From our colonized point of view, we as twenty-first-century readers might make the assumption that Native American poetry in the nineteenth century was all but non-existent; white, anti-indigenous leaders of this time period certainly treated all native peoples like they were invisible. However, many scholars have proven otherwise: the spirit of natives lives on, and part of this spirit is preserved in poetry. One of the rare poets to write both in English and her native language of Ojibwe, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft preserved her native tongue while accurately portraying the Native American community and women’s lives through her poetry and translations. Schoolcraft integrated herself into white culture while maintaining her native identity by writing bilingually. Schoolcraft is of modern interest due to the intersectional overlap of her womanhood, her native identity, and her place in the literary world of the nineteenth century.
To fully understand Jane Johnston’s contributions to nineteenth century society, as she is “credited as being one of the first known American Indian Literary writers,” we must first pause to understand the context of her life, specifically the status of Native Americans and women in this time period. Schoolcraft was born in 1800 and died in 1842, so I will focus on this time period specifically (Johnson 223). Native Americans were pressured by social convention and physical violence to conform to mainstream American culture during this century. Linda Hogan’s article, titled “The 19th Century Native American Poets,” details many historical and cultural contexts that were pertinent to prominent Native American poets during the nineteenth century; these poets included Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, E. Pauline Johnson, Alexander Posey, John Rollin Ridge, and Gertrude Bonnin. All of these native writers were affected by the federal government’s involvement in tribal matters, and all of them were “children of intermarried parents,” a practice that easily absorbed natives into white culture (Hogan 24). The intermarriage of these writers’ parents gave them access to both Native culture and white culture, including tools to become literate in both contexts. In addition to being absorbed by white culture, Native Americans were repeatedly removed from their homelands by whites. Repeated removals occurred in the 1830s and 1840s, and Native peoples were constantly affected by “relentless white hunger for” their land, as they were pushed from “one promised refuge to another” (Parker 37-38). Native Americans traditionally practiced an oral culture, and these “oral histories can be seen as a counter-narrative to the Western historical tradition” (Kidwell 8). By adopting written language, then, Native American poets were committing an act of conversion by adopting the European poetic form and abandoning the Native oral form. By writing poetry, no matter how non-conforming, natives were conforming.
In addition to conforming to white culture, Native American woman poets also had to conform to female “tropes” such as the trope of the “Poetess” (Jackson 56-57). While defining the Poetess is difficult due to the fact that characterizing “all nineteenth-century women poets as Poetesses” causes us to “forget how many different kinds of poems” these women wrote, the Poetess can be defined as “the feminized figure of extravagant feeling that emerges when you are not sure what kind of poet or poem you are reading” (54-55). The extravagant feeling can be akin to sentimentality (64), and in addition to displaying these feelings, female poets were also forced to conform to appropriate subject matter. The expectations for female poetry conformed to the ideals of womanhood in this time period: lack of sexual desire and an infatuation with matters of the home in which the husband held the power.
Combine these two identities—Native American and female—and one can see that when a Native American Poetess put paper to pen, the constrictions were heavy and the societal implications of what she wrote were almost immeasurable. Yet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft was a master at conforming to white ideals of race and femininity while also “committing acts of authorial resistance” (Cavalier 99). She used her “double-voiced” identity to her advantage despite her limited opportunities (99). Almost all poems written by Native Americans from the nineteenth century were written in English, but Jane Johnston Schoolcraft was one of the rare poets to leave behind poems written in her native tongue (Parker 38). In addition to producing poetry in both languages, she also “transcribed and translated tales by individual Ojibwe oral storytellers as well as songs, letters, and speeches into English” (Johnson 224).
It is important to note the centrality of language in native culture to fully understand the importance of Schoolcraft’s writing in her native language. Clara Sue Kidwell asserts in the textbook Native American Studies that one of the five intellectual premises of Native American Studies is the significance of language. Tribal languages are viewed as the “main entrée into Native world views” and they “expre[ss] the idea of a specific way of seeing oneself in relation to all other things in the environment” (11-14). Without one’s native tongue, the native world-view is incomplete. From disease in colonial times killing off tribes and their languages, to current issues of language death resulting from the US government’s forcing of tribal children into English-speaking boarding schools in the 1970s, language preservation is integral to the preservation of tribal culture. Many critics have trouble interpreting Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s body of work due to the unorganized and unsigned manner of her personal papers, some of which were transcriptions of others’ work and some of which were her own (225). But Schoolcraft can be seen as an early language preservationist based on her transcriptions of different stories detailing tribal culture.
Specific influences surrounding Schoolcraft’s life both helped and hindered her in breaking free from her cultural restrictions. Schoolcraft’s husband, Henry Schoolcraft, hovered over his wife’s poetry, acting as an “editorial author over his wife’s” work and insisting that her work adhere to his belief in men’s “pedagogical authority over matters of proper female deportment” (Cavalier 102). Mr. Schoolcraft believed that his “ideal spouse must keep her appearance and intellect in check” (Cavalier 102). Cheri Johnson asserts in her biography of Jane Schoolcraft that Mr. Schoolcraft’s heavy influence over his wife’s work might be the reason that most of the poetry she wrote did not get published, making her literary history hard to trace (223).
In the early years of her marriage, Jane Schoolcraft adhered to her husband’s will. She fully “embraced the nineteenth-century Euro-American ‘cult of true womanhood’ ideology,” which worked in her favor when it came to her husband (Stone-Gordon 1). Even though she embraced this ideology, she still butted heads with her husband regarding his beliefs about native people. Her husband’s “strict adherence to sexist and racist principles” caused her horror later in her life, when she was addicted to opium and questioning her views on femininity (Stone-Gordon 4). Despite Henry Schoolcraft’s job as an Indian Agent and the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, he still adhered to what we now view as archaic ideologies of savagism concerning native peoples—ideologies that were becoming popular with the “expansionist-minded young nation.” Among Native Americans, he was viewed as “the architect of dishonorable dealings, false promises and eventually removal.” His wife was critical to his “ethnological work” among natives, although his work “perpetuated the stereotype of the savage” (Stone-Gordon1-3). While her husband’s work sought to instigate removal and destroy Native culture, however, Schoolcraft’s work sought to preserve and celebrate it. Even though Schoolcraft’s husband worked tirelessly to destroy the native way of life, Schoolcraft worked beneath him to preserve her culture, all while appearing as the perfect housewife.
Part of this spirit of feminism, camouflaged under the mask of a homemaker, can be seen in her mother’s life. Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s mother, named Oshauguscodawaqua, meaning “Woman of the Green Prairie,” was born in or around the year 1772 (Stone-Gordon 7-8). She was Native American, a warrior, and the daughter of an Ojibwe chief, Waubojeeg, who wanted to capitalize on the bustling fur trade in America by marrying off his daughter to a fur-trader. During this time period, “the absence of white women on the fur-trading frontier . . . promoted a great deal of interaction between European men and Native women” (Stone-Gordon 6-7). The marriage between Waubojeeg’s daughter and an Anglo-Irish fur-trader by the name of John Johnston would create economic ties between the fur-traders and the tribe. When Oshauguscodawaqua was given the news, she reacted with “heartfelt terror,” and on the first night of their marriage, she ran away from the home of John Johnston and retreated back to her parents’ home. She never learned to speak English, although she understood it perfectly—an act of defiance of her husband’s whiteness (Stone-Gordon 11-12). She gave Jane an Ojibwe name meaning “Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky” (Johnson 223). In her native tongue, her name is pronounced as Bamewawagezhikaquay (Stirrup 375).
While Schoolcraft’s mother’s defiance of the white man was outright, Schoolcraft herself covertly defied her husband while appearing to be the perfect housewife. She was well educated when she married; John Johnston was a good father to his children, even though by his wife’s behavior one might not assume that was so. He had an extensive library of British literature, and Schoolcraft’s exposure to this literature affected her poetry, which showed the influence of “Romantic sensibility and sentimentality at a young age” (Cavalier 100). Additionally, he was one of Jane’s only and earliest instructors, having instructed all of his eight children in English grammar, literature, and culture (Stone-Gorden 26). Schoolcraft’s father wanted nothing more than to have his children conform to white society, teaching them the mechanics to be able to thrive in it. On the other hand, Schoolcraft’s mother wanted nothing more than to have her children conform to Native society, and she instructed them in her native tongue. Her mother’s emphasis on Native American language is centralized in Schoolcraft’s bilingual poetry and translations.
During Schoolcraft’s lifetime, her work was first published as a result of her husband Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s position as editor of the publication The Literary Voyager from 1826-1827 (Stirrup 370). In his role of editor, Mr. Schoolcraft published numerous Ojibwe stories and poems without credit or attribution (Stirrup 374). One of Jane’s poems originally published in the Voyager and recovered in Robert Dale Parker’s The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft was written in Ojibwe and translated by her husband. Here is an excerpt:
Here we see another of Kidwell’s five intellectual premises of Native American Studies exemplified. Not only do we see the incorporation of Schoolcraft’s native language in the introduction of the poem, illustrating the significance of language, but we also see the significance of land highlighted by the poem’s subject matter. Land is significant to Native American Studies because “Indian cultures arise from the relationship of people with the land on which they live” (Kidwell 11). Not only is Schoolcraft exclaiming about the pine trees, describing them as a “lovely scene,” but she also takes the time to say that these trees are part of “my native land,” exemplifying how ties to one’s land are an integral part of native culture.
Shing wauk! Shing wauk! nin ge ik id,
The pine! the pine! I eager cried,
The pine, my father! see it stand,
As first that cherished tree I spied,
Returning to my native land.
The pine! the pine! oh lovely scene!
The pine that is forever green. (Sound 89–90)
We can see Schoolcraft’s double-voiced nature when we look at the English translation of her work, “The O-jib-way Maid.” The literal translation in Robert Dale Parker’s collection reads:
Not only do we see Schoolcraft discussing white and Native American relationships, but we also see her discuss the ability of whites to leave their Native wives after profiting from fur-trading ties with tribes. Leaving their wives to take care of their children alone was a common practice among fur-traders, as discussed in Stone-Gordon’s dissertation. Another common practice for Native Americans during this time was integrating themselves into white culture, and this is discussed as the male character “sees the young Ojibway Girl preparing to leave.” While her departure is sad—the implications of her departure are disheartening, as they were tied to anti-native laws passed by the federal government—the white man fails to fully sympathize with the native woman. This lack of sympathy from white culture towards native culture, along with the lack of full cultural understanding of intermarriage, caused tremendous troubles for native people, something that Schoolcraft sought to expose to mainstream America. In this poem, we see Schoolcraft fulfilling her role as sentimental Poetess while also exposing injustice against Native Americans. The rhetorical question in the beginning of the poem along with the emotionally charged rhetoric both contribute to a sentimental feeling. While conforming to a sentimentalist reading, this poem also illustrates injustices done to Native American women during the time period.
“Why! what’s the matter with the young American? He crosses the river with tears in his eyes! He sees the young Ojibway Girl preparing to leave the place: he sobs for his sweetheart, because she is going away! but he will not sigh long for her, for as soon as he sees her out of sight, he will forget her.” (Sound 201)
Schoolcraft’s intricate identities, and the way she adhered to strict cultural rules while also silently fighting oppression, make her of modern interest. In the twenty-first century, we are constantly discussing identity and paving the way for everyone to have freedom in their identity. We can see through Schoolcraft’s life in the 19th century how far we’ve come from the sexism and racism that she fought against by writing poetry. But we can also pause and see how things remain the same: we are still fighting sexism; we are still fighting for Native Americans’ rights. Her life illustrates a woman who conformed but broke free, right under her watchful husband’s nose. She chose to integrate into white culture while also segregating herself from it, choosing her tribe and her land. Her life is full of dichotomies and seeming contradictions: she adhered to the cult of true womanhood, yet she quietly opposed her husband’s racist views by truthfully and accurately describing tribal life and culture, something that his work sought to undermine. She married into white culture, yet she maintained her native identity and even sought to preserve the native way of life through her translations. She was a silent warrior, just like her mother, fighting for the Ojibwe people from the outside, white world.
Cavalier, Christine. “Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s Sentimental Lessons: Native Literary Collaboration and Resistance.” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 98, no. 118, 2013, pp. 98-118.
Hogan, Linda. “The 19th Century Native American Poets.” Wassaja/The Indian Historian, vol. 13, no. 4, 1980, pp. 24-29.
Jackson, Virginia. “The Poet as Poetess.” The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Poetry, edited by Kerry Larson, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 54-75.
Johnson, Cheri. “Schoolcraft, Jane Johnston (1800—1842).” American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, Supplement 23, edited by Jay Parini, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2013, pp. 223-238.
Kidwell, Clara Sue and Alan Velie. Native American Studies. University of Nebraska Press, 2005, pp. 1-15.
Parker, Robert Dale. “American Indian Poetry in the Nineteenth Century.” The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Poetry, edited by Kerry Larson, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 36-53.
Parker, Robert Dale. The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
Stirrup, David. “‘To the Indian Names are Subjoined a Mark and Seal’: Tracing the Terrain of Ojibwe Literature.” Literature Compass, vol. 7, no. 6, 2010, pp. 370-386, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2010.00707.x.
Stone-Gordon, Tammrah. Woman of the Sound the Stars make Rushing through the Sky: A Literary Biography of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft. Dissertation, Michigan State University, 2001. UMI Order No. 1352746.