A Case of the Human Condition: Jane Johnston Schoolcraft and the Indian I Wanted to Be

A Michigan woods like the ones Jane Johnston Schoolcraft knew as a girl. Photo by Barbara Falconer Newhall author of "Wrestling with God."

A Michigan woods like the ones Jane Johnston Schoolcraft knew as a girl. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft — an Ojibwe poet who would have been dear to my girlish Michigan heart. Why didn’t my Detroit schoolteachers ever mention her?

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

When I was a little kid growing up in Michigan, I liked to pretend I was an Indian. A real one.

My imagination didn’t have much to go on. At my school in Detroit, Michigan history started with the French trappers who arrived from Canada during the eighteenth century.  From there, it moved on to the British and American settlers, Thomas Edison,  Henry Ford, the light bulb and the assembly line.

As a girl, I couldn’t name the various Indian groups who inhabited Michigan before the Europeans arrived. Thanks to the Internet, I now know some of them: the Ojibwe, the Kickapoo, the Menominee, the Potawatomi, the Fox and the Sauk.

What’s more, no one ever told me that during the nineteenth century, Michigan had produced an Ojibwe poet and storyteller named Jane Johnston Schoolcraft — also known by the magnificent Ojibwe name, Bamewawagezhikaquay, or “The Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky.”

Ferns grow among the fallen oak leaves in Michigan. c 2007 B.F. Newhall

Ferns grow among the fallen oak leaves in a Michigan woods. Photo by Barbara Newhall

All this ignorance of our Michigan predecessors didn’t stop my cousin Jeanie and me from spending our summer days pretending we were Indians. We went barefoot  through pine and oak forests and picked our way through sunny blueberry patches, carrying our twentieth-century beach towels and bologna sandwiches, and imagining what it was to hunt and fish and gather berries and survive in the Michigan woods.

Jeanie and I heard rumors of a local Indian burial ground somewhere in these sandy hills, underneath the ferns somewhere, but none of our elders could — would? —  tell us exactly where it was. As for the Indians themselves, they were gone. “They all died off,” we were told.

Not so, it turns out.

Plenty of Native Americans lived — and are still living — all over Michigan. And my alma mater, the University of Michigan, has taken it upon itself to help preserve the language and culture of one of those groups, the Ojibwe people. (If you’re a student at Michigan these days, you can learn Ojibwe. It’s like French; you sign up and you take a class.)

The folks teaching American Culture at Michigan are also reviving the memory of Bamewawagezhikaquay, a woman I would love to have read about as a girl. A real Michigan Indian. And a real poet whose stories, it turns out, were a source for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha.

Book cover of the collected poems of Michigan poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

“The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft,” edited by Robert Dale Parker, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Now, two centuries after Schoolcraft’s birth, her writing is finally taking its place as an important moment in American literature. A collection of her work has been published. (Which I’ll tell you more about, if I can get my hands on a copy.) It’s The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, edited by Robert Dale Parker and published in 2007 by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Schoolcraft was born in 1800 in what is now Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She was the daughter of John Johnston, a Scots-Irish fur trader, and the grandaughter of Waubojeeg, an Ojibwe war chief and storyteller. She married the ethnologist and geographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft , who for years was the famous one in the family — with a big thoroughfare in Detroit named after him, just for starters.

When I was at the University of Michigan taking education courses, minority and poor children who weren’t doing well in school were labeled “culturally deprived,” a euphemism that soon fell out of favor as arrogant and Euro-centric.

But maybe the old label can still apply. How else to explain why, as a child, I never heard about the Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky? Why did I never see a round dance or hear the original people of Michigan sing?

Because I was a middle class white kid, and I was culturally deprived.

More about Schoolcraft and the lost cache of her poetry at “The Lost Poems of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft — A Native Michigan Voice Rediscovered.”

More Michigan stories at “Now’s the Time to Order “Wrestling with God — And Read My Michigan Stories.” Also, “A Case of the Human Condition: Am I Scotch* — Or Midwestern?”

oak-leaves-michigan

Oak leaves growing near Lake Michigan at Manistee. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Can any of you Michigan folks identify these oak leaves for me? They were growing near Lake Michigan outside Manistee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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