Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Straddling Cultures: Harriet Wheeler's and William W. Warren's Renditions of Ojibwe History

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Straddling Cultures: Harriet Wheeler's and William W. Warren's Renditions of Ojibwe History

Article excerpt

Harriet Wheeler and William W. Warren not only both lived on Ojibwe reservations in northern Wisconsin during the nineteenth century, but their families had strong bonds between them. William Warren's sister, Mary Warren English, writes that her brother returned to La Pointe, Wisconsin, from school on the same boat Harriet's parents took to begin their mission work. The Wheelers liked him and appreciated his help: "He won a warm and life-long friendship--with these most estimable people--by his genial and happy disposition--and ever ready and kindly assistance--during their long and tedious voyage" (Warren Papers). When Mary Warren English's parents died, she moved in with the Wheelers, and, long after she and Harriet no longer shared the same household, she began letters to Harriet with the salutation, "Dear Sister." But William Warren's History of the Ojibwe People (1885) and Harriet Wheeler's novel The Woman in Stone (1903) reveal that this shared background could not overcome the cultural differences between them. Even though Wheeler and Warren often describe the same events and people, their accounts have different implications. Wheeler, the daughter of Congregational missionaries from New England, portrays the inevitable and necessary decline of the Ojibwe, as emissaries of Christianity help civilization progress; Warren, who had French and Ojibwe ancestors, as well as Yankee roots, identifies growing Anglo-Saxon influence on the Ojibwe as a cause of moral decay. (1)

Born at La Pointe, Wisconsin, 27 May 1825, to Mary Cadotte, who was three-fourths Ojibwe, Warren learned to speak Ojibwe as a child; but his white, Yankee father, Lyman Warren, sent him east to school from the time he was eight until 1841, when he returned to La Pointe with the Wheelers. Warren did not consider himself Ojibwe, but someone who could mediate between Native and American cultures because he had participated in both. Although he succeeded in the dominant culture, serving in the Minnesota legislature, for instance, he most loved exchanging stories with the Ojibwe and willingly traveled great distances to talk with the tribe's elders. He had just completed the manuscript of the history based on these conversations when he died on 1 June 1853, at the age of 28.

As Warren struggled with the illness that eventually killed him, the federal government attempted to remove the Ojibwe to Minnesota land where they would live near their eternal enemies, the Sioux. When the Ojibwe refused to leave their homes, the government withheld tribal payments. Since Warren worked as an interpreter in conjunction with the removal, he not only had first-hand knowledge of government determination, he had occasion to meet many Ojibwe elders and hear their stories. That the government brutally attempted to impose its will on the Ojibwe as Warren composed his book undoubtedly fed his determination to ignore his failing lungs as best he could and record the history he had collected. He had planned a much larger work, but his lungs gave way before he could complete it. After Warren's death, it became clear that the attempt to starve the Ojibwe into submission had failed, and, in 1854, the government signed a treaty, agreeing that the Ojibwe owned and could remain on several reservations including three in Wisconsin: Lac Court Oreilles, Lac de Flambeau, and Bad River [Odanah].

Warren worked hard on his manuscript despite his illness because he wanted to preserve the Ojibwe culture he saw undermined by Euroamerican influence. As he explains it, "The Ojibway ... are at the present day, the most numerous and important tribe of the formerly wide extended Algic family of tribes. They occupy the area of Lake Superior and the sources of the Mississippi, and as a general fact, they still live in the ways of their ancestors. Even among these, a change is so rapidly taking place, caused by a close contact with the white race, that ten years hence it will be too late to save the traditions of their forefathers from total oblivion" (25). …

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