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New book pays homage to long-neglected American Indian author

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

Released 1/18/2007

Robert Dale Parker
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
English professor Robert Dale Parker has written a new book about the "remarkable body of writing" of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, an Ojibwe Indan from the Great Lakes Country.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — American literary history is about to change. An early Native American writer who has been a largely forgotten figure is entering the canon and getting the recognition she has long deserved.

A new book brings out for the first time the “remarkable body of writing” of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft “and the fascinating story of her life and work.”

So says Robert Dale Parker, the author of “The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky” (University of Pennsylvania Press).

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (1800-1842) was an Ojibwe Indian from the Great Lakes Country who wrote prose and verse, but who also collected, translated and preserved her people’s oral stories and legends – the same stories and legends that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for one, would later tap for his epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha.”

Her writings, most of them in English, some in Ojibwe and some from as early as 1815, make her “the first known American Indian literary writer,” Parker says, who should be considered “an achievement on the order of Anne Bradstreet, the first known American poet, or Phillis Wheatley, the first well-known African-American poet.”

“At a time when most indigenous writers in the United States cannot speak, let alone write in, an indigenous language, a time when many languages are disappearing, and also a time of great activity furthering the continuity and revival of indigenous languages, Jane Schoolcraft offers a history and a specially valuable model of bilingual and multilingual life and writing for American Indians and for American culture and literature at large.”

Until now, Jane’s husband, the Indian agent Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864), has gotten most of the credit for collecting and publishing the Ojibwe stories.

“Henry certainly put a lot of work into gathering it all together, supervising it all, editing what Jane, her brother William and many other Indian people contributed. But he did the work in a way that obscured the contributions of Jane and other Indian people.”

In his book, Parker an English professor at the University of Illinois and an affiliate of its American Indian Studies Program, untangles the complicated, even confounding, literary record – multiple drafts, multiple and illegible handwritings and plain old literary sleight of hand – to make the case that Jane Schoolcraft collected and wrote many of the stories that would be published in adapted, unattributed versions by her husband three years before she died.

The stories, which Henry published in a book titled “Algic Researches, comprising inquiries respecting the mental characteristics of the North American Indians,” became “a key source for Longfellow’s sensationally popular poem, ‘The Song of Hiawatha,’ ” Parker wrote. “Algic” was a conflation of the words “Allegheny” and “Atlantic” and referred to the Native Americans living within that geographical area.

At her birth, she was named both Jane Johnston and Bamewawagezhikaquay, meaning “Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky.” Jane would go on to write about 50 poems in English and Ojibwe, at least eight traditional, previously oral, Ojibwe stories, in English; transcribed and translated an assortment of Ojibwe oral texts, including 10 songs, sometimes in both Ojibwe and English; and she wrote or translated a handful of additional pieces of nonfiction prose.

“Lines Written at Castle Island, Lake Superior,” a poem she wrote in 1838, is a “passionate anticolonialist lament,” Parker said, and one of her rare direct political statements. It ends: “Ah, nature! Here forever sway / Far from the haunts of men away / For here, there are no sordid fears, / No crimes, no misery, no tears / No pride of wealth; the heart to fill, / No laws to treat my people ill.”

Jane Johnston was born in Sault Ste. Marie in what is now the upper peninsula of Michigan. She was said to be charming, pensive and intelligent, and would become, like her Irish-born and wealthy fur trader father, well read and fluent in English, French and Ojibwe.

Her mother was the daughter of a celebrated Indian chief, spoke only Ojibwe and was a reservoir of Indian heritage. Jane’s parents were civically and socially influential.

The Schoolcrafts’ marriage began joyfully in 1823, but Henry traveled a great deal. There also was tragedy in her lonely life: Her first child died at age 2; another was stillborn.

So Jane wrote. Sometimes her poems in manuscript were circulated to people beyond the family. A handful of poems were published after her death.

Henry Schoolcraft, born in central New York State, was a man of “omnivorous intelligence.” By the age of 30, he was already experienced in manufacturing, the natural sciences, exploration, writing and governmental service.

Henry studied and wrote about the Ojibwe language, and he would become one of the first American ethnographers, but he continued to rely heavily on many others – his wife, mother-in-law, brothers- and sisters-in-law and many other Indian people he would meet in his travels through Indian land.

To be blunt, he “took cultural and intellectual property to put it on display for the pleasure of white people.”

“He did not prepare the volumes in ways that imagined Indian readers, and his meager acknowledgment of the Johnston family and other Ojibwe collaborators offers only enough credit as he needed to bolster the supposed authenticity of his own work.”

When it suited him, Henry “exoticized” Jane – using her to his benefit, yet often neglecting her. She became increasingly depressed and even addicted to laudanum. How she died is still a mystery.

It is ironical, Parker wrote, that “few of the people who live their daily lives amid the towns, lakes, rivers, counties, schools and innumerable businesses across northern Michigan and much of Wisconsin and Minnesota that are named for – and often by – Henry Schoolcraft, or for characters or places in ‘The Song of Hiawatha,’ know of Jane Schoolcraft, and still fewer have the slightest idea how much the writings of Henry Schoolcraft and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow depended on hers.”