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Open Access Publications from the University of California

French Africans in Ojibwe Country: Negotiating Marriage, Identity and Race, 1780-1890

  • Author(s): Harper, Mattie Marie
  • Advisor(s): Biolsi, Thomas
  • et al.

This project explores changing constructions of identity for African Americans and Native Americans in the Western Great Lakes region from 1780-1890. I focus on the Bonga family, whose lineage in the region begins with the French-speaking African slaves Jean and Marie Jeanne Bonga. Their descendants intermarried with Ojibwe Indians, worked in the fur trade, participated in treaty negotiations between the Ojibwe and the U.S. government, and struggled to preserve Ojibwe autonomy in the face of assimilation policies.

French Africans in Ojibwe Country analyzes how the Bongas' racial identities changed over four generations. Enmeshed in a network of Ojibwe kin ties, yet differentiated from their Ojibwe kin by their status as a family of mixed-ancestry fur traders, the Bongas gained political and social influence in both Indian and white circles. In addition to their social and legal status as Indians, at various times the labels "white," "negro," "half-breed," and "mulatto" were also applied to them. I investigate the social, cultural and political meanings of these fluctuations, situating them within the region's history of cultural contact. By comparing the Bongas' experiences to the incorporation of African Americans into Indian families in the southeast, I forefront the contrasting fluidity of the northern categories of identity. I ask, How did fur trade culture, Ojibwe culture, and intermarriage practices contribute to this regional fluidity? Which factors in the late nineteenth century led to a burgeoning tension between competing notions of race and identity, and had a direct and startling impact on the Bongas' lives? And finally, How were the Bongas' leadership roles related to their ability to manipulate the fluid nature of identity and to exercise agency as they navigated often clashing and changing notions of race, culture and gender?

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