Jane Schoolcraft: My thoughts on why she wrote and what her work means

According to poet Jane Schoolcraft, the name “Bame-wa-wa-ge-zhika-quay” can be translated to “Woman of the Sound that the stars make Rushing through the Sky”. This was the name given to Schoolcraft in 1800 when she was born to the Ojibwe woman Ozha-guscoday-way-quay (Green Prairie Woman) and the Scottish-Irish fur trader John Johnston. As a result of her parentage, Schoolcraft was exposed to both Ojibwe and European culture. Her father would teach her classic European literature, and her mother passed on Ojibwe language, customs, and stories (Kilcup, 57). This meeting of cultures shows itself in many of Schoolcraft’s writings, though little of her work remains that directly confronts the clash between her the Ojibwe and the settlers, compared to, say, writing by Zitkála-Šá. (See here for a blog post containing a bibliography of Zitkála-Šá.) Much of Schoolcraft’s work may have been lost altogether. As far as most scholars know, Schoolcraft never published books of her writing. Her largest audience came from readers of The Muzzeniegun or Literary Voyageur, a handwritten literary magazine she co-edited and co-published with her husband Henry Schoolcraft, who was involved in governmental work on “Indian affairs”. (See here for re-prints of Muzzeniegun.) According to the introduction by Philip Mason in a transcript of the Muzzeniegun, only one copy was ever written for some issues of the magazine (Philip Mason, xv).

[The Muzzeniegun or Literary Voyager (1827)] via HathiTrust. Photograph or scan most likely by Michigan State University.

The Muzzeniegun published several of Schoolcraft’s translations of Ojibwe stories, possibly with the main aim of recording Native American culture for academic purposes. Schoolcraft also contributed original poems without using her full name, many of which expressed more personal and individual ideas and emotions, such as addressing the defamation of her grandfather, the warrior chief Waub Ojeeb, or her feelings on losing her son Willy in his infancy. While Henry Schoolcraft had been referred to as an underrated explorer in papers and encyclopedias, Jane Schoolcraft’s work was often entirely overlooked throughout the 20th century. However, there has recently been a renaissance in studies on Schoolcraft, including her original work in English and the Ojibwe language. In her work and the study of her work, there is an interplay between the preservation of culture and expression of original ideas in Schoolcraft’s writings that is important to both Schoolcraft’s own circle of family and friends and to modern readers.

Schoolcraft’s work is not necessarily motivated by a need to address white readers (Parker). The Muzzeniegun was mainly distributed among family and friends, some of whom were white and others Ojibwe. Many of her poems, including “Invocation To My Maternal Grandfather On Hearing His Descent from Chippewa Ancestors Misrepresented”, are conventionally structured English poems that come across as personally motivated. To expect Schoolcraft’s writing to explicitly address nationwide discrimination, colonization, and the need to preserve indigenous culture may be unfair to the life she lived. Some of us may be projecting onto her our own ideas of what an early Native American author should be, but Schoolcraft’s poems can be appreciated on their own for what they are. Any form of Schoolcraft’s personal expression is tied together with cultural representation, including her work following a conventional English structure.

This is most obvious in the poem“In Invocation To My Maternal Grandfather On Hearing His Descent from Chippewa Ancestors Misrepresented”, where the speaker reassures Waub Ojeeb that his people will remember his nobility despite rumours that he was born to an enemy tribe. She calls to him beyond the grave, at first encouraging him to rise up and “wield again thy warlike spear!”, and remind his people of his bravery and valor. Of course, no one can return from the dead, but in the course of the poem the narrator recounts the shining legacy of the chief. She juxtaposes his rising to battle in life, depicted “Like a star in the west” during sunset, powerful against the back of the Ojibwe and dazzling their enemies in front. The poem progresses across five stanzas to a conclusion where she reassures him, “Rest thou, noblest chief!”, that Schoolcraft, his “child’s child”, will always hold his memory close to her heart. The final stanza feels warm and tender in the narrator’s expression of love for her grandfather, after all the intensity and chaos of war and conspiracy. The title of the poem leaves no ambiguity to the poem’s intention. Each stanza consists of a line in iambic pentameter or sextameter (a line consisting of five or six iambs respectively), followed by a rhyming couplet in iambic dimeter with caesura (two rhyming lines in iambic dimeter followed by a pause), which changes the pace of the poem. The first couplet is followed by a line in iambic tetrameter which rhymes with the first line. Another pair of rhyming couplets follows. Each stanza concludes with two rhyming lines in iambic tetrameter. In this way, the poem flows with some tension and drama, but every stanza concludes in a conventionally satisfying way.

The poem is filled with clever imagery and has an interesting flow, and I find it an example of Schoolcraft’s originality in expressing ideas to her personal community. Modern readers can read this poem and view a small piece of history preserved through English poetry depicting political dissent in the Ojibwe community in 1827. Our wonderful professor proposed that “perhaps this poem is asserting that tribal history is important in its own right, and not just in relation to European affairs or even European oppression”. I agree, in particular, that this poem can assert the importance of history and comment on the European-centered nature of its study to a modern reader, while Jane Schoolcraft’s motivation at the time could have been to honor and defend her beloved grandfather. Schoolcraft’s work exemplifies that an author’s work sees several lives, with meaning and purpose that changes over time along with its readers. For modern readers to fully appreciate Jane Schoolcraft (her work and her life), it is necessary to also consider how other readers did so.

“Waub-ojeeg (White Fisher) of the Battle of St Croix Falls”. From the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Jane’s writing is a rich resource for all readers interested in the early history of the United States.”

Margaret Noori

Ironically, as I’ve said, Schoolcraft’s readership dropped almost entirely in the 20th century. But there is light at the end of that tunnel! In researching Schoolcraft online, I found just as interesting as her work the modern community who collect and continue her legacy. A resurgence of interest in Schoolcraft’s writing has occurred in the 21st century, with searches for and rediscovery of unpublished manuscripts, letters, and anecdotes. Unfortunately, some of these may never be publicly available, for reasons possibly ranging from personal attachment to risk of damage. Thus, many statements made about the life of Schoolcraft and her children are unverifiable. But from the perspective of someone who is not an English-educated historian, these stories offer further and overdue credit to Schoolcraft’s life. I found sheer enthusiasm in individuals like Timm Severud, Robert Dale Parker, Margaret Noodin, Maureen Kronkle, and Christine Cavalier, who have extensively studied Schoolcraft and whose work provided most of the information I could find on her, and also in communities like the Bay Mills Indian Community and the Chippewa County Historical Society, who have even organized road trips following Schoolcraft’s journey.

[…] one can celebrate the history of a place without totally revealing it or destroying it.

Timm Severud

The new conversation around Schoolcraft helps people like me gain knowledge which would have been nearly inaccessible just fifteen years ago, such as the original poetry she wrote in her Ojibwe language. As an English standard for writing Ojibwe words had not been established at her time, Schoolcraft exercised creativity in simply putting the poem in written form. These poems appear as free verse, with single compound words forming most lines. One such poem is called “On leaving my children John and Jane, in the Atlantic states, and preparing to return to the interior”, or its original title “Nininendam”, which is simply translated to “Thinking”. In it, she laments leaving her children in a boarding school (if an elite boarding school) and returning to her home in Sault Sainte Marie. Thanks to Margaret Noodin, a recording of this poem put in song can be heard here: https://ojibwe.net/songs/womens-traditional/nindinendam-thinking/. Also, a free-verse translation of this poem can be found in The Sound Stars Make by Robert Dale Parker.

In comparison, “Nininendam” also appeared in Henry Schoolcraft’s memoirs, published in the mid-1800s, where he translated it into the form of a series of rhyming couplets. Now, Jane Schoolcraft’s poem stands alongside the rest of her recovered collection in its original form, with an accompanying translation meant specifically to preserve the Ojibwe poem as it is copied into English. While Henry Schoolcraft’s modified version of the poem may accurately express some of its ideas, I see symbolism or significance in how differently scholars treat her work now. Their efforts are a process of recovery, to revisit Schoolcraft and appreciate her writing as original, personal, and as a window into her life and community. Readers like me must remind themselves that we are here to appreciate the work of an individual who we cannot expect to completely understand. Schoolcraft did not set out to document her life the way her husband attempted to record Native American culture. But while much will remain unknown about Schoolcraft, about her struggles, culture, ideas, and lost work, the parts which have been preserved will offer historical and artistic enrichment over two hundred years later.

“Duskscape” by Sharon Mollerus via Wikimedia Commons / CC by Attribution 2.0 Generic

Works Cited:

“Duskscape” by Sharon Mollerus via Wikimedia Commons / CC by Attribution 2.0 Generic

Jane and Henry Schoolcraft. The Literary Voyager or Muzzeniegun. Michigan State University Press, 1962

Kilchup, Karen. “Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Bame-wa-wa-ge-zhik-a-quay, Woman of the Stars Rushing Through the Sky; Ojibwe, 1800-1841).” Native American Women’s Writing c.1800-1924 An Anthology. Blackwell Publishers, 2000, pp. 57

Mason, Philip P. Introduction. The Literary Voyager or Muzzeniegun by Jane Schoolcraft. Michigan State University Press, 1962, pp. xv

Noori, Margaret. The Complex World of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft. Michigan Quarterly Review, 2008 , http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.act2080.0047.121

Molerus, Sharon. “St. Marie’s River, Sault Ste Marie, Ontario”. Wikimedia Commons, 30 July 2006, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duskscape_(205579491).jpg

Parker, Robert. “Myths”, https://thesoundthestarsmake.com/?page_id=36

Schoolcraft, Jane. “Nininendam”, sung by Margaret Noori. https://ojibwe.net/songs/womens-traditional/nindinendam-thinking/

Severud, Timm. http://www.turtletrack.org/Bios/CO_Timm_Severud.htm

“Waub-ojeeg”, Minnesota Historical Society, http://www.redriverancestry.ca/BIG-FOOT-MAMONGAZIDA.php

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