The Lost Poems of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft — A Native Michigan Voice Rediscovered

Oval portrait of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, ca. 1825. Courtesy Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, circa 1825. Courtesy Johnston Family papers, the Bentley Historical Library, the University of Michigan

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.

robert dale parker.

Robert Dale Parker

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

Spring beauty wildflowers, white and pink. By http://www.nature.org/

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.

Pine and oak trees growing on a bluff along Lake Michigan. Photo by BF Newhall

Pine and oak trees still grow atop a bluff along Lake Michigan. The old growth pine trees that Schoolcraft salutes in her poem are long gone and Michigan is no longer the forested land where a squirrel could travel across the state without ever touching ground. Photo by BF Newhall

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 Earrings

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.

More about Schoolcraft at “Jane Johnston Schoolcraft and the Indian I Wanted to Be.”

Cover of the book "The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky" is dark bluke with stars in shape of a woman. The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft,” Robert Dale Parker, ed, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008, $22.50 paper.

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Comments

  1. My father in law used to own 1000 acres on the Ste. Mary River. Been going up there for years but never heard of Jane Schoolcraft and her poetry. Knew of her husband. Don’t make those trips to Michigsn anymore. Wish I had known of her years ago. I probably have been past her house many times and not known it.

    • Check out this website with more info about JJS. http://thesoundthestarsmake.com/

      It states: “Schoolcraft’s mother, Ozhaguscodaywayquay, was born in Chequamegon in the mid 1770s, near the present Chequamegon Bay and La Pointe in the northernmost part of what is now Wisconsin. Ozhaguscodaywayquay’s father was Waubojeeg, a war chief famed for leadership in war and civil life as well as for eloquence in story and song. Schoolcraft’s father, John Johnston, was born into a Scotch-Irish family in the north of Ireland in 1762. He left for the United States and Canada in 1790 and eventually set out as a fur trader, traveling by canoe to Mackinac Island and the Chequamegon area. After their marriage, Ozhaguscodaywayquay and John Johnston settled in Sault Ste. Marie, where together they built a prosperous fur trade business and raised eight children”

  2. Penny Crawford says:

    Hi Barb,

    We’ve been aware of Henry Schoolcraft and his Native American wife for many years, as he is responsible for giving many of Michigan’s counties pseudo Indian names — Alcona, Alpena, Iosco, Leelanau, to name a few. Seeing his wife’s picture and poetry is wonderful! Thanks for posting.

  3. Jean MacGillis says:

    Very interesting, Barb! I never heard of J.J. Schoolcraft while in school in Michigan. We did learn a bit about her husband during school and later. At least several things are named for him.

  4. Sending this to a cousin in Michigan!

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Interesting that as a kid in Detroit public schools, I was never introduced to J.J. Schoolcraft. I wonder if your cousin was . . .

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