The Sound the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

For nearly two centuries the reputation of Native American poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (1800–1842) has been overshadowed by that of her husband, the celebrated Indian agent and ethnographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. With the publication of Robert Dale Parker’s excellent work, The Sound the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, however, that will no longer be the case.

The daughter of John Johnston, a British fur trader, and Ozhaguscodaywayquay (Susan Johnston), an Ojibwe woman—Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Bamewawagezhikaquay) was the first published female Native American writer. Born in the northern Great Lakes country, she spent most of her life in Sault Ste. Marie, where the Johnstons centered their trading activities. Jane’s interest in literature was encouraged by her father (who also wrote poetry) and nurtured in his large library.

The close of the War of 1812 brought American government to the Sault, in part in the person of the first American Indian agent there, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, whom Jane Johnston married in 1823 and with whom she had three children. The “ambitious, driven” (p. 20) Henry Schoolcraft shared Jane’s literary interests, but Henry, whose self-promotion stands out even in an age of assertive individualism, was much more focused on publication than his wife was. Jane Johnston Schoolcraft published very little in her lifetime, while Henry Schoolcraft published constantly, making use of his wife’s knowledge and family connections in his studies of Indian culture.

It is Henry Schoolcraft, ironically, whom readers have to thank for the survival of Jane Schoolcraft’s writings, some of which he printed after her death. Parker relates that many of her manuscripts were copied by Henry and, it is important to note, probably revised by him as well, with or without her approval. Jane’s work, on occasion, even appeared under Henry’s name. So, while scholars are indebted to Henry for the preservation of Jane’s writings, the writings have come down to us through his “mediation, tastes, and habits” (p. 221). To determine what Jane Schoolcraft would have considered the finished form of a particular piece of writing is not always possible. Parker argues, however, that this is not a problem if we accept that all authorship is a “collaborative and social process.” This sense of authorship, accordingly, reveals “the social and historical conditions of race, gender, and colonialism that contributed to producing Schoolcraft’s writing and that her writing can speak back to” (p. 233).

Jane Schoolcraft’s tales, rooted in Ojibwe storytelling, were actually closer to translations than to original accounts; they were her versions of traditional stories rendered in English. Combining Ojibwe and European forms, Jane’s tales relate stories the Ojibwe used to convey their history, their everyday life, and their appreciation of the world around them. Her poems, on the other hand, were private and personal, and were not intended for publication. According to Parker, they usually “respond to an occasion or place” (p. 48). There are poems about nature, poems that express pride in Jane’s Ojibwe heritage, and poems, though not expressly political, that reveal strong anticolonial sentiments. There are poems written to her husband: both love poems and poems of frustrated longing. Many of Jane’s poems express physical and emotional pain, including the beautiful elegiac verses that mourn the death of her young son.

On March 13, 1827, the Schoolcrafts’ oldest child, William Henry, died of croup. It was a tragedy from which Jane Schoolcraft seems never to have recovered, and at some point in the 1830s she developed an addiction to laudanum, prescribed to help her endure depression, grief, and physical pain. In 1836 Henry Schoolcraft was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Michigan, but he was dismissed from office in 1841 and charged with corruption. The Schoolcrafts tried to start their lives over again in New York City, a move that was difficult for Jane because it took her away from her family home. Seven months after the move, on May 22, 1842, while Henry was touring Europe, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft died during a visit to her sister in Dundas, Upper Canada.

The Schoolcrafts’ marriage, which could be described as a colonial embrace, seems to have embodied or at least reflected the issues and contradictions of the time. As an Indian agent and self-appointed authority on Native American culture, Henry Schoolcraft rationalized government policies that led to large surrenders of Ojibwe lands and to Indian removal west of the Mississippi River. The Schoolcrafts were essentially drawn in different directions: Henry toward building his reputation in the East and Jane toward dealing with losses at home. Parker calls the record of their marriage “murky” (p. 36). In his words, Jane “was integrated into the system that exploited her, just as she and her family’s cultural and linguistic knowledge were integrated into her Indian-agent husband’s efforts to admire, aid, and at the same time conquer, steal from, and diminish her Indian people” (p. 45).

In the nineteenth century it would have been difficult for Jane Johnston Schoolcraft to stand up to an overbearing husband like Henry. Her writings were her own creations, but her husband’s influence upon them was great. Parker faced a daunting challenge in preparing a documentary edition of Jane Schoolcraft’s work—something he has accomplished masterfully. Thanks to his scholarship, readers can now appreciate the scope of her work and the sensitivity and intelligence that gave rise to it, even as her familiar Ojibwe world “was giving way to a world of Indian removal and racial polarization” (p. 43). Because of the painstaking labor of this dedicated scholar, the shadow that looms over Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s work is now smaller and less opaque.