Introducing the Papers of Rev. Sela G. Wright, 1816-1906
at the Oberlin College Archives
Dr. Anton Treuer, Professor of Ojibwe, Bemidji State University
Anna C. Gibbs, Tribal Elder and Spiritual Leader, Red Lake Nation
From 1843 until 1862, Sela G. Wright spent most of his time in Minnesota at the Ojibwe communities around Leech Lake and Red Lake before any land there was ceded to the U.S. government and throughout the establishment of the reservations at Leech Lake and Winnibigoshish in 1855. Wright was in many ways a typical missionary. He was interested in converting the Ojibwe to Christianity and documenting elements of Ojibwe culture that would provide a natural segue for his effort. He was also wanted to advance knowledge of the Ojibwe language in order to conduct missionary work in the native tongue and accelerate the rate of conversion. Wright also studied linguistics and saw his work as a contribution to the academic discipline. Wright took care to work with the linguistic field prototypes developed by Wesley Powell and others. Even today, Wright's field notes, vocabulary lists, and grammatical sketch of the Ojibwe language stand as a major contribution to the field of linguistics. Although it was not his primary concern or intention, Wright's correspondence, field notes, and grammar work also serve as instruments of lasting value to historians of the Ojibwe and to those who continue to strive for the revitalization of Ojibwe language and culture.
Other early missionaries, explorers, and scholars of the Ojibwe people studied the tribal language. William Jones, George Copway, William Warren, Frederic Baraga, Henry Schoolcraft, and Josselin DeJong mark some of the most well known contributors to early documentation of Ojibwe. Recent scholarship by John Nichols, Earl Otchingwanigan, Charles Fiero, Rand Valentine, Anton Treuer and others has done much to expand upon and deepen the work of early missionaries and scholars. Much of the grammar work done by Sela Wright has been done by others. There is, however, a fair amount of material in these papers that can only be found in these papers, and they mark an invaluable contribution to the language. At least 15% of the words on Wright's lists is very rare, and sometime unavailable elsewhere in the published record. Fluent Ojibwe first speaker Anna Gibbs of Red Lake (where Wright worked for many years) had her own memory sparked by some of the terms for birds and parts of fish.