Evaluating our Assumptions: Rethinking Literacies in Canadian History

Thomas Peace

Sarah Ainse (Oneida), Kahgegagahbowh (Mississauga), Pahtahsega (Mississauga), Shahwahnegezhik (Ojibwe), Kezhegowinninne (Ojibwe), Kahkewaquonaby (Mississauga), Sawatanen (Wendat), Ferrier Vincent (Wendat), Francois Annance (Abenaki), Pierre Paul Ozhunkarine (Abenaki), Nicolas Vincent (Wendat), Thayendanega (Mohawk), Kanonraron (Mohawk), Sahonwagy (Mohawk), Shawundais (Mississauga), Eleazar Williams (Mohawk), Henry Pahtahquahong Chase (Mississauga), and William Apess (Pequot). These are just a handful of northeastern Indigenous peoples from the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries who engaged in, and sometimes embraced, a culture of alphabetic literacy.

None of these names will surprise folks familiar with this time and place. Recently a number of important works have illuminated their lives (Kahkewaquonaby, Pahtahsega, Shahwahnegezhik, Kahgegagahbowh, Maungwudaus, Nahnebahwequay, and Shawundais were profiled in Donald Smith’s book Mississauga Portraits, and Michael Oberg, Rick Monture, and Philip Gura have recently published books that touch on Williams, Thayendanega, and Apess, respectively).[1] Despite their well-known biographies and the length of this list, as my work in this area develops I am struck by the fact that many historians continue to treat them as exceptional individuals.

Now don’t mistake this post for an argument that alphabetic literacy was the norm in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century northeast. That’s not the (or even a) point. It’s clear that most of the population (both Settler and Indigenous) lived in a primarily oral culture and that Indigenous literacies and oral practices continued to define both local and regional relationships throughout the period. Nonetheless, the abundance of Indigenous peoples writing letters, petitions, and accounts of their peoples during this period should raise important questions about the place of alphabetic literacy in Northeastern Indigenous communities. How and why did cultures of reading and writing emerge, and why do they become more prominent in the region at the dawn of the nineteenth century?

Pierre Paul Wzokhilain's Abenaki spelling book, 1830

Pierre Paul Wzokhilain’s Abenaki spelling book, 1830

A simple answer would point to the intense missionary efforts that coincided with the surge of settlement that followed the American Revolution, or perhaps the rise of printing more broadly in North America that corresponded with this transition. Using the work of three historians, though, I’d like to build on, and interconnect, their arguments to suggest that this trajectory was not nearly as simple or direct. Rather, with over two centuries of direct (and indirect) interaction with Europeans, it is reasonable to suggest that many Indigenous peoples in the northeast were familiar with European notions of alphabetic literacy, if not able to deploy these skills themselves, adopting them more frequently when they became necessary. Though evidence may be sparse on the ground, we should be careful to draw assumptions from the absence of evidence. This was, after all, an era of wood-fired heating and few institutional repositories.

This argument, anchored as it is in an absence of evidence, is perhaps a counter-intuitive argument (and a somewhat problematic one for the historian). If convincing, though, I think it reorients the frameworks through which we discuss the eighteenth and early nineteenth century northeast. Rather than framing Indigenous peoples as unable to read or write, this context ascribes Indigenous peoples more agency to selectively engage with technologies of reading and writing, framing it (as others such as Germaine Warkentin, Lisa Brooks, and Daniel Heath Justice have suggested) as just one of many forms of literacy deployed by northeastern Indigenous peoples.

The first secondary source, I want to use to lay out this context is the doctoral work of Mi’kmaw scholar Marie Battiste.[2] Written in 1983, Battiste examines the three hundred year transition between Mi’kmaw ideographic literacy (the reading of pictographs, petroglyphs, notched sticks and wampum) to the development of Mi’kmaw and Roman scripts in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A central point in her work is the importance of contextualizing writing in its use and application – that is its social and cultural context – rather than its structural and technical forms. Battiste points to the complex ways that Mi’kmaq wrote using gomgoejoigasig (ideographs) to demonstrate that word/symbol association was widespread by the time Recollet Priest Chrestien LeClercq transcribed these hieroglyphs in the 1670s. Battiste suggests that Roman orthographies slowly entered Mi’kmaw culture nearly a century later, when another Catholic Priest, Abbe Maillard, increasingly used them as part of his liturgical practices. We know so little about these systems of writing, in Battiste’s view, because Mi’kmaw literacies were not an aspect of Mi’kmaw life in which Europeans were interested or able to understand. Those Europeans, like LeClercq, who engaged with Mi’kmaw literacies did so working within Mi’kmaw society and culture; the teaching of these skills was fostered within the community and family. A century later, though the system anchored in gomgoejoigasig also continued, Baptist missionary Silas Rand encountered Mi’kmaq who could read and write in English and Mi’kmaq, owned books, and corresponded among themselves.

Moving westward, Nicholas Smith and Alice Nash’s 2003 work, “Father Aubery’s Liturgical Linguistics: An Ethnohistorical View,” addresses Abenaki alphabetic literacies by similarly situating the discussion within its broader social and cultural context.[3] Pointing to the survival of multiple copies of Jesuit missionary Joseph Aubery’s 500-page Abenaki-French dictionary, among other religious texts, Smith and Nash indicate that at the Abenaki community of Odanak, community members reproduced manuscript copies of religious texts in order for them to travel out into the mission field. Indeed, they point to late eighteenth and early nineteenth century copies of these manuscripts signed by Abenaki like Pierre Louis, Thérèse Takoubaque, Louis Philippe Obasawin, and Joseph Laurent, emphasizing that these manuscripts were often copied out by the Abenaki for their own purposes in addition to the missionaries’ goals. Much like we can see in Battiste’s work, literacies were determined by local interest and practices, but also shaped by Catholic priests with deep roots to the communities they served. This process is best encapsulated in their conclusion: “These texts constitute a memory aide for recitation, much like wampum belts. The archaic nature of Aubery’s language served to augment the value of these texts because their users could find continuity with their ancestors” (15). Once again, we see a much more complex image of literacies than is often conveyed in historical works on this period.

Finally, in his 2003 article, “Exploring Historical Literacy in Manitoulin Island Ojibwe,” Alan Corbiere extends the understanding of Ojibwe literacy beyond its more common association with Christian missionary efforts.[4] Corbiere describes a burgeoning Anishinaabe literacy movement between 1823 and 1910. Though Corbiere begins in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, his article emphasizes the importance of structures similar to those outlined by Battiste, Smith, and Nash, whereby Ojibwe alphabetic literacy was taught within the community independently of official church structures. Perhaps best illustrating this point is a vignette Corbiere uses about a Catholic missionary and the mid-nineteenth century presence of books in the community. He writes that “a Nishnaabe had brought him [the missionary] one of his old books that has lost its binding through usage. Father Choné had used some wire and thin planks of cedar to make new covers and binding. Word got around, and all the Nishinaabeg who needed their books repaired brought them to Father Choné for re-binding.” (63) From this vignette Corbiere arrives at three conclusions: that nineteenth century Anishinaabeg were interested in writing, that they used books enough to wear them out, and that by 1844 some were already able to read and write in their own language.

The central point here is not to demonstrate or argue that Indigenous peoples embraced alphabetic literacy in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, but rather to point to a more regional and earlier culture where alphabetic literacy mattered and influenced Indigenous lives. Although scholars like Battiste, Smith, Nash, and Corbiere have probed this subject at a specific level, we have not yet adequately brought these studies into conversation with each other. It is time for critical reassessments of the histories of education and literacies in Canada that brings together this rich, but somewhat narrowly focused, scholarship of the past twenty years, in order to develop a much more nuanced understanding of the eighteenth and nineteenth century northeast.

It is with this in mind that Susan Glover, Alan Corbiere, and I have embarked on a new project to more broadly assess Indigenous writing and literacy networks in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Canada. We aim to identify and bring together eighteenth and nineteenth century manuscript texts authored by Abenaki, Algonquin, Anishinaabe, Cree, Haudenosaunee, Innu, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Odawa, Ojibwe, Passamaquoddy, Potawatomi, and Wendat peoples. As we embark on this project, we hope to foster a collaborative and flexible culture that includes and draws on the expertise of elders, tribal historians, and a diverse array of university-based scholars in order to adequately situate this material in its original and contemporary contexts. If you are working in this area and would like to know more about, or contribute to, the project, please contact us!

In a recent essay on Indigenous writing, Daniel Heath Justice reflects upon the responses he receives when someone learns that he studies Indigenous literature.[5] The section begins with a reflection upon the responses he receives when someone learns that he studies Indigenous literature. “The response,” Justice tells us, “is almost invariably something along the lines of, ‘Really? I didn’t know that Indigenous people had literature’ (note the past tense) or ‘So, you mean the oral traditions/folklore/storytelling?’” He then goes on to point out the problems with these responses, emphasizing the vibrant literature produced by Indigenous authors for centuries. He also cautions us, however, from privileging alphabetic scripts and printed publications, framing literacy much more broadly and in ways that resonate with Battiste. We share similar experiences and outlook; in embarking on this project we aim to frame the meaning of literacies broadly and situate these texts within a more complex and diverse context then has often been the case in the past.

Thomas Peace is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Huron University College.  His research addresses the processes of settler colonialism in the northeast and the ways in which Indigenous peoples engaged with schooling during the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. He is a founding editor of ActiveHistory.ca. For more information visit his website or send him an e-mail at tpeace@uwo.ca.


[1] Donald B. Smith, Mississauga Portraits: Ojibwe Voices From Nineteenth-Century Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013); Michael Oberg, Professional Indian: The American Odyssey of Eleazer Williams (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015); Rick Monture, We Share Our Matters: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2014); Philip Gura, The Life of William Apess, Pequot (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[2] Marie Battiste, “An Historical Investigation of the Social and Cultural Consequences of Micmac Literacy,” (PhD diss., Stanford University, 1983).

[3] Nicholas Smith and Alice Nash, “La linguistique liturgique du père Aubéry : Aperçu ethnohistorique,” Recherches Amerindiennes au Quebec, 33:2 (2003): 7-17.

[4] Alan Corbiere, “Exploring Historical Literacy in Manitoulin Island Ojibwe,” in Christoph Wolfart, ed., Papers of the 34th Algonquian Conference, (2003): 57-80.

[5] Daniel Heath Justice, “Indigenous Writing,” in Robert Warrior, ed., The World of Indigenous North America, (Routledge, 2014): 291-307.

Latest Comments

  1. BFRE says:

    See also: Brendan F.R. Edwards, Paper Talk: a history of libraries, print culture, and Aboriginal peoples in Canada before 1960 (Scarecrow Press, 2005)

  2. James B. Bandow says:

    Just to add context. Non-Alphabetical writings systems existed in pre-contact First nations Societies. See Joan M. Vastokas (2003) Ojibwa Pictography: The origins of Writing and the Rise of Social Complexity, Ontario Archaeology 75: 3-16 for examples from the Great Lakes Region

  3. Thomas Peace says:

    That’s an important point, James. I didn’t have the space to get into it in much detail here, but this is the context in which Battiste situates alphabetic literacy. The first chapter of Brendan Edwards’s Paper Talk, specifically pages 8-15, provides a succinct summary of this context. In addition to Vastokas, the more recent work of Heidi Bohaker, Lisa Brooks, Germaine Warkentin, and Hilary Wyss also does an excellent job at demonstrating how alphabetic literacies complemented and developed from pre-existing literacies within many Indigenous societies.

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