On Writing and Ojibwe: Teaching Jane Johnston Schoolcraft in Writing Classes

PALS is once again excited to announce a guest postthis time by Sonya Lawson-Salmasi, a lecturer at Ohio State University. Lawson-Salmasi writes about using Jane Johnston Schoolcraft in the composition classroom. Find out more about Lawson-Salmasi’s teaching here.

Dr. Yvette DeChavez’s call to decolonize our literature syllabi is particularly relevant in 2019. As DeChavez says “if academia continues to uphold white men as the pinnacle of literature, they’re also upholding white supremacy.” However, such work shouldn’t stop in the literature classroom. We can best serve students in other courses, particularly writing courses, by introducing and analyzing texts that they rarely encounter and issues they often do not consider. This is where Jane Johnston Schoolcraft comes in for me.

PALS has already published an excellent piece on teaching Schoolcraft in 19th century literature classes, and I have taught her work in a variety of literature courses myself. This particular post outlines how I have integrated Schoolcraft into my Second Year Writing courses. In thinking about teaching American Indian writers in composition courses, I relied heavily on the edited collection Survivance, Sovereignty, and Story: Teaching American Indian Rhetorics. Jessica Safran Hoover’s “Rhetorical Sovereignty in Written Poetry” was exceedingly helpful for reframing Schoolcraft in a rhetorical mode, as it describes how code-switching and translation in poetic works represent survivance and autonomy for American Indian writers. This essay helped me situate the Ojibwe language and the act of translation within a rhetorical context and gave a great theoretical foundation for understanding the importance of translation and language for American Indian culture and literature.

With this theoretical backing, I developed a three-day sequence for two different versions of Second Year Writing. Because these were writing courses, the study of literature needed to serve the efforts of writing instruction. I chose to couple Schoolcraft’s work and my overall discussions on American Indian language and U.S. history within the framework of exploring how claim-evidence-warrant structures work within argumentation. Adding Schoolcraft adds diversity, yes, but also adds an opportunity for students to think through complex cultural assumptions and new forms of argumentation while also giving them an opportunity to tackle big ideas like the way history is written and erased and the place of language in a diverse conception of American culture and history. In working toward decolonizing my writing syllabus, I also expanded critical thinking and understanding of rhetorical situations and argument structures, making such inclusion doubly beneficial for my writing students.

Now, for the nuts and bolts of how I use Schoolcraft in class. Day 1 is all about introducing both Schoolcraft and American Indian poetry in translation. The readings for the day are two poems by Schoolcraft titled “To the Pine Tree on first seeing it on returning from Europe” and “On leaving my children John and Jane at School, in the Atlantic states, and preparing to return to the interior.” These poems are copied from Robert Dale Parker’s edited collection The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (2008). I use this edition specifically because of Parker’s focus on translation and his extensive editorial commentary. Students are asked to read the Ojibwe and English versions of the poems along with Parker’s notes for each.

To begin this day, I give a little lecture where I focus on who Schoolcraft was and her identity as a metís Ojibwe in early 19th century America. Having a very brief intro to the concept of metís culture in early America situates the linguistic, rhetorical, and historical stakes of Schoolcraft’s poetry while introducing the idea that, in some places and at some points in the past, American Indian culture was not always thought of as outside or apart from American culture. However, the bulk of the class is spent on a Think-Pair-Share activity. I use translation as the focal point and ask students to respond with their initial reaction to reading in an unfamiliar language and list some ways they can pinpoint differences between the Ojibwe and English versions of each poem visually.

Just viewing the first stanzas of each poem and translation gives a number of visual clues about meaning and intention in translation. Schoolcraft constructed “Pines” first in Ojibwe then in English. As writer and translator, the intention behind the meaning and form of the poem appears to be similar in both the Ojibwe and English versions. You can visually see the similarities in structure and grammar even if you do not know Ojibwe:


Shing wauk! Shing wauk! nin ge ik id,

Waish kee wau bum ug, shing wauk

Tuh quish in aun nau aub, ain dak nuk i yaun.

Shing wauk, shing wauk No sa

Shi e gwuh ke do dis au naun

Kau gega way zhau wus co zid.


The pine! the pine! I eager cried,

The pine, my father! see it stand,

As first that cherished tree I spied,

Returning to my native land.

The pine! the pine! oh lovely scene!

The pine, that is forever green.

“On leaving” was only written by Schoolcraft in Ojibwe, then translated into English by her husband, and translated differently for Parker in his edition. Each version varies in length, grammar, and structure, which is clearly visible to readers:

JJS Ojibwe Version:

Nyau nin de nain dum

May kow e yaun in

Ain dah nuk ki yaun

Waus saw a kom eg

Ain dah nuk ki yaun

HS (JJS Husband) “free” Translation into English:

Ah! when thought reverts to my country so dear,

My heart fills with pleasure, and throbs with a fear;

My country, my country, my own native land,

So lovely in aspect, in features so grand,

Far, far in the West. What are cities to me,

Oh! land of my mother, compared unto thee?

Newer English Translation (2005) by Dennis Jones, Heidi Stark, and James Vukelich:

As I am thinking

When I find you

My land

Far in the west

My land

Seeing how translation by the author verses translation by others differs can point students toward an understanding of how connections with theme, intention, or audience change depending on who is writing/translating and how they are writing/translating. Both poems touch on issues of home, love, and family, yet the varied specific subject matter and personal issues at the center of each could mandate how and why Schoolcraft decided to construct the poem in a given language(s). In seeing her choices (and non-choices) in language on the page in front of them, students begin to think through the ways Schoolcraft’s Ojibwe/English usage may reflect what she valued in each poem and why, rhetorically, she would decide to translate or not translate.

Day 2 introduces argument structures in connection with our understanding of Schoolcraft and the work of centering American Indian language and literary history. The readings for this day are a brief outline of Claim-Evidence-Warrant structures I created and a short book review of Parker’s edition by Margaret Noori – “Bicultural Before There Was a Word for It.” This review focuses on how language is used, discussed, and presented by Parker, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, and Henry Schoolcraft (her first editor). It presents a clear argument about the value of the recovery work Parker did in order to create this unique collection.

We begin the class with a review of what constitutes a good claim, how evidence should concretely connect to a good claim, and how implicit/explicit warrants function. We then use Noori as a way to think about these new argument concepts. I give students 10 minutes to review their Noori article, asking them to find as many claims as they can. We then, as a class, list claims on the board and break each down, seeing what evidence is used and how they are connected through warrants. This is a day where argument is the central focus, and it shows how writing instruction can still include examples and texts that value the work of indigenous voices and present indigenous issues that may be ignored in the writing classroom.

Day 3 is about dictionaries, language, and history-making – something students don’t often consider. The reading is light, just a short, translated Ojibwe story from Schoolcraft – “The Origin of the Robin.” We start with a lecture on the creation of English and American-English dictionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries, connecting each to concepts of nationalism and exclusion through language. This leads into a viewing of “Marie’s Dictionary,” a 2015 short documentary (9:36), which follows Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of Wukchumi, in her efforts to create/record Wukchumi stories and a dictionary so her American Indian language can potentially survive after her. After viewing the film, we discuss Schoolcraft’s work in translating Ojibwe stories into English and how the two projects highlight language, history, culture, and preservation.

Afterward, we do a quick Pass the Claim activity. Students create claims regarding the subject matter for the day then think of possible concrete evidence from the texts (story, editorial notes, and film) to support the claim created by a fellow classmate. Finally, they pair up and discuss how the evidence works with the claim and what implicit and explicit warrants would function within that structure. For example, one student could make a straight-forward claim like “Using language helps preserve culture.” The second student could then point to particular moments in Wilcox’s story of dictionary creation and Schoolcraft’s practice of translating Ojibwe stories into English as two different ways in which this claim could be supported with concrete evidence. Paired conversations about implicit warrants could then focus on particular cultural beliefs we have today about language and culture or the importance of preserving forms of both for future generations. The explicit warrant discussion would require the pair work together to literally put claim and evidence in writing to see what logical moves, explicit explanations, or style issues are needed to make such evidence connect with the claim. By using Schoolcraft and Marie’s Dictionary for an activity that could actually be done with a wide variety of different texts, they not only become familiar with these complex and diverse language issues, but also become acclimated to creating arguments about such issues and using a variety of sources that show differing ways of knowing/arguing in an academic context.

Doing work with and through a figure like Jane Johnston Schoolcraft in the writing classroom refines and complicates assumptions about what American language is and who has and does participate in creating and sustaining literature and culture in America. All of this brings diversity in text and thought while reinforcing issues of language, style, argument, and textual creation central to a writing classroom. My process of decolonizing my courses is a continual process. As a white woman, I have a responsibility to use my privilege to open space for other voices that are not privileged in our society and to, as De Chavez states, “push against whiteness as a default” in all classes, whether it is a literature or writing course.


DeChavez, Yvette. “It’s Time to Decolonize That Syllabus.” Los Angeles Times, 08 October 2018. https://www.latimes.com/books/la-et-jc-decolonize-syllabus-20181008-story.html. Accessed 9 August 2019.

Hoover, Jessica Safran. “Rhetorical Sovereignty in Written Poetry: Survivance through Code-Switching and Translation in Laura Tohe’s Tséyí/Deep in the Rock – Reflections on Canyon de Chelley.” Survivance, Sovereignty, and Story: Teaching American Indian Rhetorics. Lisa King, Rose Gubele, and Joyce Rain King, eds. Utah State UP, 2015. 

mhrange. “Teaching Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.” Pedagogy and American Literary Studies. 25 September 2017. https://teachingpals.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/teaching-jane-johnston-schoolcraft/. Accessed 9 August 2019. 

Noori, Margaret. “Bilingual Before There Was a Word for It.” Wellesley Centers for Women. Update 2019. https://www.wcwonline.org/WRB-Issues/bicultural-before-there-was-a-word-for-it. Accessed 9 August 2019. 

Parker, Robert Dale. The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft. U Penn Press, 2008. 

Vaughan-Lee, Emmanuel. “Marie’s Dictionary.” Global Onenesss Project. Accessed 16 September 2019. https://www.globalonenessproject.org/library/films/maries-dictionary.

Bio: Dr. Sonya Lawson-Salmasi received her MA in English Studies from the University of Louisville and her PhD in 17th-18th Century Transatlantic Literature from Miami University. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at The Ohio State University. There she occasionally teaches literature courses when needed, but the bulk of her teaching work is in First- and Second-Year Writing courses. She has presented on her teaching at a wide variety of national conferences such as the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and the Multi-Ethnic Literatures in the United States conference. When not teaching, Sonya enjoys spoiling her cat, reading romance novels, and watching horror films. You can learn more about her teaching here.


Comminglings of Law and Literature: Thoughts from the Yukon Territory

I am presently on a Fulbright in Whitehorse, Yukon (northwestern Canada) to write essays. Politics-wise, this year gives me a little window through which to watch Indigenous land claims unfold in the Yukon, and pedagogy-wise it gives me time to observe the special relationship that Yukon College (the future Yukon University) maintains with the territory’s fourteen Indigenous First Nations.

Though I’m researching/writing full time, I’ve also been thinking about the pedagogy of Indigenous literature. I’m wrestling with this question: in what ways can and should an Indigenous literature course engage local Indigenous politics?

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“Never Give Up – You Will Find Your Way” (2012, by Vernon J.M. Asp) alongside the flags outside Yukon College’s main entrance.

This question fits into a much larger one, of course. I.e., what are the special pressures—and the special opportunities—that local histories, local memories, and local politics present to instruction in the humanities? Particularly in a community-based, post-secondary teaching context?

I’d be interested in hearing more voices weigh in to that larger question. But this post stays local. First, some lightning-speed historic context. Then, a teaching example that combines a Yukon College English course, a long and ponderous political document, and a pink moose.


Context Part One: The Yukon’s Entire Colonial History in Three Sentences

Colonial in-migration #1: Russian and British fur traders could be seen here and there during the nineteenth century, but it was less them and more their stuff (firearms, tea, cloth…and epidemics) that circulated among the Indigenous people of the Yukon’s boreal forests. Later, the Klondike Gold Rush stampeders on the trail of 1898-1899 made up the area’s major settler-colonial in-migration #2; it was an uproarious one, yes, but Indigenous groups who did not live directly in the path of the stampede did not yet have to contend with newcomers directly. It was during the 1940s post-war construction of the Alaska Highway that the third (#3)—and probably most devastating—wave of settler-colonial in-migration entered the Yukon, where it has been highly visible and active ever since (a mere how many generations ago? …not quite three?).

A bit of the Alaska Highway crossing…the Liard River, I believe.

Context Part Two: The Yukon’s Contemporary Political Landscape

The Yukon is home to fourteen Indigenous First Nations.

Kwanlin Dün settled their land claims in 2005. This is their welcome sign (and reminder of ownership) at the Fish Lake trailhead; the trail crosses their land and leads hikers into stunning alpine terrain just a minute north of Whitehorse, Yukon.

The Yukon’s First Nations, like Indigenous peoples just about everywhere are invested in a long-term legal battle to gain recognized control over their traditional lands. The process is called “land claims.” The Yukon’s 1990 solution to its First Nations’ land claims is a roughly 300-page legal document called the Umbrella Final Agreement. Once a First Nation signs on to the UFA, it can negotiate the terms of its self-government.

At present: eleven First Nations have signed the UFA and negotiated self-government agreements. Three remain in limbo.

The big picture: the Yukon is basically transitioning from three layers of governments to… seventeen interlocking governments. (My neighbor and I recently counted it out. Eleven self-governing First Nations is eleven, plus four municipal governments equals fifteen, plus the territorial government equals sixteen, plus the federal government makes: seventeen. And seventeen governments plus three more First Nations still in negotiations will eventually equal twenty governments in total.)


How can and should Indigenous literature be taught at a place like Yukon College (which serves a student body of primarily Yukoners including: First Nations, the settler community, recent immigrants, and international students) at this particular historic moment (in which First Nations are negotiating land claims—read: their communities’ entire futures—and in which everyone and everyone’s projects are enmeshed in questions of how these seventeen governments can/should work together, including who’s eligible for what, which responsibilities lie in whose hands, which funding streams go into whose coffers, etc.)?

So the Yukon is a cutting-edge place for political scientists. And at the nexus of political science and the literary arts, I’ve encountered this: a hot pink, life-sized, papier-mâché moose.

Photo credit: Daren Gallo.

Artist Lianne Charlie (also an instructor of political science(!) at Yukon College) built a life-sized moose and papered it with torn sections of the UFA, that roughly 300-page document from 1990 that provides a legal framework for the territory’s First Nations land claims agreements. The UFA is, of course, a government document: it’s long and boring and hard to read. What Lianne has done as an artist is to build a sculpture that embodies the text as tactile, visual, philosophic, both funny and sobering in its layers of metaphoric play.

Only one page of the document is intact in this sculpture: page fifteen, the UFA’s “cede, release, and surrender” clause. According to this clause, First Nations signing on to the UFA agree to “cede, release, and surrender” their land—in order to get formal rights in return (to some of that land). Sound dicey to you? It sure does to Lianne. She used the cede, release, and surrender clause to paper the moose’s left shoulder, where three arrows protrude from it: this moose has been shot. The cede, release, and surrender clause is the site of its wound.

Artist Lianne Charlie discusses the moose with Drew Lyness’ First Nations Literature in the English Language class. Photo credit: Daren Gallo.

Drew Lyness, an instructor of English at Yukon College, currently teaches a course called “First Nations Literature in the English Language.” He brought his students to the art gallery and taught the moose as literature.

For Drew, the moose’s importance hinges on community involvement—on linking students’ literary study back to those students’ actual human communities, to the public events those communities support, and to the physical site of those communities’ public dialogues. For me, the importance of the moose hinges on a fascination with text.


One thing a literature course can do is to read the major documents by which people in a society try to coexist and cohabit. I’m thinking of two main categories, here: societies’ sacred texts, for one. And two, societies’ government documents. Its laws.

Think about reading the bible as literature. What it means, roughly, to read the bible as literature, is to read it as a “questions book” rather than as an “answers book.”

The same might hold for a literary reading of the law. Along these lines, I’ve started thinking about reading government documents as literature. A society’s laws certainly raise questions—for starters, questions about the heart of that society, and questions about where it’s going.

Moose meat! Wild foods – hunted and harvested from the land – feed more than our bodies: many layers of spirit and history and tradition and philosophy converge in and around meals connected to the land. (“…who we are…”)

Yes, attorneys also read government documents for questions, and courts have to settle them. That is practical. Still, a complex and powerful text is likely to raise questions that outlive its answers. The pink moose is constructed to suggest exactly this—it suggests the document guiding the Yukon’s First Nations’ land claims raises more questions than it answers about who we are and where we’re going.

The Canada flag. The Yukon Territory flag. And a big box store. Democracy and capitalism are recent arrivals – and for now at least, they seem to be inevitable institutions of the Yukon’s future. (“…and where we’re going…”)

And so when a government is in the midst of a sea change, adopting and testing new flagship documents, new seminal texts—ones according to which we and our children will live ostensibly differently than we ever have in the past—citizens may well want to read those texts beyond their prescriptive/material dimensions. Citizens may well want to consider the questions their new legal texts raise about who they are and who they are becoming.

And so it occurs to me that one thing a literature course can do is to support students in developing a living relationship with legal documents.

The Carcross Learning Centre in Carcross, Yukon.

More specifically, as an observer of Yukon College’s programs and faculty and students, as an observer of its territory-wide partnerships, its relationship with the fourteen First Nations of the Yukon, its historic emphasis on trades instruction and its future transition to university status… As an observer of these dynamics, it occurs to me that in this time and place—and perhaps also at the time and in the place from which you are reading this post—an Indigenous literature course may be uniquely positioned to support students in developing relationships with the legal documents designed to fundamentally alter the futures and possibilities for their community’s Indigenous peoples.