Bicultural Before There Was a Word for It

The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft
Edited by Robert Dale Parker
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007, 292 pp., $34.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Margaret Noori

Nidaanisens e / My little daughter

Nigwizisens e / My little son

Ishe naganagwaa / I leave them far behind

Waasawekamig / A faraway place

Endanakiiyaan / My homeland

Zhigwa gosha win / Now

Beshowad e we / It is near

Ninzhike we ya / I am alone

Ishe izhayaan / As I go

Endanakiiyaan / My homeland

These lines, penned by Jane Johnston Schoolcraft in 1839, chill my heart each time I read them. Schoolcraft wrote this poem after taking her children to a faraway, government-run boarding school, the only educational option for American Indians at that time. At these schools, physical and sexual abuse were often added to the already heinous process of extinguishing the children’s indigneous languages. Schoolcraft’s poem is a bit less iambic than the standards of her time, yet far more musical than many, which fall hard onto a page as the writer renders emotion into language. Although Schoolcraft could write eloquent English, she sometimes gathered her thoughts in Ojibwe, creating a pattern of repetition that echoes hand-drum songs still heard today.

Her words are powerful and worthy of recognition, and The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky is a complete, thorough introduction to her life and work. Edited by Robert Parker, an experienced and respected scholar of Native American literature, the book is about one-third biography, one-third texts, and one-third notes. The biography is necessary to fully explain why so many of her works remained unpublished, while the notes evoke the poems’ layers of meaning. In context, the lasting value of Schoolcraft’s writing becomes clear.

Born in 1800, Jane Johnston, later Mrs. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, was originally named Baamewaawaagizhigokwe—“a woman who moves, making sound in the heavens” in Ojibwe. She had two older brothers, two younger brothers, and three younger sisters. The family spoke Ojibwe, French, and English, and were part of the ruling elite of the area where she grew up. Her oldest brother, Lewis, fought for the British in the War of 1812, and the family home was burned by Americans in 1814. She saw the transfer of her homeland from the French to the British and finally to the young government of the United States. In 1837, she witnessed the creation of the state of Michigan, which surrounds the tribal land of her people. She died young, in 1842.

Schoolcraft is both the first American Indian poet known to have written in English and the first to write in her indigenous language. Schoolcraft is to the American Indian literary canon what Anne Bradstreet is to the broader American literary canon. Although Bradstreet lived 200 years before Schoolcraft, both women employed a style made popular by the male writers of their time, yet focused on the experiences of the women and families they knew. She can be compared as well to the African American poet Phillis Wheatley, who was one of the first to ask readers from outside her minority community to consider her subjects from the perspective of one within it. Although Schoolcraft’s husband’s memoirs refer to her as “a northern Pocahontas,” she was much more than a society wife, more than a nineteenth-century “poetess,” more than a translator of Indian lore. She was an artful editor, playful reader, and a writer whose work is as complicated as the times in which she lived. She can also be read as an early American ethnographer, an Ojibwe storyteller, an English poet, a wife and mother in love, and a woman who eventually relied on laudanum to dull the pain of reality.

There are many ways to know her, but my guess is that she would have preferred to introduce herself by explaining her relationships to others, as Parker does in this volume. Her poem, “Invocation to My Maternal Grandfather, Wabojeeg, on Hearing his Descent Misrepresented” is an excellent example of how he handles his task as editor. He includes three versions of the poem as well as notes on the process he used to decipher and date the manuscripts, including detail about significant words that were crossed out. Through the edits, readers can witness the creation of a stereotype. A version of the poem in Schoolcraft’s handwriting describes Wabojeeg as a man taking his rightful place in the universe and in tribal memory:

Can the warrior forget how sublimely you rose?

Like a star in the west,

when the sun’s sunk to rest,

That shines in bright splendour to dazzle our foes?

In a later version, found with other work edited by her husband after her death, Wabojeeg carries weapons and spreads fear:

When the war cloud hung black, o’er the plains of the west,

And tribe after tribe, on your hunting grounds prest,

When the false Outagami, leagued with our foes,

And panic and dread spread round, til you rose

Like a star in the West, and with weapon in hand,

Drove dauntless and reckless the foe from the land.

The West in the first version is close to the Ojibwe concept of it as the place where the afterlife begins. In the second version, the West is a place of battle against human enemies such as the “false Outagami.” The later version also mentions a “war bonnet” and “war trophies”—although Wabojeeg was famous for his ability to avoid war with the aggressive traders who came to hunt on his grounds. In one manuscript the word “warlike” is crossed out, which gives Parker the opportunity not to assign blame, but to explain how it is impossible to know with certainty which changes were made or authorized by Schoolcraft. The issues of racism, ethnicity, manifest destiny, and history are all evident in the poems. As readers learn who Schoolcraft was, they also learn about the limits she faced.

Schoolcraft’s mother was Ozhaagaskodewekwe, an Ojibwe storyteller and businesswoman whose English name was Susan Johnston. Several of the stories in this volume are Schoolcraft’s transcriptions and translations of her mother’s tales from the oral tradition. Schoolcraft’s version of “Peboan and Seegwun” (“Winter and Spring”) was published by her husband after her death and eventually adapted by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who made it part of his well-known epic, “Hiawatha.” Thus, Parker demonstrates how oral traditions and literacy collided. Ancient stories that did not belong to anyone were embedded by others in their written documents. As the United States was taking land, its poets were taking topics. The colonial impulse was not limited to tangible assets.

Schoolcraft knew this well. Her father, John Johnston (1762 – 1828), was born in Ireland and came to the northern frontier to make his fortune as a trader. Although the Northwest Company discouraged marriages between white traders and Native women, and finally outlawed them in 1806, the union between Jane’s parents was similar to many others at the time. Johnston took advantage of his inlaws’ connections and community prestige to solidify his trading networks. Although he was a business man, he was also a parent concerned with his children’s education. It was he who taught her to read and took her visit to Ireland and England at the age of nine, and she wrote that it was in her “father’s hall” that she read Horace, Virgil, Milton, Ovid, Shakespeare, and other works from the Western canon. As an adult, she spoke for many others whose backgrounds were of two worlds. She did not assimilate but rather is an early model of indigenous resistance and bicultural literacy.

One of the poems included in the new collection is dedicated to a nameless set of “sisters” and calls to mind both Anishanaabe and European traditions.

Come, sisters come! The shower’s past,

The garden walks are drying fast,

The Sun’s bright beams are seen again,

And nought within, can now detain.

The description is reminiscent of gardens in the works of John Milton, George Herbert, and Lord Byron among others. However, it is more than that. In Anishinaabe [“First People,” the Ojibwes’ term for themselves] literature, there is a familiar motif of fours sisters who rise with the dew and walk out in each direction, caressing Mother Earth and beginning a new day. Jane, herself the eldest of four sisters, writes about a garden that is not a paradise to be dominated, but rather a place of balance between sun and rain, and fire and water—the male and female images of Anishinaabe tradition. Her landscape is an indigenous North American one.

Jane was known to many as a poet and storyteller. However, as Parker makes clear, her talents were subsumed within her marriage to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the first US Indian Agent in Michigan Territory. His initial mission was to explore the Great Lakes and control the behavior of the Ojibwe. Although in society’s eyes, he was the dominant one in their relationship, Parker invites readers to see Jane as Henry’s intellectual equal. She writes of herself as a woman “inspired by ardent Love’s extatic [sic] glow,” who longs for her husband, calling him her “dearest friend.” Their union led to her four pregnancies between 1824 and 1829. William, born in 1824, succumbed to the croup in 1827. A second child was stillborn in 1825. Jane Schoolcraft’s two surviving children were Jane (born in 1827) and John (born in 1829). With Henry often away from home, Jane, unsurprisingly, became unbearably tired in the 1830s. Carrying four children, losing two, and raising two who were only two years apart is quite a feat for a woman in any age. Parker shows how Jane used both cultures to record her emotions in her unpublished manuscripts. Early in the marriage, she wrote poems to Henry as he traveled the Mississippi, asking:

Dost thou in stillness of the night

By the planet’s silvery light

Breathe a pray’r—to the Spirit above

For thy wife, and thy child, my love.”

Although Irish, her husband would undoubtedly have recognized her allusion to KchiManitou, the Great Spirit, the primary Ojibwe God. A much more melancholy example of Jane’s cultural bilingualism is found in the numerous poems she wrote after Willy passed away. Parker compares her poem, “To My Ever Beloved and Lamented Son William Henry,” with a pattern that echoes around the refrain “My Willy” to “My Mother” by Ann Taylor (1782 – 1866), whose poem also centered around a repetition of the title. Jane writes about a mother’s love for her child in a way that mirrors Taylor’s description of a child’s love for a mother. These structural and thematic similarities may indicate that Jane sought examples in the writing of other women of the early 1800s. Most of all, she sought relief in writing, in placing images on the page that followed elegant English meter, yet that insisted on counting months by moons, the old Ojibwe way.

It is ironic that we have Henry Schoolcraft both to blame for suppressing, plagiarizing, and heavily editing Jane’s work and to thank for the texts that survived to this day. Jane’s short poem about sending her children to a far-off school appears on page 632 of Henry’s memoirs. He preserved the original draft intact, for which we can be thankful, but he then “translated” it, exoticized it, cast it in a more patriotic light—imposed his will on it in every way. What Henry Schoolcraft did to his wife’s poem is what literary critics, ethnographers, and anthropologists have often done to early Native American literature. Thank heavens Robert Parker has finally come along with this new, unbowdlerized volume of Jane Schoolcraft’s work, which “brings before the public for the first time,” he explains in his introduction “Schoolcraft’s remarkable body of writing and the fascinating story of her life and work.”

Margaret Noori teaches Ojibwe and Anishinaabe Literature at the University of Michigan and often visits other nations and language conferences to speak about language revitalization. For more information about the language and to hear a song based on a Jane Schoolcraft poem, visit Most importantly, Noori is a part of a busy and happy bilingual household in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which includes her husband, Asmat, and daughters Shannon and Fionna.

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