Finding Native Voices in the Archives

We recently enjoyed an opportunity to collaborate with Texas Christian University. We have been digitizing our archives, and often the papers we’re working with are difficult to decipher due to age, condition, media, and orthography. The students in Dr. Theresa Gaul's American Literature seminar class transcribed our 200-year-old Andrew Bulger Papers, and they made some interesting discoveries. A selection of the students blogs will be posted to the museum’s feed over the next few days.

This post is by Sarah-Marie Horning, a doctoral student in English studying Southern women’s literature. She is also pursuing a graduate certificate in Women and Gender Studies.

–Jon Frembling, Archivist, Amon Carter Museum of American Art

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^ [Andrew Bulger manuscript page], Andrew Bulger Papers, Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Reading much like something out of a James Fennimore Cooper novel, the materials that make up the Andrew Bulger Papers at the Amon Carter hold salacious, brutal, and touching tales of contact and conflict in the embattled spaces of early America and British Canada.

Though the papers are about Andrew Bulger and his exploits during the War of 1812, I found myself drawn in most by the stories of others in the letters. A family of Native Americans are found nearly starving to death in the middle of winter in Wisconsin. A traveling party of British soldiers works to cut their way through “a distance of at least one hundred and fifty miles” of thick ice.

In one especially dramatic scene, a traveling party is ambushed by their Sioux guides, a survivor of the ambush made “his way on his hands and knees” for a purported 24 miles back to the fort to name their attackers, and a series of violent retaliations soon followed.

As this especially complex and violent story of ambush develops, British, American, Sioux, Ojibwa, and other quasi-military and governmental groups all become implicated in a series of entangled alliances and conflicts. The War of 1812, in our popular imagination, is a conflict between America and British Canada. War broke out because of various underlying and proximate causes, but historians typically attribute the War of 1812 to a contest between American territorial expansion and British blockades of American trade routes.

Attempting to preserve their own communities amid these contests, Native tribes took sides in the conflict and were ultimately the ones who suffered most in the war.
But with names like “Gens de la Fucille Tiré” and “Follesavine,” I kept wondering “Who are these people?”

The problem happens because Native tribes were often given French and English slang terms as misnomers for tribal names. The misnomers happen in the Bulger letters because British and American colonists did not recognize Native sign systems. As I searched for the right names, I found myself increasingly interested in uncovering—at least for myself—the history hidden by the colonial practice of renaming. An especially interesting story came to me as I started to trace the “Follsavoines.” Folles Avoines, I eventually discovered with the gracious help of Jon Frembling, Amon Carter Museum library archivist, is not the name of a Native tribe at all. Rather, it is wild rice—a French slang descriptor for the food of the Ojibwa (Chippewa) tribe.

The Ojibwa, as early as the 1700s, had a rich network of trade with Europeans and Canadians, but this cooperation would prove tenuous. British and American imperialism continuously threatened Native tribes. In Pontiac’s Uprising in 1763, Ojibwas helped to reinforce a group of Ottawas, led by their leader Pontiac, in an attempt to take a fort in Michigan and turn back British colonizers who had displaced the French at the close of the French and Indian wars. By the early 1800s, the Ojibwa found themselves further threatened by American territorial expansion and provided aid to the British in the War of 1812 in the hope that they could resist American encroachment. The compromise came from a belief that their only hope of stemming further encroachments by American settlers lay with the British. Tragically, in a war that was not instigated by any Native tribe, scores of Native peoples fighting for both sides perished in the War of 1812.

However, the history of encroachment and battles for control of land in Wisconsin and around the Great Lakes for the Ojibwa (Chippewa) has far from subsided in the succeeding centuries since the War of 1812. The Wisconsin Chippewa tribe and the Red River Band are currently at the center of a very real territorial and political contest as they voted in January of this year to resist the renewal of an easement onto their land by the US government for the maintenance of the Enbridge oil pipeline that has been in operation on the tribal lands for more than 64 years.

William Berens, A. Irving Hallowell, et al., Memories, Myths, and Dreams of an Ojibwe Leader (Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014)

Donald Fixico, A Native Nations Perspective on the War of 1812,” from PBS.org The War of 1812

Michael Johnson, Ojibwa: People of Forests and Prairies (Richmond Hill, Ontario: Firefly Books, 2016)

Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Ojibwa.”