Little known today, Nahnebahnwequay was an Indigenous activist who spent her life fighting for land rights for the Indigenous before Canada was even a country.
Born in 1824 at Credit River Flats, Upper Canada, she was given the name Nahnebahnwequay because an Ojibwe elder dreamed the name before her birth. Through this episode, I will refer to her as Nahnee, which was what her friends called her.
Her maternal grandfather was Otesoo, a war chief from the Otter Clan who fought for the British in the American Revolutionary war.
Throughout her childhood, she was taught Ojibwe customs and traditional ways of life and she would help her mother with herbal medicine and remedies.
Nahnee’s father, Bunch Sunegoo, was an early convert to Christianity at Credit River, and was a member of the Eagle Clan, which was the largest clan of the Credit Mission Mississauga. Her mother was Mary Crane of the Otter totem. The couple would convert to Christianity shortly after the birth of Nahnee. The government then built 20 houses for the settlement at Credit River, which was paid for by funds given to the tribe after they ceded lands along the shore of Lake Ontario.
When Nahnee was born, she had several siblings but they would all pass away due to disease, except for one who drowned. Her only surviving sibling, Mary, was born when Nahnee was 18-years-old. Due to the death of so many of his children, Nahnee’s father would fall into alcoholism and become disenchanted with Christianity. His wife would continue to remain devout and would become a rock for her family.
Nahnee would attend Methodist School until 1837 and it was there she was given the name Catherine Brown, which was the name of one of the first converts to Christianity among the Cherokee. Her education at the Mission School was similar to what Residential Schools would practice, with the focus on assimilation and the removing of the culture of the Indigenous.
Nahnee would become close with her uncle Peter Jones, who was the first Methodist Minister among the Ojibwe. Peter and his wife Eliza could not have children, and Nahnee became a surrogate child for the couple.
When she was 13, Nahnee journeyed to England with her aunt and uncle on a missionary trip. They would stay for a year in England where Peter spent his time carrying out fundraising work. He would also file a petition with the British Crown to have the Credit Mission lands legally transferred to the mission. He would even meet with Queen Victoria in September 1838 over the matter but the petition failed.
Nahnee would come home before her aunt and uncle because she did not like the weather in England. The trip would have a major impact on her though, as it sparked her belief in Indigenous activism.
Upon returning to Upper Canada, Nahnee married William Sutton, an English shoemaker and friend of Peter Jones. He was not Indigenous, but he had a strong belief in the welfare of the Indigenous and would be supportive of Nahnee throughout her activism. Together, the couple had eight children together.
At the age of 20, Nahnee became the leader of Methodist teaching at Credit mission, and would lead a group of women in weekly prayer and Christian guidance.
Since Credit Mission had not been able to get title to its lands, the mission was moved and Nahnee and her family moved in the winter of 1846 to the Owen Sound area where they built a farm and home on land given to them by the Nawash Indigenous. The move away from the land that her people had lived on for generations was not easy, but it was her hope that the new land would benefit future generations.
In 1848, Nahnee became ill and she found the isolation of life in her new home was too much to handle. After a harsh winter, the family would move in 1851 after Nahnee and her family were asked to support a Methodist mission near Sault St. Marie. She would move with her family to the village of Nawash in 1852 near present-day Sault Ste. Marie.
The family would only live in the area for a short time due to William being unable to find reliable employment. Two years later, they once again moved.
In 1857, Nahnee and her family moved back to the Owen Sound area and it was there they found that the land they had bought previously from the local Indigenous was in the process of being sold to the federal government after band members signed a treaty to surrender the Indigenous title to the land. As a result, Nahnee no longer had rights to the land that they had once called home, which was now being divided into town lots and put up for sale by the government.
Superintendent of Indian Affairs Richard Pennefather would say quote:
“The chiefs having no power to dispose to private parties of land belong to the tribe, could not give title and the Suttons written grant was therefore worthless.”
The federal government did offer to sell land parcels to Nahnee’s family at a reduced price but they then went back on that promise and withheld the certifications of sale stating they were minors under the law and did not have right to buy land from the government. At the time, Nahnee was well into her 30s.
The Indian Department then offered to bargain with Nahnee and her husband by offering to suspend the repossession of their farm if she paid a reduced rate to purchase it and agree that the 200 acres of land granted to her by the Nawash was illegal. Nahnee refused this offer.
At this point, the Indian Department said that Nahnee was not legally Indigenous, nor were her children, because she had married a white man.
A gifted writer, Nahnee wrote to the government, stating quote:
“The department has made this excuse for robbing me and my children of our birthright, which I inherited from my forefathers before the white man ever set foot on our shores.”
Nahnee then decided to take her case to the British Crown. Her community would appoint Nahnee as the envoy to represent them to the British Crown, and in 1859 she journeyed to England.
Her trip was reported on in the newspapers heavily, and she would find kindred spirits with the Quakers of New York State, whom she met while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. They would offer her both moral and financial support.
On March 30, 1861, she would write a letter to the Friends Intelligencer. It is a longer quote but I feel it shows her passion and skill as a writer. She states quote:
“It is only me and my family that are cast away from my own people. I have always heard Canada was a free country; but it is only for some, but not for the Aborigines of America. If the Indian Department and Government do not consider the Indians of my country to be goods and chattels, why not allow them to purchase? And still they say Canada is a free country.
I am an Indian; the blood of my forefathers runs in my veins, and I am not ashamed to own it; for my people were a noble race before the pale-faces came to possess their lands and home.”
The trip also happened while she was pregnant with her seventh child, who was born in England.
On June 19, 1860, Nahnee met with Queen Victoria, hoping to clarify the dignified nature of her people, and stating they should have right to legally own their land and observe their cultural customs.
Queen Victoria would write in her diary quote:
“She is of the yellow colour of the American Indians, with black hair and was dressed in a strange European dress with a coloured shawl and straw hat with feathers. She speaks English quite well and is come on behalf of her tribe to petition against some grievance as regards their land.”
There was doubt in Canada whether Nahnee had obtained an audience with the Queen. It would not be until 100 years later, in 1960, that proof was shown in the published diary of Queen Victoria. James Croft, who at the time was writing a history of Owen Sound, wrote to England to see if proof of the meeting existed. The reply he received confirmed that she had met the Queen. He also added that the visit to the Georgian Bay of Prince Albert soon after was not related to the petition brought forward by Nahnee.
On July 4, 1860, the London Times wrote quote:
“The memorial which Mrs. Sutton presented to the Duke of Newcastle, clearly illustrates her case, and shows, that according to existing laws and useages, the lands of the Indians are held by tribal, and not by individual tenure, so that if the chiefs and a few of the people can be gained over, by whatever means, the whole of the lands reserved as a home for their tribe may be taken even from under the feet of those who do not consent.”
The meeting would be somewhat successful. Nahnee and her husband were able to buy back their land, but other Indigenous who wanted to buy back land did not receive the same benefit. As well, Nahnee was not allowed to buy the land, only her husband could do that.
Even with her land, she continued to be an Indigenous activist and would advise other Indigenous bands on their political rights. She would also create documentation for them so they could file grievances with the government.
In 1864, Nahnee gave birth to her last child and her health began to decline.
In September 1865, she passed away after an asthma attack. She was only 41. She would be buried on her property, in the garden she spent so much time in.
Charles Julyan, a neighbour of Nahnee wrote in 1871 quote:
“I truly affirm that she was one of the really sincere Christians I have ever been privileged to meet in the course of my life. As the custom here is I, in common with my neighbours, attended the funeral, and at her own request was interred on her own garden.”
William would continue to live on the farm for several decades and would never marry again.
In 1998, Nahnee came back into the national consciousness when there were plans by a Toronto businessman to develop the area where she was buried into upscale homes, a golf course, marina and tennis courts. Developers stated that they would preserve the gravesite and provide public access to it as previous landowners have done. In 2009, a new memorial site was built around her grave, which had been in disrepair for several years.
In July 2021, Nahnee was recognized as a person of National Historic Significance. Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, Heritage Mississauga, Wikipedia, Manitoulin, Grey Roots, Owen Sun Times, National Post,
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