National Poetry Month: Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, the First American Indian Poet
Ojibwe poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft set many precedents during her short life in the Midwest in the early 1800s.
“The first known American Indian literary writer, the first known Indian woman writer, by some measures the first known Indian poet, the first known poet to write poems in a Native American language, and the first known American Indian to write out traditional Indian stories,” as her modern-day editor Robert Dale Parker puts it.
Born on January 31, 1800 in what is today Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Schoolcraft was known primarily by the names of her white father and then her white husband. But in truth she moved fluidly between two cultures and never forgot her Indian name, Bamewawagezhikaquay (Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky). She wrote poems in her original language, though only a few survive; defended her American Indian grandfather against attacks on his reputation; dreamed of a place that had “no laws to treat my people ill,” and proudly noted one poem as being “by an Ojibwa female pen.”
Schoolcraft’s story provides an appealing example of the literary sleuthing required to lift her out of the obscurity she had been in for more than 150 years following her death on May 22, 1842. In addition to her literary accomplishments—which Parker puts in the same league as early Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley, an early African-American poet—Schoolcraft suffered a life of keen pain and loss. Today her significance to Indian poetry in general and Ojibwe poetry in particular is becoming more and more widely recognized.
“I think of Bamewawagezhikaquay as an ancestor—literally and figuratively,” Ojibwe poet Heid Erdrich has said. “She was the first bilingual poet and the first indigenous woman to publish literary works in the U.S. and Canada.” (Related: Heid E. Erdrich: Cell Traffic as Metaphor, and Poetry)
The dominant culture has started to take note of her as well. In 2007, 165 years after her death, Schoolcraft’s work was included in the seventh edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature.
“As a poet, essayist, storyteller, and translator, she was dedicated to preserving her people’s cultural contributions by committing them to the written word,” noted the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame upon inducting her in 2008. “In the process, she created a body of work that is recognized today as having a unique and invaluable place within American literature.”
Also in 2007 came the first full-length collection of her work, The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky, edited by Parker. The book contains about 60 of her writings (poems, song translations and translations of Ojibwe stories into English), a personal and cultural biography, and a scholarly treatment of sources about her.
Though their history is not quite as dramatic as the literary detective story in A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession, many of these writings are newly discovered. In the book Parker describes how he found many of them saved for posterity, not under her name, but in the massive collection of writing of her husband, Henry R. Schoolcraft, on file in the Library of Congress.
Schoolcraft’s work was published in her lifetime mainly in handwritten editions put out by her husband, but she did influence a major American poem in a big way. Her husband’s friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used many of Jane Schoolcraft’s Indian stories in The Song of Hiawatha.
Schoolcraft’s life was marked by sadness and tragedy. She suffered the death of a young son, which she marked in several poems. In addition to her grief, she was afflicted with what she termed “melancholy,” which modern poets would recognize as a disease endemic among poets—depression. Treated for this melancholy with laudanum, she became addicted, according to Parker. Modern poets of any stripe would recognize Schoolcraft’s typical poetic temperament.
“Her sensibility was both what we would call traditional and also visionary,” Erdrich told ICTMN in an interview about her collection Cell Traffic, which includes a poem about Schoolcraft. “Her life was tragic and her legacy shrouded. In short, she is the perfect literary idol.” (Related: Ojibwe Poet Heid Erdrich Talks About Her Love of Language)
Schoolcraft was barely a generation younger than the English Romantic poets, and her poems in English reflect their themes and preoccupation with rhyme and meter. She wrote feelingly several times of the death of her son, Willy, in English, and many of her poems are sad or “pensive,” to use one of her favorite words.
Her poems in her native tongue, though, are altogether different, and not just because they’re written in an earlier version of the language’s modern incarnation. In these works Schoolcraft is unbound by literary tradition, since she is in fact creating her own. “To the Pine Tree” (titled in English, as are all her Ojibwe poems) celebrates a deep connection to her native land. And in “On leaving my children John and Jane at School, in the Atlantic states, and preparing to return to the interior” she repeats words about her land until love for her children and love for her land seem to swirl into one. (Related: Of Rhyme and Meter: Dozens of Indian Poets, Rescued From Obscurity)
There is another overtone to this great poem as well. It finishes, in the English translation, as, “Ahh but I am sad.” Here one senses a harbinger of the “song of myself” sentiment that would sweep American poetry beginning with Walt Whitman and continues to this day. Thus is Bamewawagezhikaquay also a mother to all contemporary American poets, Native and non-Native alike, writing as she did well in advance of Whitman’s classic Leaves of Grass, which came out in 1854.
Still, Schoolcraft’s legacy is likely to be felt most by Native poets, especially women. One of her poems is especially resonant in that regard. It’s an invitation from the past—from an American Indian poet rescued from more than a century of obscurity—ostensibly to join her for a walk in the garden after a rain. But in a broader sense it’s an invitation to appreciate, and share, her bold title and emphasis: “By An Ojibwa Female Pen.”