Published on September 1, 2013 by Amy
Andrew Jackson Blackbird (ca. 1814-7 September 1908) was an “Odawa” Ottawa tribe leader and historian. He was author of the 1887 book, History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan.
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Blackbird was born in the L’Arbre Croche area of Michigan (now Harbor Springs) around 1815. At least one account, though, places this date as late as 1821. His father was an Ottawa chief named Mack-e-te-be-nessy (Makade-binesi, “black hawk”). The name was mistranslated first by the French and from French to English as “Blackbird”, which became the family’s English name. Mack-e-te-be-nessy was chief of the Arbor Croche or Middle Village band. Mack-e-te-be-nessy was stranded on a small island by white traders he was helping, and was left to die. Although his father survived, this cruelty left a strong impression on his son. The death of his brother, William, in Rome, Italy on June 25, 1833, under suspicious circumstances as he was completing his studies for the Roman Catholic priesthood, left an indelible impression on Andrew and perhaps was the source of his intense antipathy for that religion from then on.
Blackbird frequently bemoaned his limited formal education. Because his father was a chief, Blackbird was solidly educated in traditional Ottawa culture and practices.
Blackbird was baptized a Roman Catholic by a priest called Father Baden in 1825, but later converted to Protestantism. He served as interpreter at the Protestant mission in L’Arbre Croche. Even though he was a Christian, he knew the traditional Ottawa religious beliefs well.
Blackbird was trained as a blacksmith at mission schools in the L’Arbre Croche area. He studied for four years at Twinsburg Institute in Twinsburg in Summit County, Ohio, but left without graduating. In 1850 his elderly father’s health worsened. This forced Blackbird to leave school and return home to assist the old chief. Later he attended Eastern Michigan University (then called Michigan State Normal School) in Ypsilanti, Michigan, for two years, but again did not graduate. In June 1858 Blackbird wrote his Twinsburg Institute mentor Rev. Samuel Bissell: “…I continue to attend the State Normal School at Ypsilanti, but am getting somewhat discouraged as to ever being perfect in the knowledge of English Language. I have begun rather too late of attending those things. I shall always speak__indistinctly__ungrammatically__for being so deeply rooted or stained with my own language….I have begun a grammar in the Indian tongue__intended to write it upon the same plan in which our first books in Latin and Greek are written…And this I thought would be about as good that I can do for them, since I cannot personally do good among them, so at least, they can have my writings if not prohibited by their Priests…The last I heard of my father were still living but very old and feeble…Our school is let out on the 25th of July__and vacation will last 10 or 11 weeks. I should like to have gone to visit my people but I am considerable in debt, therefore I will have to work out somewheres here during the time, in order to pay up my debts.”
Blackbird was loyal to the United States during various uprisings. In 1858 Blackbird married Elizabeth Margaret Fish, a white woman of English descent. As a result, he was viewed favorably by the United States.
By the 1850s, Blackbird had become a counselor for both sides between the United States government and the Ottawa and Ojibwa peoples. Blackbird helped veterans of the United States who were Native Americans receive their pensions. He also assisted in settling land claims. During this time, Blackbird strongly advocated that citizenship be granted to the Ottawa and other Native Americans.
When the “Treaty With The Ottawa and Chippewa” was signed on July 31, 1855, Blackbird served as an interpreter, translator and official witness.
In 1858, Blackbird bought a house in Harbor Springs, Michigan, and settled there permanently. At the time, Harbor Springs was still primarily populated by Ottawas. Blackbird became the town’s postmaster.
In 1887, Blackbird published his History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan. The work was published in Ypsilanti, Michigan, by the Ypsilantian Job Printing House. The book was among the first authoritative accounts of the Ottawa and Ojibwa (Chippewa) peoples ever published.
The book covers not only historical facts, but day-to-day details of how the Ottawa and Ojibwa hunted, fished and trapped before the coming of the whites. Blackbird explains many of the traditional beliefs and cultural practices of the two tribes. Because the author was himself a Native American, the book is free of the bias commonly found in books by white authors of the period.
Finally, the book includes a basic grammar of the Ottawa and Ojibwa languages.
The Andrew J. Blackbird House in Harbor Springs, Michigan, is a museum of American Indian artifacts presented in the house in which Blackbird lived from 1858 until his death in 1908. There is a Michigan State Historical Marker at the site and the house itself is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.