- Bamewawagezhikaquay: Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s Postpastoral Poetics
The creative psyche of the Romantic poets of the nineteenth-century United States was shaped by the idea of the American continent as a far-reaching wilderness now within perceived possession, with identifiable and reachable frontiers. The blossoming of U. S. literature is often seen as a landscape composed of such well-known poets as Emerson, Longfellow, Bryant, Whittier, Dickinson, and Whitman. But a host of other writers, some with very different perspectives on the physical landscape, were also contributing to the cultural and literary landscape of the United States during this time.
It was a century of western expansion, of so-called manifest destiny; it was also a century of sweeping, violent change for Indian people. Starvation, government-induced disease, massacres, and forced removal decimated millions. From the Trail of Tears to the massacres at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, it was a brutal century of government- sanctioned attempts at first extermination, then assimilation, confining surviving populations to restricted areas and setting up schools to convert children to not only Christianity but to a new U. S. identity, which saw Native cultures as inferior— a crucial emblem for colonialism’s “New World” pastoral imagination.
The settler-colonists found a home for the pastoral tradition, stemming from Hesiod and, later, Theocritus and Virgil, in the “new world” landscape of the Americas. The traditional pastoral invocation of innocence, and its imagination of Arcadia as a realm of leisure and play, was transposed onto the colonists’ imagination of their “America.” The extensive space of the new country’s map was perceived, by [End Page 129] the aggressive and powerful new U. S. government, as a playground for the grand project of nation-making. In this imagined pastoral space, the idea of the Native American as shepherd was a convenient means of dual wish fulfillment: as silhouetted figure within which one could imagine oneself in a more “pure” and idealized state; and as a means to deny native inhabitants of the new “American” space a continued existence—the Indian / shepherd could be romanticized out of reality, relegated to the fantasy of Arcadia, and thereby ceasing to be in the way of the progress of the United States.
This matrix of thought infused nineteenth -century Romantic writers as they worked to define what “America” could mean, and in this, what a distinctly U. S. literature could be. But what about the Native poets? (I will use Native here to refer to people of Native American nations.) For those Native poets of the nineteenth century who were reading and writing poetry, and who were also influenced by the contemporary English Romantic themes, how did this pastoral configuration, which marginalized the figure of the Native American as a voiceless “innocent,” play out in their poetics? How did these poets’ sense of identity contend with the hypocrisy of the stereotype they were burdened with, and, more so, with the reality of brutal treatment their people were confronted with?
Reading Jane Johnston Schoolcraft has offered me an insight into the challenges Native writers (and Native women) faced during this time—as well as a different version of the pastoral, one I’m more aligned with in my own writing. Schoolcraft, who was Anishinaabe, was primarily known through her marriage to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, one of the first U. S. ethnographers. While both were writers—and Henry’s papers take up twenty-eight feet of shelf space in the Library of Congress, as Robert Dale Parker notes in the 2007 compilation The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft—Jane’s work was effectively erased from the landscape of nineteenth-century literature. It wasn’t until 2002, when a hand-bound manuscript of her poetry was discovered in a box in the Illinois State Historical Library and taken up into serious scholarly study by Parker, that the scope of her writings and influence became evident. He gathered her work, for the first time, into a book form, and prefaces her poems with an extensive biography.
Jane Johnston Schoolcraft was born Bamewawagezhikaquay (meaning Woman of the Sound the Stars...