By Barbara Falconer Newhall
A decade or so ago, the librarians at the Illinois State Historical Library were getting ready to move their collection into the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. In the process of cleaning up they came across some boxes of old documents, which they decided to catalogue.
One of those boxes contained a cache of writings by Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, a little known Ojibwe poet born in 1800 at Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
One week after the librarians finished the job of cataloging Schoolcraft’s works, Robert Dale Parker, a University of Illinois professor of English and American Indian Studies, logged on to the WorldCat database and entered the name Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.
Troubled by the lack of information about early Native American poetry, Parker had resolved to look into the Schoolcraft’s life and work. He had been sorely frustrated in his search: the confusing mass of papers on Jane and her husband Henry at the Library of Congress, for example, were available to him only in small batches of microfilm.
But when he discovered the newly entered list of Schoolcraft’s poetry and translations of Ojibwe legends and songs and he saw first-hand the originals at the Illinois library, Parker was hooked. Patiently, persistently he followed every lead he could, visiting libraries and collections with the help of a grant from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The result is a book called The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky, which is an English translation of the poet’s Ojibwe name, Bame-wa-wa-ge-zhik-a-quay.
Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s Poems
One of my favorites among Schoolcraft’s poems praises one of the first wildflowers to bloom in spring in the northern woods of Michigan. This small white and pink flower is known in Ojibwe as
the “miscodeed.” I knew it as a girl as the spring beauty.
To the Miscodeed
Sweet pink of northern wood and glen,
E’er first to greet the eyes of men
In early spring, — a tender flower
Whilst still the wintry wind hath power.
How welcome, in the sunny glade,
Or hazel copse, thy pretty head
Oft peeping out, whilst sill the snow,
Doth here and there, its presence show
Soon leaf and bud quick opening spread
They modest petals – white with red
Like some sweet cherub – love’s kind link,
With dress of white, adorned with pink.
Reprinted by permission of publisher
This poem about the pine trees of Michigan was written upon Schoolcraft’s return from Europe.
To the Pine Tree
Shing wauk! Shing wauk! Nin ge ik id,
Waish kee wau bum ug, shing wauk
Tuh quish in aun nau aub, ain dak nuk i yaun.
Shing wauk, shing wauk No sa
Shi e gwuh ke do dis au naun
Kau gega way zhau wus co zid . . .
Translation (not literal)
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 . . .
Reprinted by permission of the publisher
A little poem Parker has titled “The Earrings” was found in the margin of an 1840 letter to Schoolcraft’s husband, who was in Detroit. Leelinau is one of her pen names.
My ear-rings are gone, in the Wars of Fate—
And a pair of red-drops I would not hate. Leelinau
Reprinted by permission of the publisher
Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, the woman
Born on January 31, 1800, in Sault Ste. Marie to an Ojibwe woman and an Irish-American fur trader, Jane was fluent in both English and Ojibwe. In 1823, she married a friend of the family, Henry Schoolcraft, an explorer, ethnologist and writer who eventually became Superintendent for Indian Affairs.
Schoolcraft wrote poetry and translated Ojibwe stories, often in collaboration with her husband. Their translations of her poetry into English echo the formality of 19th century romantic poetry.
Some of Parker’s 21st century translations, however, tend to be shorter and more literal. Either way, I wish I could hear and understand Jane’s Ojibwe texts first hand – and get a closer look into her long-ago, Native Michigan sensibility.
Meanwhile, I do have Parker’s meticulous, yet accessible, investigation of the life and writings of Michigan’s Woman of the Sound Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky.