Sculptor Ralph Wolfe

Mark Fogarty

Sculptor Ralph Wolfe

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s Ojibwe Mother Started the Native Poet’s Literary Journey

She was an Ojibwe woman of many names. And one choice she made helped result in the first poetry anyone knows of to be written in a Native language.

Ozhagusodaywayquay (also known as Susan Johnston, Woman of the Green Glade, and Neengay) was the mother of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (1800–1842), the pioneering Ojibwe/Irish poet whose three surviving poems in the Ojibwe language set a template for all who followed her.

How did Ozhagusodaywayquay help usher these first Native language poems into the world? Besides nurturing Jane, this mother also made the choice not to speak the English she heard (and understood) each day from business associates and guests of her Irish husband, John Johnston, a prominent fur trader.

Because of that choice, Jane (Bamewawagezhikaquay) grew up a Native speaker who thought of the Ojibwe language as she wrote her long-neglected but now celebrated poetry (she wrote many English language poems as well), collected in 2007 in The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky, by Robert Dale Parker.

Jane’s house on Water Street, Sault Ste Marie, MI, still stands (it is one of the oldest standing structures in the Midwest, according to Chippewa County Historical Society member Mike Bennett), while Ozhagusodayquay’s house, which was next door and actually adjoined it, does not. But not all traces of her are gone.

There is a statue on the old homesite called “In Neengay’s Garden” (Neengay, “Mother,” was what Jane and her seven siblings called her). She is kneeling in her garden, a long braid of hair down her back, accompanied by an owl perched on her shoulder and a fisher (a kind of weasel) at her side, expressing her closeness to nature.

Neengay was a noted gardener and hostess and also a sugarmaker each summer. According to Ojibwe poet Heid Erdrich, she also did beadwork that survives to this day.

She was the daughter of a noted Ojibwe chief, Waubojeeg. She died in 1843, according to Parker’s book, which means she may have experienced the loss of her daughter, who died in 1842.

Related: National Poetry Month: Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, the First American Indian Poet

 

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