Wisconsin’s first Ojibwe activist, priest is topic in new biography

New biography published this month
Wisconsin’s first Ojibwe activist, priest is topic in new biography
Cover of the book (left) and Tadeusz Lewandowski, the author (right)

Nicknamed “Wisconsin’s fighting priest” for his campaigns on behalf of fellow Native people during the first half of the 20th century, Philip Bergin Gordon above all believed in his mission to spread Catholicism. Gordon’s birth name, Tibishkogijik, roughly translated from Ojibwe, means “looking into the sky.”

A new biography — “Ojibwe, Activist, Priest: The Life of Father Philip Bergin Gordon, Tibishkogijik” by Tadeusz Lewandowski and published this month by the University of Wisconsin Press – illuminates a little-known figure with a mixed legacy in the history of Indian self-determination, according to the author.

Gordon was born in 1885 in northern Ashland County to an Ojibwe mother and an Ojibwe-French father who both became tribal members on the Bad River Reservation. In December 1913 at the age of 28, Gordon became the first indigenous person to be ordained a Catholic priest on U.S. soil. As a reservation priest, he witnessed rampant poverty, illness and starvation.

With other members of the Society of American Indians, Gordon spent many years demanding an end to the reservation system and abolishment of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs which he believed was corrupt, made Native people dependent on federal management and denied tribal members their rights to practice their cultural traditions.

While the BIA endured, Gordon continued to push for assimilation of Native people in American society. Gordon’s friend, Wisconsin Sen. Robert LaFollette, would help rewrite a bill to grant Native people citizenship. And in 1924, President Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act into law.

But Gordon came to be seen as a troublemaker. The Catholic Church would ultimately exile him to a rural non-Native parish near Centuria, Wisconsin, where he ministered for 24 years before dying in 1948 at the age of 63. He was buried in the family plot in Gordon, the small northern Wisconsin town named after his grandfather.