By Mark Fogarty
“The first known American Indian literary writer, the first known Indian woman writer, by some measures the first known Indian poet, the first known poet to write poems in a Native American language, and the first known American Indian to write out traditional Indian stories,” as her modern-day editor Robert Dale Parker puts it.
Born on January 31, 1800 in what is today Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Schoolcraft was known primarily by the names of her white father and then her white husband. But in truth she moved fluidly between two cultures and never forgot her Indian name, Bamewawagezhikaquay (Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky). She wrote poems in her original language, though only a few survive; defended her American Indian grandfather against attacks on his reputation; dreamed of a place that had “no laws to treat my people ill,” and proudly noted one poem as being “by an Ojibwa female pen.”
Schoolcraft’s story provides an appealing example of the literary sleuthing required to lift her out of the obscurity she had been in for more than 150 years following her death on May 22, 1842. In addition to her literary accomplishments—which Parker puts in the same league as early Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley, an early African-American poet—Schoolcraft suffered a life of keen pain and loss. Today her significance to Indian poetry in general and Ojibwe poetry in particular is becoming more and more widely recognized.