Saving Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

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Hot off the presses at the University of Pennsylvania is what might be a Midwestern blockbuster, The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign English prof Robert Dale Parker has edited the writings of Bamewawagezhikaquay, AKA Jane Johnston, AKA Mrs. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft.

She's "the first known American Indian literary writer," says Parker in a U of I press release, comparable to "Anne Bradstreet, the first known American poet, or Phillis Wheatley, the first well-known African-American poet." I haven't seen the book, let alone read it, but those are standards that might be hard to live up to.

As the early midwestern history geeks among us struggle to reach their reference books, yes, she was married to that Schoolcraft, the famous Indian agent and early ethnographer. In fact, Jane's writings, translations, and transcriptions are apparently one of the reasons her husband became famous--he used her material and offered "only enough credit as he needed to bolster the supposed authenticity of his own work," says Parker. Schoolcraft's work in turn was used by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his much more famous epic poem "Hiawatha."

Jane herself was born in Sault Ste. Marie in 1800, the daughter of a Scotch-Irish trader and an Ojibwe woman whose father was a celebrated Ojibwe chief. It doesn't sound like her life in the middle ground between two cultures was very happy. Maybe now she'll get the credit she was due all along. 

 

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