Jane Johnston Schoolcraft was born in 1800 in Sault Ste. Marie, in the northern Great Lakes region of what is now Michigan. She was also known by the Ojibwe name Bamewawagezhikaquay, which translates to Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky. Her mother, who went by the names Susan Johnston and Ozhaguscodaywayquay, was a respected Ojibwe leader, and her father, John Johnston, was a Scotch-Irish fur trader.
Schoolcraft grew up speaking both English and Ojibwe. She read extensively from her father’s library, and she visited Ireland and England from 1809 to 1810. She is thought to have begun writing poetry around 1815. Though she never published her work, she wrote approximately fifty poems in English and Ojibwe, as well as versions of Ojibwe stories, songs, and other traditionally oral texts.
Schoolcraft is considered to be the first known Native American woman writer and possibly the first Native American literary writer. Of her vital role in American poetry, Robert Dale Parker writes, “She brought her Ojibwe and American worlds together by the unprecedented acts of writing poetry in an Indian language, writing out English-language versions of Indian oral stories and songs on a large scale, and knowledgeably integrating Indian language into English-language literary writing.”
In 1822, Schoolcraft met Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a well-known explorer and ethnologist who had been appointed as a federal agent to the region. They were married in 1923, and he went on to publish writings about Native Americans, especially the Ojibwe, drawing from the Johnston family’s stories. These writings later became a source for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem “The Song of Hiawatha.”
In 1826 and 1827, Schoolcraft’s husband compiled a handwritten magazine, The Literary Voyager, or Muzzeniegun (Philip P. Mason, 1962), that contained several of her poems. In 1841, they moved together to New York City after Henry Schoolcraft was dismissed from his post as a federal agent. She died on May 22, 1842.
In 2007, Robert Dale Parker edited a posthumous collection of her poetry, The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (University of Pennsylvania Press). Schoolcraft was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2009.
The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (University of Pennsylvania Press)