“She Could Look Into the Heavens”: Ojibwe Poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division.

“You are a story fed by generations

You carry songs of grief, triumph

Thankfulness and joy. . .”

—Joy Harjo, “Prepare” from Poet Warrior (p. 3)

Bilingual Anishinaabe poet and writer Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (1800-1842) is known as the first major Native American woman writer in English. Throughout her life she bridged worlds—or moved within one complex world—in culture, language, and heritage; oral and written expression; and in orientation to Earth and Sky. At her birth she was given the Ojibwe name Bamewawagezhikaquay (woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky), and she developed as a girl the ability to “read” and interpret ancestral stories from the constellations.

In an unpublished draft manuscript in which he wrote of his wife, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft recalled that the “legends and verbal traditionary lodge-lore of the forest, had filled her young mind with the fictions of the Indian mythology, which cover the whole aerial space of the heavens. . . .  She could look, into the heavens, & into the bright tracery of its stars & clouds, & read in them the sublime pictography of the wise men & sages of her forest ancestry.”

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, “Dawn of Literary Composition,” draft mss., c. 1850s. Schoolcraft Papers, Manuscript Division.

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft was born to a prominent family in the largely Ojibwe fur trading village of Sault Ste. Marie, by the St. Mary’s River and Lake Superior, in Michigan’s northern Upper Peninsula. The Library of Congress Manuscript Division is home to the papers of her husband—the writer, ethnographer, and Indian Affairs administrator Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who married Jane Johnston in 1823, soon after he became a boarder in her family’s home when he worked as an Indian agent in Michigan Territory.

The collection includes letters, drafts of poems, and other writings by Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, as well as literary and linguistic work she did in collaboration with her husband and her family members, including the (in parts) bilingual hand-written and hand-copied literary manuscript magazine Muzziniegun (or Muzzeniegun)/The Literary Voyager she and Henry produced and distributed together in the long winter of 1826-27.

Manuscript magazine draft, Muz-zi-ni-e-gun/The Literary Voyager, March 1827. Schoolcraft Papers, Manuscript Division.

The papers also contain manuscript drafts of stories and fables taken from Ojibwe oral tradition that Jane and her family members recollected, or that were collected and transcribed and translated from the field from the storytelling of other Native American people they knew. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft reused some of these legends in edited form in his ill-named publication Algic Researches (1839). Among the collected tales were creation stories that reached across ancestral time to a time before time, or told of the beginnings of certain birds, flowers, and the life-giving corn. “Mon-daw-min, The Origin of Indian Corn; or Corn Story,” a collected tale used in Algic Researches, inspired a section of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha.”

“Mon-daw-min, The Origin of Indian Corn,” draft mss. Schoolcraft Papers, Manuscript Division.

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft moved within overlapping linguistic and cultural worlds—that of her mother’s Ojibwe (Ojibwa, Ojibway, Chippewa) culture and language and kinship network, and that of her father’s Scots-Irish heritage, and of the English-Ojibwe-French Canadian polyglot of their region, where First Nations and Native American, Canadian and United States territories intersected and entwined.

Her mother Ozhaguscodaywayquay (Susan Johnston) was from what is now northern Wisconsin; she was the daughter of the eloquent story-telling Chippewa leader Waubojeeg (Wabojeeg). Through her mother, Schoolcraft gained a deep spoken/heard knowledge of Ojibwe vocabulary and stories.

Manuscript map, Wisconsin, when part of Michigan Territory, annotated by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, 1831. Schoolcraft Papers, Manuscript Division.

From her fur-trading father John Johnson’s lifelong-learning library and the brief time she spent studying as a girl in his native Ireland in 1809, Schoolcraft gained book learning and a love of Shakespeare and the English poets. And from both parents came an immersion in the settler colonial legacy of the Christian faith and the Bible, and piety as a thread in her poems.

Jane and Henry courted like soulmates with ecstasy and affection, and sentiments of romantic love are reflected in her writing of the period (see “To Henry”). But once married and a young mother, she found herself occupying a different gendered world from her husband: Her confinement to a private domestic sphere of house, village, crib, and garden while he traveled in his territorial duties and moved freely through the public sphere of administration and politics soon began to chafe.

Schoolcraft made frequent use of loneliness, alienation, and longing as tropes in her poems (see “Pensive Hours”: “The sun had sunk like a glowing ball,/ As lonely I sat in my father’s hall,” Schoolcraft Papers, Container 70). But she also wrote with wit and humor, faith and joy. She is among our first nature writers, linking her at times in style or theme with poets such as Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver. She created poems of female friendship (see “Lines to a Friend Asleep” and “By an Ojibwa Female Pen”—“Come sisters come! The shower’s past,/ The garden walks are drying fast,’ Schoolcraft Papers, Container 70) and sang in her poems of the glory of the natural world (“On Meditation,” “Sweet meditation now be mine—/ The sun has sunk—the stars do shine,” Schoolcraft Papers, Container 70).

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, “On Meditation,” excerpt, draft mss. Schoolcraft Papers, Manuscript Division.

Personal grief entered her poetry upon the death of her beloved toddler son Willie (William Henry Schoolcraft), who succumbed swiftly to a sudden illness in March 1827 (see “Elegy,” “Sweet Willy,” “To My Ever Beloved Lamented Son William Henry”). Such sorrow was a feeling shared by many other women in an era of high child mortality, but death due to illnesses for which there was no developed immunity was historically devastating to Native communities. Depression, grief, and loss as well as happiness and hope became the chiaroscuro of her poetry.

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, “To my ever beloved and lamented son William Henry,” with its repeated refrain, “Sweet Willy.” Schoolcraft Papers, Manuscript Division.

Alienation and removal reappeared as themes when she was separated from her other children, who were sent away against her wishes to be Anglicized in an Eastern boarding school. Her poem “On leaving my children John and Jane at School in the Atlantic states, and preparing to return to the interior,” written in New York in March 1839, begins its lament in Ojibwe and then commences in English. In this poem, too, are two worlds—the one of her Ojibwe sense of place and the wonderment of woods and sky and water; the other of Euromerican dominated cities and the anti-Indigenous racism of Eastern seaboard society, wherein schools and books, like her own husband in his administrative policies and published works, propagated ideas of vanishing races and the ethnographic hierarchies of civilizations.

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, “The O-jib-way Maid,” meant to be sung. Schoolcraft Papers, Manuscript Division.

In the course of separations and losses, Schoolcraft became addicted to laudanum (tincture of opium), the 19th-century opiate for pain both physical and emotional that Euromerican doctors prescribed copiously to women. She died suddenly at the age of 42, while sitting in a chair in what had been dubbed the New World (but which was in actuality old to time immemorial), while visiting her sister in Dundas, Canada. She was separated, as she so often had been, from her husband, who was away on a tour of the Old World of England and Europe.

Schoolcraft in her short, bright, meteoric life span and writing career was like a rush of falling stars streaking through the sky. But she was equally akin to the astronomical night sky that remains visible for us in seasons and continues to tell ancestral stories.

Bamewawagezhikaquay stands, with Phillis Wheatley and Anne Bradstreet, at the foundation of American women’s poetry. Schoolcraft was “rediscovered” (for those who had forgotten or never knew) as a woman writer during the renaissance of feminist literary revivalism of the 1980s. Thanks to heightened advocacy for and inclusion of Native voices, her work is increasingly read in classrooms and included in poetry anthologies, and she is part of the ever-growing recognition of Native American poets of all Native nations and regions of the country.

As a poet, Schoolcraft wrote of nature and motherhood, of the ever-green of the pine trees of her mother land (“To the Pine Tree”). The themes in her poetry have not died away. She is the poetical foremother to contemporary living Anishinaabe poets of various tribal nation affiliations. Among these are b: william bearhart, Kimberly Blaeser, Linda Legarde Grover, Gordon Henry, Jr., Jim Northrup, Marcie Rendon, Denise Sweet, and Gerald Vizenor.

These poets have all been recently anthologized, along with Schoolcraft and many others, in the Norton poetry anthology When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, edited by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, with Leanne Howe and Jennifer Elise Foerster and contributing editors. You can hear audio recordings created by some of these poets as part of Joy Harjo’s “Living Nations, Living Words” poet laureate project, which features an audio poetry collection and interactive ArcGIS story map. The project celebrates the work of select Anishinaabe poets and those of other Native heritages from regions across the country.

Anishinaabe-White Earth Nation poet Marcie Rendon, c. 2020. Library of Congress, “Living Nations, Living Words.” 

 

Anishinaabe-White Earth Nation poet Kimberly Blaeser, c. 2020. Library of Congress, “Living Nations, Living Words.” 

When we hear contemporary Anishinaabe poets read or recite poetry aloud and share their voices, we can feel in the process the essence of Bamewawagezhikaquay and her mother before her. We feel it when poet Denise Sweet of the White Earth Nation writes, “while stars unlock at dawn, anonymous as the speed of light” (When the Light of the World, p. 60) or Al Hunter of the Rising River First Nations extends the invitation in “Prayer Bowl” to “join us in this world/ And to the world beyond our sleep” (When the Light of the World, p. 81). She is there when the incomparable Kiowa poet and novelist N. Scott Momaday writes in dedication, “I could/ Articulate the night sky, had I words” (“Prayer for Words,” p. vii).

Read/Hear/See More About It:

  • “Do stars make sounds?” EarthSky: Updates on your cosmos and world. https://earthsky.org/space/do-stars-make-sounds/
  • Harjo, Joy. Poet Warrior: A Memoir. W. W. Norton & Co., 2021.
  • The Henry Rowe Schoolcraft Papers collection in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress is available on microfilm and through the Gale Indigenous Peoples—North America Archive proprietary electronic resource, which can be accessed on site at the Library.
  • The Literary Voyager; or Muzzeniegun. Edited with an introduction by Philip P. Mason. Michigan State University Press, 1962. A reissue of no. 1-15 (Dec. 1826-Apr. 11, 1827) of the manuscript magazine, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Electronic copy from HathiTrust, http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/003109074 
  • Living Nations, Living Words.” Created in 2020 by Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, this Library of Congress project features an interactive story map and an online audio collection.
  • Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry. Collected with an introduction by Joy Harjo. W. W. Norton & Co. and the Library of Congress, [2021].
  • U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.” Library of Congress event in celebration of Native American Heritage Month. Nov. 1, 2021.
  • Maryboy, Nancy C. and David Begay. Sharing the Skies: Navajo Astronomy. Indigenous Education Institute, 2005.
  • The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft. Edited with an introduction by Robert Dale Parker. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
  • Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Algic Researches, Comprising Inquiries Respecting the Mental Characteristics of the North American Indians: Indian Tales and Legends. 2 vols. New York: Harper & Bros., 1839.
  • When the Light of the World was Subdued Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. Edited by Joy Harjo, with Leanne Howe, Jennifer Elise Foerster, and contributing editors. W. W. Norton & Co., 2020.

2 Comments

  1. Shirl
    November 8, 2021 at 11:22 am

    So interesting. And inspiring. Makes me want to write. And see. And learn.

  2. lentigogirl
    November 9, 2021 at 11:32 am

    What a powerful poetic evocation of her work and life. Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky indeed. Thank you!

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