Teaching Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

This fall, I’m teaching an upper-level literature course on nineteenth century American women writers. It’s a big class, full of mostly English and Gender Studies majors and minors. This is the second time I’ve taught this course, but the first time I’ve included Ojibwe poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.


(Note: in the 19th century, the Ojibwe people were variously known as Chippewa, Ojibwe, and Anishinaabe. Anishinaabe is the name that is most in use now. Schoolcraft used the name “Ojibwe” to describe herself, so, following scholar Robert Dale Parker, that’s the word I’ll use too.)

Born in 1802, Schoolcraft (whose Ojibwe name was Bamewawagezhikaquay, or “Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky”) was one of a large métis (French for “mixed”) population in her hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, located on the border of the Michigan Territory and Canada. The daughter of an Irish immigrant and an Ojibwe mother; a bilingual speaker and poet; the métis wife of a white man, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the first U.S. Indian Agent in the Michigan territory; highly educated and among Sault Ste. Marie’s social elite; possessing both Romantic and Ojibwe sensibilities; married to another literary writer but not publishing in her lifetime; writing within the poetic conventions of her time—Schoolcraft is a complex figure, and because of this I thought she’d be a great writer to begin the course. I wanted to get students thinking immediately about nineteenth century women as not easily categorized, to get them used to holding contradictions and complexities in their minds without trying to oversimplify these women’s lives or their art.

sound the stars make

Robert Dale Parker’s excellent scholarly edition of Schoolcraft will give you everything you need to get going with this poet: a thorough and engaging introduction to her life and work; all of her known poems and prose; and extremely helpful notes on each poem that detail, as best as can be known, when it was written, in whose handwriting (Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s or Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s) it was found, whether it is a translation, and if so, if it was translated by Jane or by Henry. Often, it’s not clear who wrote or translated what (something Parker does not gloss over but lets be, in all of its complexity).

I asked students to read all of the poems from the Parker edition for the next class period (but to focus on a handful of poems I wanted to make sure to cover in class discussion). Each day, I asked students to reread all the poems while focusing particularly on the poems we’d be discussing in class.

A three-day Schoolcraft plan

I had three days for Schoolcraft, though I wanted more. (Our terms are ten weeks long at my school, so pretty much every writer gets about three days, unless they’ve written an exceptionally long novel—looking at you, Harriet Beecher Stowe.) I tried some different strategies each day to shake things up—and also, since it was the start of the term, so students could quickly get used to the kinds of things I like to do in my courses. This term, I’m ditching the short weekly papers I usually assign in favor of daily informal writing: one or two paragraphs due each class (done mostly outside of class, but sometimes in class) which I am hoping are low-stakes enough to encourage students to play around more, make more of a mess, and take more risks with their ideas. In addition to daily writing, we are using a variety of multimedia, looking at other 19th c. texts and visual materials to provide context, and diving into literary criticism.

Day 1: The Way In

Writing focus: Personal response

Thematic focus: Nature

Poems discussed: “To the Pine,” “To the Miscodeed,” “On the Doric Rock, Lake Superior,” “Pensive Hours”

It makes sense to me to do a more personal writing assignment on the first day of a new writer, particularly with nineteenth century poetry, which may at first feel old-fashioned and off-putting to even the perkiest English major. I think it’s good to encourage students that any way into the poems they can find is a good way in, and that they don’t need to be intimidated by this poetry.

On the first day of class (the syllabus-introductions day), toward the end, I put the names of four Schoolcraft poems—none of which the students had read yet—on the board and asked students to choose one. Then I asked them a few simple questions, which I adapted from an exercise by Lynn Hammond that I first found in the always useful Engaging Ideas, by John Bean:

  • Why did you choose this title over the other ones?
  • What in this title would draw you into the poem—would make you want to read it? (Or conversely, is there anything in this title that causes resistance or makes you not want to read this poem?)
  • Based on the title of the poem, what do you expect this poem to be about?

From here, I told students to keep what they had written and, for next time, to write about whether their expectations were met once they actually read the poem in question.

I learned that for many students, familiar nature imagery (pine trees) was the draw, although a few brave students made their choice based on their lack of familiarity with title words (like the miscodeed flower, also called “spring beauty”). Other students chose a poem set on Lake Superior because we are in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula isn’t that far away from us. Many students were surprised at what “miscodeed” was (they guessed all kinds of things). Others were comforted by the simple fact that Schoolcraft felt such a connection to pine trees (as one student said, “I have a thing for pine trees”).


This first day on Schoolcraft, we talked about her as a Romantic poet and a nature poet, as well as how her métis identity and geographical region may have influenced her writing. I supplemented this lecture with lots of visuals: pictures of the miscodeed flower, 19th century maps of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and photos of Lake Superior so students could get a visual sense of Schoolcraft’s relation to place.

doric rock

Day 2: Form, Genre, Contexts

Writing focus: Annotation

Thematic focus: Motherhood

Formal focus: Elegy, child elegy

Poems discussed: “Elegy: On the death of my Son William Henry, at St. Mary’s,” “Sonnet,” “To my ever beloved and lamented son William Henry,” “Sweet Willy”

Our second day on Schoolcraft, we discussed her wrenching child elegies, written after the death of her oldest child, William Henry, from croup at the age of two. I wanted students to really dig into the poems’ formal qualities, so the informal writing assignment due in advance of this class was an annotation. Since Megan Ciesla has recently discussed annotation in detail on this site, I won’t say much more about this except try it—it’s old school, and that’s part of the fun for students. I, too, asked students to do the annotation by hand (either in their books or on a photocopy of a page if they don’t want to write in the book) and then take a photo and upload it. I printed them all out (speaking of old school) and then graded them by hand (my usual practice). There’s something really interesting in seeing where students will go when they’re not typing and not thinking “Essay! Must write essay!” I found that most of them uncovered much, much more about the poems’ formal qualities than they might have mentioned if I had had them write a few paragraphs of analysis instead. There was no opportunity for summary, so they had to jump right in and analyze.

informal writing #2 copy

To give students context during class, I put up slides of other poets’ poems from the period: Lydia Sigourney’s “To a Dying Infant,” which allowed us to talk more about the child elegy genre of the period; and Ann Taylor’s “My Mother,” a poem that directly influenced the form of Schoolcraft’s poem “To my ever beloved and lamented Son William Henry.” Because students had thought so much about the craft of the poems in their annotations, they were better able to make connections between stylistic commonalities: similar imagery in Sigourney and Schoolcraft, for example, or similar use of refrains and questions in Taylor and Schoolcraft.

taylor my mother
Courtesy of Florida State University’s Special Collections and Archives blog

Day 3: Criticism, revision, and translation

Writing focus: Taking a position

Thematic focus: Identity, authenticity, ownership

Poems discussed: “Invocation,” “The Contrast,” “Song of the Okogis, or Frogs in Spring,” “On leaving my children John and Jane at School”

Like Corinna Cook, I also assign critical works in class, and I also have students in charge of leading class discussion on those critical works. In the past, these sessions have really fallen flat, but I was trusting to the power of daily informal writing to help us along this time around. Because the discussion-leading group would be outlining the larger points of the article with us, I decided to focus the informal writing assignment a bit more tightly. For this class, I asked students to choose one small point from the article they read (Bethany Schneider’s “Not for Citation: Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s Synchronic Strategies”) and to make one of these argumentative moves with it: to say “No,” to say “Yes,” or to say “Maybe, but” (which I am again stealing from Bean! Y’all see what I was rereading this summer). Students then had to write 1-2 paragraphs explaining their response.

This article proved extremely difficult for students (it’s quite dense and complex), but that didn’t prove a deterrent to class discussion. I was surprised and thrilled that our class discussion on this article lasted nearly the whole class long (I had only budgeted for half the class, but students had so much to say that we just went with it). This is a big change from how these article discussions have gone in the past, and I attribute this directly to the targeted informal writing I had students do. They had taken a position on the article and they were ready to share those positions!

Much of Schneider’s article asks readers to consider the interplay between Schoolcraft’s poetry and the writing of others, whether that be husband’s translations of her poems, her own allusions to Romantic poets like Shelley and Keats, or her response to the language of letters she received from acquaintances. So the poems selected for this class were in multiple versions: multiple English versions all written by Schoolcraft; poems Schoolcraft wrote in Ojibwe and translated into English; poems Schoolcraft wrote in Ojibwe that were translated by others. It’s not always clear, as Parker makes evident in his wonderful notes and introduction, when an English translation is Jane’s and when it is Henry’s. Our discussion, then, revolved around what we perceive as “authentic,” which typically also involved questions of identity (i.e. how do we “read” Schoolcraft as a person, and how does this affect the way we read her poems? how do we read a Schoolcraft poem if we’re not totally sure she wrote or translated it?).

We spent a long time on the poem “On leaving my children John and Jane at School,” discussing (as Schneider also does) the differences between the three versions that are provided in Parker’s edition of Schoolcraft: Schoolcraft’s Ojibwe version, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s “free” English translation, or a contemporary translation by Dennis Jones, Heidi Stark, and James Vukelich. This is a perfect poem to talk about translation and authenticity. How does seeing these three versions on the page next to one another force us to compare versions and ultimately color our readings of all three versions? Do we believe that the literal version by modern scholars is the one Schoolcraft herself would have made had she chosen to translate this poem into English? Would Schoolcraft’s version have looked more like Henry’s, strictly rhymed and metered and adhering to the conventions of early 19th century poetry—since this is how she writes all of the rest of her English language poetry? Or is there something important (we thought that there was) about the fact that Schoolcraft never translated this particular poem into English?

To end our session on Schoolcraft, I played a recording of Margaret Noodin, an Anishinaabe poet and scholar who is the founder of ojibwe.net (an Anishinaabe language site with recordings of Anishinaabe songs and poems—an amazing resource), singing the Ojibwe version of “On leaving my children John and Jane at School.” Although no one in the class speaks Anishinaabe, we agreed that we were all moved by the beauty of the song. I liked ending the section on Schoolcraft in this way, with an acknowledgment that with any writer we read this term, there will be things we can’t access and can’t understand—but that makes these writers from another time more interesting, not less.


Bookending the Survey Course with Native American Literature-Part Two: Contemporary Texts and Authors

In November, I blogged about teaching ancient oral literatures at the beginning of a semester-long survey course in American literature. Here’s the follow-up on coming full circle from oral tradition (in weeks one and two) to contemporary Native American literature (in weeks fourteen and fifteen).

Bookending a survey course with studies of Native literature is not only structurally satisfying, but finishing an American literature course with study of contemporary Native literature is also a good latter-half or latter-third of the semester review: since “contemporary” Native American literature is usually understood to include the 21st and 20th centuries, you could easily end up reviewing over a hundred years of the literary landscape. In other words, if the course has put Realism, Naturalism, Existentialism, Modernism, and Postmodernism on the table, turning to contemporary Native American literature gives you a chance to revisit any/all of these, but from a sometimes surprising standpoint. Students discover how the big moves happening in published Native literature sometimes align—and often don’t align, or don’t align in expected ways—with the canonical literary landscape they’ve been probing in the course.

Second wave/Native Am. Renaissance: Paula Gunn Allen’s The Woman Who Owned the Shadows

For example, scholars see “pairs of opposing foci”—a structural staple of Native American Renaissance literature of the 1970s and 80s—as a re-emergence of Modernist binaries. Indeed, Native American Renaissance texts often construct stark contrasts between rural/urban, reservation/city, white/Native, tradition/Anglo-European, etc., opening the door for class discussion to delve into the aesthetics and politics of reviving and repurposing Modernist techniques and methods of expression in a new cultural and historic moment.

Below, I’ll introduce two critical resources helpful in teaching, lecturing, and shaping analytic discussion of contemporary Native American literature. Then I’ll touch on some of my own experiences and reflect on what worked… as well as where I dropped the ball.

Critical Resource #1

Simon Ortiz’s 1981 “Toward a National Indian Literature” discusses the way in which Native Americans have been adopting, adapting, incorporating, and repurposing colonial languages—especially Spanish, French, and English—on their own terms. “It is the way that Indian people have creatively responded to forced colonization,” writes Ortiz. And along with repurposing languages themselves, Native peoples draw on and similarly repurpose aesthetic patterns, literary tools, and textual practices of colonial origins. The thrust of Ortiz’s argument is that we must understand this particular fusion—the fusion of language adoption/repurposing with the continued use of oral tradition—as the foundation of Native American contemporary literature.

Ortiz’s argument makes for rich lecture and discussion material in the classroom because it introduces students to a basic interpretive practice: part of an analytic encounter with contemporary Native American literature entails re-engaging knowledge of the basic literary features that characterize oral tradition. As I wrote about in November, Robert Bringhurst’s 2014 interview in Guernica Magazine foregrounds oral traditions’ (a) emphasis on the more-than-human world, and (b) its exploration of how “mythtime” interacts with “realtime.” These two characteristics give students something concrete to draw out, close read, compare across texts, etc.

Critical Resource #2

Erika Wurth’s 2016 article in Writer’s Chronicle, “The Fourth Wave in Native American Fiction,” lays out a historic framework and charts four major literary developments. Wurth’s claims are specific to fiction, so her article might be less useful for instructors
wanting to emphasize another genre (e.g., poetry, a genre with respect to which a westernized literary audience is arguably already comfortable discussing orality). On the other hand, many Native American writers contest westernized genre-boundaries, so bringing poetry to the table alongside Wurth’s arguments could be an interesting exercise.

Either way, Wurth’s writing is accessible (the article can be assigned to students if time and reading load allow) and her division of over a century of literature into four distinct and digestible parts provides landmarks. Here’s a compressed run-down:

  • The first wave of contemporary Native American fiction anticipates an
    First wave: D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded

    untrained, unfamiliar audience. In texts from the early 20th century, plot, action, and character development are all apt to be “interrupted” by explanation of cultural references and/or history lessons.

  • Literature of the second wave (which corresponds with what is usually called—albeit problematically—the Native American Renaissance) tends to work with one general plotline: stories of individuated pain give way in the end to collectivity, shared consciousness, and realization of embeddedness across boundaries of time, space, and species.
  • Wurth’s third wave is “language first” fiction; that is, stories and novels no longer bear the second wave’s burden of asserting communal healing, and instead prioritize lyricism.
  • The most recent shift Wurth identifies is that writers contributing to the fourth wave
    Fourth wave: Richard van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed

    take a Native point of view as self-evident, thus requiring the reader to bring a degree of historic and cross- or multi-cultural familiarity to the table.

My Experience

Students seemed to find the most traction when tasked with returning to what they had learned about features of traditional oral literatures. They approached contemporary Native American texts as a scavenger hunt, seeking out evidence of emphasis on the more-than-human-world, mythtime, and realtime. Our most lively discussions revolved around describing and questioning these features’ functions in contemporary (as opposed to ancient, sacred) texts. The “active, ongoing presence of the past” became a theme for us, one students applied to pop culture references as well as to class texts.

On the other hand, students had more trouble applying Wurth’s four waves as an interpretive tool—they wanted it to work as a roadmap. In other words, they sought firm dates to associate with each wave, and were game to seek out evidence of, for example, “language-first” lyricism in a text if that text was pre-designated as third wave. Lessons learned? I feel that Wurth’s schema would have been a better teaching tool if I had framed it more directly as grounds for debate. For example, asking half the class to argue that Louise Erdrich’s “Fleur” is most productively understood as second wave, and the other half of the class to argue that it is most productively understood as third wave—or that Sherman Alexie’s “War Dances” belongs more squarely to the third versus the fourth wave—would have positioned students to engage Wurth’s ideas less as a system of classification and more as an analytic lens.

In Closing… Texts and Authors?

The Open Education Database proposes this list of twenty Native American must-read authors. Ernestine Hayes, Debra Magpie Earling, Eddie Chuculate, and Eric Gansworth are four more I’m eager to mention…and of course I would be happy to supply additional authors/titles to anyone interested!