Meet Research Travel Grant recipient Jason Sprague

Author: Heather Gary

Jason SpragueJason Sprague

Jason Sprague is a PhD candidate in religious studies at the University of Iowa. As a 2015 Research Travel Grant recipient, he traveled to Notre Dame to use the archives for—and answer our questions about—his dissertation, “‘The Shadow of a Cross’: Odawa Catholicism in Waganakisi, 1765–1825.” 

First off, who are the Odawa? And where is Waganakisi?

The Odawa—sometimes spelled Ottawa—are a Native American tribe from Michigan and southern Ontario, Canada. They are closely related to the Potawatomi (Pottawatomie) and Ojibwa(e), or Chippewa. The three tribes are often referred to as the Three Fires Confederacy or Anishinaabek(g).

The particular Odawa band I study is called the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians. They live along the northwest coast of Michigan’s lower peninsula. This area is known as Waganakisi in the Odawa language. It became known as L’Arbre Croche by early French explorers.

Both Waganakisi and L’Arbre Croche roughly translate to “Crooked Tree” and indicate an area that was once dominated by a large, crooked pine tree. The tree was situated along the coast, making it a marker for navigation.

The area spans roughly 20 miles of coastline between present-day Harbor Springs in the south and Cross Village in the north. If we were face-to-face, I’d hold up my right hand with my palm facing you and point with my left index finger toward the tip of my right ring finger to indicate the location. We Michiganders often use our hand as a map since Michigan is shaped like a mitten.

What was going on in the time period that you’re studying?

I study a period of about 60 years between 1765 and the late 1820s, which was marked by the absence of a permanent priestly presence in the region. The Jesuits operated a mission in the area for more than 20 years before being expelled by a combination of papal suppression and the recent British victory over the French in the French and Indian War. During this time there were few priestly visits to the area and no stopovers more than a few months long.

The aim of my research is to examine what Catholicism looked like among the Odawa when they were lacking a significant priestly influence. My initial research seems to indicate that women took on more prominent roles in the Catholic communities once served by the Jesuits. They used their roles as midwives to administer baptisms, used their control over land and much of the fur trade to extend kinship networks through godparenting and marriage, and continued their roles as religious educators. When Catholic priests began to return to the area in the 1820s—after 60 years—they found that some recognizably Catholic beliefs and practices survived their absence and had been incorporated into existing Odawa beliefs and practices.

The Odawa also used their experience with Catholicism and their identity as Catholics to combat the encroaching United States and Protestant missions and schools. To do this they drafted a series of letters to President James Monroe between 1823 and 1825 asking for a return of the Black Robes (Jesuits). In these letters the Odawa were using Catholicism as a political negotiating tool to combat Protestant missions, retain their lands, remain sovereign, and control the education of their children.

What first piqued your interest in this topic?

My aunt and uncle built a house in Cross Village in 2002. After several visits to the area I became interested in the local religious history. I decided to write about that for my master’s thesis and have been pursuing the topic ever since.

For my dissertation I wanted to narrow the scope of my project to study elements of the region’s religious history that have received little academic attention. Those elements include the development of Native Catholicism and the roles of Native women in religion. I wanted to write about the 1760s to 1820s because very few academics have explored that period in this region even though it’s worthy of further interpretation. The main challenge has been the lack of primary sources, and that continues to be the biggest challenge to my research.

What collections did you examine in the Notre Dame Archives? Did you uncover any surprises or particularly valuable documents?

I looked at the Diocese of Detroit, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Frederick Baraga Papers, and Francis P. Clark Collections. I intended to look at an additional three collections—the Archdiocese of Baltimore Collection, Francis X. Pierz Papers, and the Leopoldine-Stiftung im Kaisertum Osterreich Records— but ran out of time.

I was surprised by the volume of correspondences in the collections. The personal and official letters were some of the most interesting documents I looked at. The letters from the Odawa to the president, letters to and from Father Gabriel Richard, and letters between various Catholic priests were particularly revealing. Many of the letters discussed deeply personal and complex issues that need to be placed into their relational and historical context to fully understand their meaning and depth. I look forward to many hours of further examining many of these correspondences.

So much of Catholic history on the frontier is informed by documents generated by priests. Your project examines a community where there is little priestly influence for 60 years. What kinds of sources have been helpful in reconstructing that story?

Travel narratives, captivity narratives, journals and letters from prominent individuals, trade documents, and government documents have been some of the most helpful documents in reconstructing the Catholic history of the northern and western Great Lakes region during this time period. I’ve also relied on other peoples’ interpretations of archeological evidence and oral histories since I’m not trained in studying those types of sources.

What sources do you wish you had?

Personal journals of the last permanent priest in the region before the Jesuit expulsion, Father Pierre Du Jaunay, would be incredibly valuable for uncovering the history of Catholicism there. He was the founder of the mission at Waganakisi and was an active missionary in the area for 30 years. I also wish I had writings from Native converts from the mission. Hearing their stories of conversion and their interpretations of Catholicism would provide some insight into the Odawa perspective on Catholic missionary efforts and how Odawa people understood and incorporated Catholicism.

I’ve had to piece together a lot of information from tangential sources, such as sources concerning missions and Native peoples outside the geographic region I study, and information from either side of my time period. The absence of documentation requires a lot of creative thinking and using sources a bit differently. I try to avoid speculating and assuming, but sometimes I have to make imaginative leaps with the hope that I’ll find some hidden gem that validates my argument or corroborates a source. Having a lot of contextual evidence from secondary sources can help in piecing together the fragments I do have, so I am indebted to earlier scholars for their work in this area.

Even with all the challenges of missing documentation, it’s important to attempt projects such as this because a lot of previous scholarship on Native Christianity was based on flawed assumptions and euro-centric motivations and perspectives. A more culturally sensitive interpretation will hopefully shed light on an area of Catholic history that is begging for interpretation. My goal is not just to fill a gap in scholarship, but to conduct a project valuable to the people it affects.

On first glance, your topic—Native American Catholics in northern Michigan in the late 18th century—sounds fairly obscure. But on further thought this story seems to have parallels to other historical situations and relevance for many Catholic communities today.

Yes, I’m hoping my work can help us reexamine folk Catholicism in medieval Europe and the 19th century Catholic immigrant experience. Many of these communities incorporated non-Catholic elements into their beliefs and practices and integrated them with their Catholic identity to form a hybrid religious identity. Many of these elements became permanent and accepted parts of Catholic practice. Lay involvement was often the driving force behind the incorporation of these elements.

I’m not an expert on present-day Catholic communities, but there seems to be growing lay involvement, with Catholic women taking on more important and prominent roles in Catholic communities. I’m hoping that my work will show that this is not a recent trend, but a continuation or reoccurrence of earlier lay practices. There are also few priests to minister in the rural Midwest, so many communities go for weeks or months without a Catholic priest. This has meant that lay practitioners have had to take on additional roles to maintain the community.

Again, I want to argue that this is something we’ve seen in previous eras and places. Lay and women’s involvement has often been ignored by previous scholarship in favor of focusing on the Church hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean these groups weren’t active and innovative. Scholars in the past few decades have begun to piece together and take seriously women, lay practitioners, rural communities, Native experiences, and hybrid Catholic beliefs and practices. I hope that my work can contribute in some meaningful way to that discussion.

Learn More>>

2015 Travel Research Grant recipients

Travel Research Grant information

Hibernian Research Award information