Published on January 31, 2013 by Amy
Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, also known as Bamewawagezhikaquay (January 31, 1800-May 22, 1842) is the first known American Indian literary writer. She was of Ojibwa and Scots-Irish ancestry. Her Ojibwa name can also be written as O-bah-bahm-wawa-ge-zhe-go-qua (Obabaamwewe-giizhigokwe in modern spelling), meaning “Woman of the Sound Rushing Through the Sky.” She lived most of her life in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
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Jane Johnston was born in Sault Ste. Marie in the upper peninsula of what is now the state of Michigan. Her mother, Ozhaguscodaywayquay, was the daughter of Waubojeeg, a prominent Ojibwa war chief and civil leader from what is now northern Wisconsin. Her father, John Johnston (1762–1828), was a fur trader who left Belfast, Ireland in 1790. The Johnston family is famous historically in the Sault Ste. Marie area, where the couple were leaders in both the Euro-American and the Ojibwa communities, but their daughter Jane Johnston was little known until recently. The young Jane learned about Ojibwa traditions from her mother and her mother’s family, and she learned about written literature from her father and his large library.
Johnston wrote poetry and traditional Ojibwa stories, and she translated Ojibwa songs into English. She mostly wrote in English, but she wrote several poems in the Ojibwe language, as she lived her daily life in both Ojibwe and English. While she did not publish her work, she lived a literary life with her husband Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. They worked together closely on each of their writing. Her poetry was generally concerned with private life.
Jane Schoolcraft’s writings have attracted considerable interest from scholars and students, especially those concerned with American Indian literature and history. She has been recognized as “the first Native American literary writer, the first known Indian woman writer, the first known Indian poet, the first known poet to write poems in a Native American language, and the first known American Indian to write out traditional Indian stories.” Her role in the American Indian literary canon has been compared to that of Anne Bradstreet in the “broader American literary canon.”
In 1823 Jane married Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a US Indian agent in the region, who became a founding figure of American cultural anthropology. He was appointed US Indian Agent to the Michigan Territory in 1822 and served in the Northwest until 1841.
In 1826-1827, Henry Schoolcraft produced a handwritten magazine called The Literary Voyager or Muzzeniegen, which included some of Jane’s writings. Although he had only single issues, each was distributed widely to residents in Sault Ste. Marie, then to his friends in Detroit, New York and other eastern cities. The Schoolcrafts’ letters to each other during periods of separation often included poetry, also expressing how literature was part of their daily lives.
Henry won fame for his later publications about American Indians, especially the Ojibwe people and their language (also known as Chippewa and Anishinaabemowin). His work was based on information and stories he learned from Jane and the Johnston family, and the access they arranged to other Ojibwe. He was commissioned by the United States Congress for what became a six-volume study of the American Indian. Henry Schoolcraft’s publications, including materials written by Jane Schoolcraft, were the main source for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (1855).
They had four children:
Jane and Henry Schoolcraft moved to Mackinac Island in 1833, where he was assigned as Indian agent in charge of a larger territory. Their home has since been demolished, but Henry Schoolcraft’s office, the Indian Dormitory, survives. The Schoolcrafts took Janee and John to a boarding school in Detroit when they were eleven and nine, respectively, which was hard for the younger boy. Johnston Schoolcraft wrote a poem in Ojibwe that expresses her feelings of loss after their separation. (Use link below to hear poem sung in Ojibwe.)
In 1841, when Henry lost his position as federal Indian agent, the Schoolcrafts moved to New York City. He worked for the state in American Indian research. Jane Schoolcraft suffered from frequent illnesses; she died in 1842 while visiting a sister in Canada. She was buried at St. John’s Anglican Church in what is now Ancaster, Ontario.