Of the state of female society among the northern Indians, I shall say little, because on a review of it, I find very little to admire, either in their collective morality, or personal endowments.  The savage state is universally found to display itself in the most striking degree in the situation, dress, personal accomplishments, and employments of females, and these evidences may be looked upon as unerring indexes to the degree of civilization,–to the mental powers, and to the moral refinements of the other sex.  Doomed to drudgery and hardship from infancy,–without the elegance of dress,–without either mental resources, or personal beauty,–what can be said in favour of the Indian women!  The custom of binding the feet of female infants in such a manner as to make the toes point inwards, gives them in after life a very awkward appearance in walking; and in regard to the absence of female beauty, I am not able, from my own observations, to make a single exception.

— Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Travels Through the Northwestern Regions of the United States (pgs 231-32)

These are just some of the thoughts Henry Rowe Schoolcraft recorded in his journal on July 15, 1820.  Schoolcraft was accompanying Michigan Territorial Governor, Lewis Cass, on an expedition to the northern Great Lakes region of the United States.  The purpose of this expedition was to extend U.S. authority over Native people in the area.  After the War of 1812 there was still a lot of confusion and Native people still maintained strong British military and economic loyalties (some of these loyalties would remain into the 1840s).  Cass wanted to make it clear that the U.S. was in charge of this region and its peoples.  Schoolcraft came along as a geologist.  You may be saying to yourself, “why would there be a geologist on a diplomatic mission?”  Answer: the U.S. was trying to assess the value of these northern regions and needed a geologist to determine the mineral wealth of the area.  You see, Michigan was just starting the long process of achieving statehood (which would be achieved in 1837).  In order to do that the territorial governor, Cass, had to convince the Native people to sell their lands through treaty negotiations.  He also had to convince Washington and potential settlers that the territory was worth the hassle.  Schoolcraft was there to determine the economic value of the region with the goal of attracting interest from the federal government, investors, and white settlers; who would then strip the land of its resources (which they would do incredibly well throughout the 19th century).

But Schoolcraft had personal reasons for being on this expedition as well.  Like many other white people from New York and other East Coast locales in the early 1800s, Schoolcraft was fascinated by Native people.  Schoolcraft was one of a number of individuals who believed that Native people were disappearing and that certain aspects of their traditional culture (that which was untainted by Euro-American influence) needed to be preserved.  This is what would later come to be called “salvage anthropology.”  In addition, Schoolcraft believed Native people were in a depraved state.  But don’t worry, he could fix them.  Schoolcraft, like many others during this time, believed that Native people were simply lazy.  This, of course, could be remedied through Euro-American art, religion, writing, etc.  When Schoolcraft was made Superintendant of Indian Affairs for Michigan (the first to hold such a position) he attempted to do just that; both preserve what he viewed as traditional Native culture and bring Native people up from their perceived lowly state.

Specifically (I’m finally getting to the Native women part), Schoolcraft viewed Native women as being particularly depraved and pathetic.  The foreword to Schoolcraft’s journal states that “the inferior position of women in Indian society evoked his [Schoolcraft’s] shocked surprise.”  When I first read this passage, and the one that begins this post, I was suffering from a little bit of shocked surprise myself.

When Schoolcraft is referring to the “northern Indians” in the passage above he means the Dakota, Ottawa, and Ojibwe people he encountered while traveling along the southern shore of Lake Superior in what is now the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Now here’s the good part.  While on this expedition, Schoolcraft befriended the Johnston family, a prominent family from Sault Sainte Marie.  John Johnston was a Scots-Irish immigrant, and his wife, Susan Johnston, or Ozhaguscodaywayquay, was an Ojibwe woman and the daughter of a prominant war chief, Waubojeeg.

During one of the treaty negotiations with the Ojibwe, Cass ripped down a British flag that one of the Ojibwe had put up, and proceeded to stomp on it.  The assembled Ojibwe men were about to kill Cass and his whole party (including Schoolcraft) when Ozhaguscodaywayquay intervened and saved their lives by acting as a mediator between the groups.  This was a pivotal moment in Michigan history and I could go on and on about the significance of this intervention and mediation, but suffice it to say, she was kind of a big deal.  Who knows what could have happened had she not intervened.  One of these “Indian women,” that Schoolcraft so lovingly refered to, had just saved his and the governor’s life while significantly shaping the course of Michigan history.

It gets better.  On this same trip Schoolcraft met John and Susan’s daughter, Jane Johnston.  Long story short, they fall in love and get married and Henry moves to Michigan to live with his wife and her family while acting as Indian Agent for the whole territory.  Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on what just happened.  Henry Schoolcraft thinks Native women are not that great (to put it mildly).  Remember, he could not find a “single exception” to his observation that they all suck at being people.  Yet, he owes his life to the actions of a Native woman and then married that woman’s daughter.

What makes this worse is the fact that Jane was literate (much more so than her husband, I would argue) and most likely read Henry’s comments on Native women (his journal was published in 1821).  But wait, it gets even worse.  Henry and Jane first met on June 15th, 1820 (he wrote about it in his journal).  That means that one month after meeting his future wife Henry would go on to write that brilliant observation about Native women that opened this blog post.  Wow.  What. An. Ass.

Finally, Henry used the Johnston family to gain information on Ojibwe language, culture, and stories; most of which he then published under his own name with little or no reference or attribution to Jane and her family (even though it was clear that most of the information he gathered came directly from Jane or her mother.  In fact, Longfellow’s famous Hiawatha can be traced to Jane and her family through Henry’s writings).  He even used Jane’s brothers as interpreters.  Basically, he was wholly dependent upon the Johnston family (especially his wife and mother-in-law) for his life and livelihood, but never gave them the credit they deserved.

I think I’ll leave it there.  I could go on forever about this topic, but I think there’s enough here for you to mull over for a while.

If you want more information on Jane Johnston Schoolcraft and her writings I suggest the excellent work by Robert Dale Parker called The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky.  The title is an English translation of Jane’s Ojibwe name, Bamewawagezhikaquay.  OR, you can come hear me talk more about Jane and her family at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) annual conference at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon some time between June 13 and 15.

*Fun Fact: After Jane’s death Henry married a rich southern woman, named Mary, who wrote a racist piece of crap called Plantation Life.

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