican society, they would have to compromise by accepting the leadership of a veto-wielding governor, a ‘white man’ appointed by the US president.35
In a July 1850 address in a Liverpool cotton warehouse, Copway specified that Kahgega’s legislature would consist of a pan-Indigenous ‘Territorial Council’ representing each nation according to population, but prioritizing the inclusion of English-literate Indigenous Christians.36 These specifications all but guaranteed Copway a central role in overseeing the new territory. Consistently in his writings and speeches, Copway expressed a grandiose image of his role in history as a saviour of, and advocate for, Indigenous peoples. In the 1847 introduction to his autobiography he exclaimed, ‘I am a stranger in a strange land’, drawing a correlation between himself and the prophet Moses.37 More than a common turn of phrase, this quotation highlighted Moses’ trans-cultural identity that shifted between Pharaoh’s court, the enslaved Israelite community and the camps of the Midianite shepherds. By prefacing his autobiography in this way, Copway sought to highlight his role as a prophet speaking spiritual truth to power and his ambition to become a political emancipator that could lead his people to an imagined promised land west of the Mississippi. This self-image became reflected in Kahgega’s implicit social hierarchy, which would favour English-literate, agrarian and Christian Indigenous individuals over those who chose to follow the lifeways of their ancestors.
Despite his ambitions, in the spring of 1850 Copway’s political proposal met with rejection in Congress, regardless of its warm reception in Europe, his attempts to revive it in the United States continued to fail the following year. His newest book, an 1851 narrative of his European travels, met with negative reviews, and his book sales began to flag. Undaunted, he poured his resources into Copway’s American Indian, a weekly literary journal focused entirely on Indigenous culture and his political views. The failure of his literary pursuits combined with his rejection in Congress led to a fall from the public eye and severe financial struggles. This social decline was matched with a softening of his critique of settler society, and he turned increasingly towards performances where he took on the role of a romanticized ‘noble Indian’ acting out scenes from his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, a work that may have been inspired in part by Longfellow’s relationship with Copway. After dabbling in anti-immigrant nativist movements, narrowly abandoning a disastrous filibuster expedition to Cuba, due to seasickness, and recruiting Indigenous volunteers for the Union Army in the Civil War, Copway spent his remaining years working as an itinerant ‘Indian Medicine Man’ who offered healing ‘without the use of minerals’ in the ‘Indian Mode’.38 In 1869, estranged from his wife, child and community and with his career in tatters, Copway died a guest at the home of a pastor in Ypsilanti, Michigan.39
What can be learned when the lens of reconciliation is brought to bear on Copway’s failed attempt to transform colonial society? In December 2015, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report stated that ‘“reconciliation” is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. For that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.’40 Interestingly, these four stated requirements of awareness, acknowledgement, atonement and action all appeared in Copway’s repeated calls for the repentance of settler society and his political vision for the establishment of an Indigenous territory.
Though our contemporary understanding of ‘Reconciliation’ as a legal, moral and political concept proves an awkward fit for Copway’s nineteenth-century context, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s succinct definition provides a valuable lens for understanding Indigenous visions of how society could have taken shape in the future. Through political and theological rhetoric, Copway proposed his own solution to the problem that undergirds all conversations around reconciliation in North America: how do we best live together in a shared land with a history of colonial oppression and violence? He believed that the creation of an independent Indigenous state would enable atonement for the colonial violence suffered by Indigenous communities and that Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples would then be saved from physical and spiritual destruction.
Copway’s vision for an Indigenous future and others like it can be described as ‘reconciliatory visions’, proposed alternative forms of a colonial social order that gestured towards an imagined future state of harmony (or at least stability) between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Some expressions of Copway’s reconciliatory vision verged on utopianism. In his 1850 outline of Kahgega, Copway called for an end to Indian removals and violence against Indigenous communities: ‘Let each love the other … and we shall have many sunny days – days when the white man and the red man shall join hands, and together, as brothers, go up yet higher on the mount of noble greatness.’41 But, trading optimism for pragmatism, Copway’s political vision ultimately aimed for compromise, to the point of arguing for acculturation, paternalism, and for one last gigantic Indian removal. In Kahgega, his opportunism and genuine concern for the future of his people were tempered by his attempts to produce a feasible scheme. In the end, even his concessions to existing American colonial policy failed him when he presented his vision before Congress.
This ambivalence on the part of the US government, and the earlier hostility of the Canadian Methodist Conference towards the Saugeen Conference, speak to a hard reality that often underpins conversations around reconciliation. At every turn, it was Copway who had to ‘do the work’ to envision the possibility of an alternative to termination or assimilation. Even his theologically grounded statements on the evils of colonialism and the need for repentance and atonement on the part of Euromerican society were often met with hostility, indifference, or amusement in North America and Europe. His reconciliatory vision of an alternative colonial order placed demands on the empathy, adaptability and imagination of settler audiences that they were unable or unwilling to meet. Within the power structures of nineteenth-century North America, real dialogue proved impossible and Copway fell to the sidelines of public consciousness once he ceased to entertain.
A historical approach makes it possible to unpack the complex interplay of forces involved in the long history of the struggle towards reconciliation. Most importantly, it enables us to examine and empathize with Indigenous visions of the future that were rejected and abandoned and to view them not just as disembodied political texts to be judged by modern standards but within their cultural and temporal contexts. As one of the earliest Indigenous public intellectuals, Copway had to grapple with a variety of racial theories, moral arguments and theologies all within a systemically antagonistic social structure, and within this milieu he attempted to formulate a solution that he believed would improve the future of Indigenous peoples. Though his confusing mixture of self-focused personal ambition with a sincere concern for the good of his people make him appear to be an unusual outlier, his life sheds light on the complexities involved in the ongoing search for reconciliation. The story of Kahgega illustrates that the dialogue around attempted reconciliation is as old as North American colonialism itself, and that it is often one-sided, with Indigenous peoples taking the lead in attempts to end violence and stop the erosion of Indigenous sovereignty.