Nahnebahwequay – Standing up to Colonial Injustice
In 1860 a courageous Ojibwe (Mississauga) woman, Nahnebahwequay, or “Nahnee”, known in English as Catharine Sutton, crossed the North Atlantic. She presented important land claims to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. In honour of Donald B. Smith’s Heritage Week Lecture: Nahnebahwequay (“Upright Woman”), Standing up to Colonial Injustice being held in the Grey Roots Theatre at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday February 18, as well as a Grey Roots original exhibit celebrating “Nahnee” currently on display, this week’s blog features a letter by Sutton herself to the Friends Intelligencer as it appeared in the publication.
Transcription by Mollie Wilson.
Owen Sound, March 30, 1861
To the Friends of New York, – My dear friends in Christ, hoping these few lines will find you all a little nearer to our home in Heaven, I am still trying in my poor way to walk in that narrow way that leads to Heaven. May God bless you all for your great kindness to me! I was a stranger, an unprotected Indian woman, a lonely, solitary wanderer, a forlorn pilgrim in a strange land; for the strange position I occupied at that time was not from choice, but from painful necessity, and God blessed me with kind friends in all my lonely journey. The unseen hand of God led me on from one friend to another, until I received the summons to see her majesty. Now all is done that could be done; all of you did something in this great effort that was made by my poor, despised, down-trodden people.
Lazarus sat at the rich man’s gate, waiting to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table; but when he was no more, he was carried up to Heaven in Abraham’s bosom. Yes; I know many poor Indians like Lazarus, that have gone home to their God, and many that are on their way to the New Jerusalem. Oh! Pray for me, that I may hold out to the end, and at last, with my people and all the people that love God, find a rest in Heaven, whence I need never again carry the poor Indian’s petition; and when the white man that now holds his sway over the poor Indian will have to give an account, as well as the poor Indian, to his Maker. Now he feels strong; in the work, they have the unlimited control of all the Indian’s funds, and disburse or withhold as they please; but God has said vengeance is mine.
Oh, that I was more faithful to God, then I would never feel cast down; but how prone I am to leave the God I love, and want to love with all my heart, although these smooth-tongued men may say I told things that were not true; but the time will come when it will be known I [unreadable] my poor people’s wrongs. Oh! How often have I thought of my people. The Indians that inhabited British North America were once very numerous; they owned nearly all the land in what is now known as Upper Canada; they roamed through the forest in pursuit of game; the smoke of their council fires ascended towards Heaven – all was peace. And now the poor Indian scarce has a land that he can call his, or he cannot give even to his own red child his land. No! These men that hold their sway above the poor Indians – they are the only ones that give to whom they please. Happy for them, the love of a Saviour’s blood has changed the brave and warlike Indian. The war-song is no more; it is changed to a song of praise to his Maker. Like his Master who died for him, he has no home – he is poor; but in Heaven he has a home, and there he will receive a crown of life.
Oh! Why should I be so faithless, but work and believe Him who hath said, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee,” even if all should forsake, “if ye love me and keep my commandments.” Yet nature will give way, at times, when we think the worst is yet to come: as I thought of my own family, after I read the Duke’s decision, I thought of my poor husband and of my little children – my poor, affectionate children. Some are grown to manhood and womanhood; and though I am an Indian woman, I know what it is to feel the affection of a mother’s heart; and to be driven with a family from a poor, loved home, procured by many year’s industry and hard toil, and be turned out upon this unfriendly world; left to battle with the ills and storms in life, without shelter or protection, is a scene over which angels would weep, if they could sympathize in the woes of mortals – all in a land where the poor slave can come and be a man and a citizen; while the poor Indian woman that is married to a white man can be driven from her home and taken for a white woman; but when she offers to buy her own home, she was an Indian.
It is only me and my family that are cast away from my own people. I have always heard Canada was a free country; but it is only for some, but not for the Aborigines of America. If the Indian Department and Government do not consider the Indians of my country to be goods and chattels, why not allow them to purchase? And still they say Canada is a free country.
I am an Indian; the blood of my forefathers runs in my veins, and I am not ashamed to own it; for my people were a noble race before the pale-faces came to possess their lands and home. I am afraid you will be all quite tired before I am through. I will send you a few of the most objectionable parts of the late Indian act, which has received the Queen’s assent.
“And if such commissioners report in writing to the governor that any such Indian, of the males, and not under twenty-one years of age, nor over forty, is able to speak, read and write either the English or the French language readily and well, and is sufficiently advance in elementary branches of education, and is of good, moral character, and free from debt; the said commissioners may also examine and inquire concerning any male Indian over twenty-one, and not over forty years of age, desirous of availing himself of this act, although he be not able to speak readily either the English or the French language, nor instructed in the usual branches of school education; but is of sober and industrious habits, free from debt, and sufficiently intelligent to be capable of managing his own affairs; and if the governor is satisfied with the commissioners’ reports, such Indian shall be on a state of probation for three years. Every Indian enfranchised under this act shall be entitled to have allotted to him a piece of land not exceeding fifty acres out of the tribe. But if such Indian die without leaving any child or lineal descendant, but leaving a widow, she shall, instead of dower to which she shall not be entitled, have the said land for life, or until her re-marriage; but upon her death or re-marriage, it shall escheat to the Crown. Such release or surrender shall be assented to by the chief, or, if more than one chief, by a majority of the chiefs of the tribe or band assembled in council.”
N.B. – You will observe, that every Indian family still remaining at Owen Sound, will have to remove to an Indian reserve, or forfeit their Indian claims. The Indians may purchase land, but they cannot occupy them personally, without a forfeit of tribal right, although the land so purchased might be close to the reserve. This act comes into force on the first of July.
When I arrived in England, and the Duke appeared to favor my mission, and the Queen treated me so kindly, and promised aid and protection to the Indians, and requested the Duke of New Castle to investigate the wrongs of the Indians, and he pledged himself to do so; we thought we had gained a great conquest. For we were sure, that if we could only have an investigation, the dark deeds of the department would be brought to light; and so we have been doomed to disappointment of a most vexatious kind. It would not have been so vexing, if the Duke had been manly enough to acknowledge that he had failed in making satisfactory examination. But to pretend that he had done his duty in the matter, made me feel badly; for, by so doing, he has left the Indians in a worse position that they were in before, and cleared the department from guilt, representing myself as a bearer of false accusations. I think you are aware that there was a very able deputation ready to wait on the Duke, and was prepared to do justice to our cause; but the Duke only allowed them an audience of about five minutes.
I suppose Mr. Alsop has informed you of his interview with the Duke and his decision on the subject, so that I need not now relate it all over again; but I will just state that, as far the Indians in general are concerned, the Duke says that, as far as he can learn, Mr. Penefather, the Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs, is well disposed towards the Indians, and that he has no doubt that he will do the best he can for their benefit. So, it appears the poor Indian may give up at once quietly to suffer every kind of wholesale robbery, wrong and insult from those placed in authority over them. I argue that the Duke is guilty of a great wrong towards the Indians, as he has made his investigation entirely through the parties complained of to her majesty; for he did not allow of a solitary friend of the Indians to be present to plead our cause. Had our friends been permitted to take part, they would have exhibited such an extensive state of wrongs and corruptions connected with the department, as would have astonished the public; but the department has had it all their own away [sic]. It appears the Duke would not notice the case of Sawyer and Elliott at all; but he paid some attention to mind, and brought serious charges against me, most of which, he might have learned, were without foundation, had he allowed my friends to plead my cause in his presence before the department; but the Duke wound up his decision, by saying I was not an Indian, but an Englishwoman, because I am married to an Englishman, and consequently I had no claims in any way or shape among the Indians; and thus, in a few words, depriving myself and family of our birthright. I am acquainted with a number of Indian women who are married to white men; some of them were married before me, and others afterward, but no one of them have ever been annoyed or molested by the department; but, to this day, both themselves and their children have received all their claims in common with the other Indians.
Although I have been married 21 years, it was not until the last four years that the department has made this excuse for robbing me and my children of our birthright, which I inherited from my forefathers before the white man ever set his foot on our shores. This is the second time, since I was married, that my home and farm have been surrendered and sold. Our first home was a very good one, the whole farm being under good cultivation. During the last few years my husband’s constitution has been broken by clearing new farms, so that his health is poor, and for that reason I thought we had better buy our own home. At that time we had the moneys; but it is four years since I tried to purchase it, and now all is gone – the department would rather sell it to one who will pay more than I can afford to. We have made it valuable – my people will draw the interest of what my home will bring, so we who have toiled get nothing for my land. If I had no children I would say nothing, but I feel a mother’s care. May God bless my poor family; may it be a blessing to teach them to lay up a treasure in Heaven, where thieves will never come.
The head chief at Cape Crokee [sic], and twenty-one families, are going to leave that place and join another band, and buy a home for themselves; if the Indian agent will take the money they draw from the department to pay for it; but when they try to get it in that way, the department will not allow it.
Mr. R. Alsop has remitted £146, 10s., to be equally divided among those families who were denied the privilege of purchasing lands.
I have now told you, as well as I can, all I promised, when we last met. There is an Indian newspaper printed now in Sarnac; it is edited by one who feels the Indian’s wrongs; it is called “Pe-tah-bun,” (the peep of day,) it is issued once a month – perhaps some of the Friends would like to read it.
My baby is well, and all my family are in pretty good health. I thank God for the many blessings he has bestowed upon us since I saw you. My people thank you all for your great kindness to me.
With much love, I remain,