Catherine Denial is the Bright Professor of American History and the chair of the history department at Knox College. Her current research examines the early nineteenth-century experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing in upper midwestern Ojibwe and missionary cultures. By analyzing oral tradition, Ojibwe pharmacological knowledge, and the documents left by traders, missionaries, and government officials, she explores the differences between each cultural group’s ideas about infancy and childhood. These differences add to our understanding of why the Ojibwe so firmly rejected the practices of the missionaries through 1850: to Ojibwe eyes, the missionaries practiced something close to child abuse. This research is an outgrowth of her book, Making Marriage: Husbands, Wives, and the American State in Dakota and Ojibwe Country (2013), which focuses on marriage as a means of understanding gender, sexuality, race, and nation building in the upper Midwest. Through the stories of married, and divorcing, men and women in the region, Denial traces the uneven fortunes of American expansion in the early nineteenth century and the nation-shaping power of marital acts A first-generation college student and former director of SPARK, Knox College’s summer bridge program, Denial currently directs the college's Bright Institute, a program that supports fourteen faculty from liberal arts schools across the United States in their teaching and research. She is a member of the Educational Advisory Committee of the Digital Public Library of America and the winner of the 2018 Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award from the American Historical Association.
In 1840, Margaret McCoy, an Ojibwe woman, and her American husband, Joseph Brown, were divorced by an act of the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature. The avowed cause of the divorce was the “hostile incursion of Sioux Indians” against the couple – a cause that did not meet the legislative or judicial standards for divorce in the region. This lecture explores this divorce and the snapshot of a northern borderland engaged in tumultuous change it provides.