Nahneebahweequay—a woman of courage and tenacity—was born in 1824 to the Mississaugas of the Anishinaabe First Nation. Her name means upright woman. She became an activist for Indigenous land rights with her feet planted firmly in both her native heritage and the English world in which she was known as Catherine Sutton. Her fight for justice led her to meet with Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace.
Raised in a Methodist community along the Credit River (present day Mississauga, Ontario), Nahneebahweequay’s family suffered the negative impacts of colonialism, namely alterations to the environment and newly introduced illnesses. In 1837, she accompanied her British aunt (wife of Ojibwe Methodist minister, Peter Jones) on a year long trip to England. Once returned to Canada at age fourteen, she married English shoemaker, William Sutton. Because of the government’s increased pressure on the Mississaugas to relinquish their land, the Suttons and their children left for Owen Sound where they were assigned 200 acres by the Anishinaabe First Nation band. The family continued in the Methodist faith and established an operating farm. In 1857, select band members gave up an enormous tract of land which—included the Sutton farm—and the government moved forward with plans to sell the property.
When Naneebahweequay attempted to buy the farm back, she found herself locked in battle with the officials because native people were prohibited from purchasing their ceded land.
Nahneebahweequay, a model of Anishnaabe leadership and dressed in European style, was appointed by the General Indian Council as their representative. With the financial backing of Quakers from New York City, she travelled to England in hopes that a meeting with Queen Victoria might bring justice to the land dispute.
In her book Travellers Through Empire: Indigenous Voyages from Early Canada, Celia Hagg-Brown quotes Nahneebahweequay’s speech made in London, England (1860). “When I wanted to buy my home, they took me for an Indian, and said I was an Indian: I could not buy. And when I applied as an Indian for payment, they said I was a white woman, because I was married to a white man, and so you can see they can turn the thing whichever way they have a mind to just to suit their cause.” Soon after meeting the Queen, she remarkably gave birth to her sixth child, delivered a speech in Liverpool, then sailed back to Canada and rode a train back to Owen Sound.
After being denied the Crown’s support, Nahneebahweequay wrote in a letter to the Friends Intelligencer (May 1961) that she hoped she “need never again carry the poor Indian’s petition; and when the white man that now holds his sway over the poor Indian will have to give an account, as well as the poor Indian, to his Maker. Now he feels strong; in the work, they have the unlimited control of all the Indian’s funds, and disburse or withhold as they please; but God has said vengeance is mine.”
Nahneebahweequay continued to speak out against the government’s attempts to purchase First Nation land for the benefit of new settlers. She criticized the tactics used against Indigenous people as “wholesale robbery, wrong and insult from those placed in authority over them”.
In the autumn of 1865, Nahneebahweequay succumbed to a lengthy illness. She was survived by her husband and seven children. Although unable to achieve her dream and reclaim her land, she left behind a legacy of activism that still inspires today.
Photo courtesy of The Grey Roots Archival Collection
Nahneebahweequay’s full letter to the Friends Intelligencer is available at: Nahneebahweequay – Standing up to Colonial Injustice | Grey Roots.
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