Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Bamewawagezhikaquay)

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft or Bamewawagezhikaquay, photographer unknown, photograph from 1860, Bentley Historical Library University of Michigan, Johnson Family Papers.

Native American (Anishinaabe), Ethnography, Literature

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Bamewawagezhikaquay)


Jane Johnston Schoolcraft was the first published Indigenous poet from the United States, the first known poet to write in a Native American language, and the first known Native American woman literary writer. 

Born in 1800, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s Ojibwe name, Bamewawagezhikaquay, describes sound echoing in the sky, and has been translated as “Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky.” Schoolcraft’s Ojibwe mother, Ozhaguscodaywayquay, was a storyteller, the daughter of a well-known chief, and was from what is now the northernmost tip of Wisconsin. Her father, John Johnston, was an Irish fur trader who raised his family biculturally and bilingually in Sault Ste. Marie Michigan. In 1823 Jane Johnston married Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, one of the future founders of the American Folklore Society.  

Signing her writings “Jane Schoolcraft” or “Leelinau,” she wrote in Ojibwe and English, sometimes providing English translation, sometimes not. She was a bilingual writer, comfortable switching between her ancestral languages in her poems, transcriptions, translations, stories, letters, and other writings. She responded to her husband’s request that she recall her enthusiasm when she saw Zhingwaak, the White Pine, after returning home from Europe, by writing a poem, completely in Ojibwe, expressing her delight and love for her home. Her English version of the poem expresses similar ideas, but it is a separate poem, not a translation.

Many of Schoolcraft’s writings have survived, including fifty poems, ten song translations, and eight Ojibwe stories. In her lifetime, she published only a few of her writings. Her husband, Henry Schoolcraft, included nine of her poems and five of her re-tellings of traditional Ojibwe stories in Muzzeneigen, or The Literary Voyager, a handwritten magazine he circulated in the winter of 1826-1827. He also published a few of her translations in his publications, and she is one of the uncredited sources to which he alludes in his publications. Schoolcraft’s “Corn Story,” which she wrote after hearing a version told in Ojibwe, describes how Mandaamin, the Spirit of Corn, came to the Ojibwe. Longfellow incorporated a slightly changed version of “Corn Story” in “The Song of Hiawatha,” and she was the original source for other stories in that poem. Schoolcraft’s bilinguality permitted her to record and retell Ojibwe oral stories. Ojibwe epistemologies, beliefs, and moral and ethical values are preserved in her literary writings. 

Among her writings of interest to folklorists are:

The Sound the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky: the Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, edited by Robert Dale Parker (2007)

Wendy Makoons Geniusz