Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Jane Johnston / Bamewawagezhikaquay (1800–42), "one of earliest American Indian literary writers"

There are various problems with 'colonialism' as a framework through which to view the past. Here are some that come to mind –

1) it corrals people into 'people groups' and in doing so it eradicates the sovereignty of the individual, the uniqueness of communities,  the particularity of circumstances.

2) it assumes, or implies, that the relationship between these 'people groups' has only ever been one of conflict, oppression and 'power'.

3) it implies that those 'people groups' themselves were always harmonious and peaceful until they came into contact with the 'others'.

4) it fosters a mindset of grievance – whether real or perceived; whether personally experienced, or just emotionally acquired via one's perceived group affiliation.

5) it removes any distinction between politically powerful decision-making élites and the wider population, failing to acknowledge that populations are often opposed to, and have often risen up against, their own élites. And of course even today, we wisely disregard our society's 'leaders' and make our own decisions. People aren't pawns.

6) it poses as 'fight the power', but actually it turns people against people, neighbour against neighbour


And so it clouds our understanding. Hence you might not expect that one of the earliest American Indian literary writers was called Jane Johnston. Her father, John Johnston (Wikipedia here), was from Ulster; a family tree is online here, linking the family back to Scotland and then to either Glynn near Larne or else Ballintoy.

John emigrated to North America and became a fur trader and eventually a prominent citizen in Michigan, in the USA/Canadian border town of Sault Ste. Marie, on the Great Lakes. He married Ozhaguscodaywayquay (Wikipedia here) the daugher of an Ojibwe Native American tribe leader. It's a complex and fascinating story. Here is their homestead as pictured in 1909. If it were made of whitewashed stone and grey slate you can easily imagine it in an Ulster landscape.

Their daughter Jane / Bamewawagezhikaquay (which magnificently translates into English as 'The Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky') was bicultural and bilingual, and her storytelling skills were both in English and in Ojibwe. There is a tantalising reference that says that John brought the family to Ireland for a while in 1809.

Jane married an Englishman, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (Wikipedia here). After Jane died, Henry was commissioned by the US Congress to write what became a six volume account of The Indian Tribes of the United States (on here).

History is not just an endless tale of exploitation and power. Courage, migration, co-operation, love and creativity are just some of the other dimensions of the human experience too.


• John Johnston features on the Dictionary of Canadian Biography here
• The Johnston family homestead still stands today and is a Michigan State Historic Site.
• Jane's biography is on here
• A 2008 edition of Jane's work was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press and is available on Amazon here
This website has some superb photos of sites associated with the Johnstons