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Native American Poems’ Comparative Analysis


Unfortunately, much of human history consists of the events of one group of people conquering another and erasing the culture of the defeated nation, so the latter submit. Thankfully, the latter does not always happen, and sometimes the culture of those who lost replaces that of the invaders, or they merge and become a new unique civilizational phenomenon. According to historians and sociology experts, both outcomes almost happened to Native Americans (Perez 176). The amazing and inspiring thing about them is that while being politically, socially, and culturally dominated, Indigenous people still could find the inner will and resources to resist the influence of several Western nations at once.

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They found their way of preserving and developing their cultural core in art, literature specifically, and later activism (Perez 176). Jane Johnston Schoolcraft and Emily Pauline Johnson were among the first literary flagships for Indigenous communities in dominant colonial Western society. They and many other Indigenous writers, poets, artists brought common ideas to their people in the United States (US) and Canada who did not previously have a shared identity. This analytical paper will explore the various societal aspects and elements of the Schoolcraft and Johnson poems.

Manifestations of the Female Gender in the Schoolcraft and Johnson Poems

It can be safely said that gender is one of the most influential and manifest aspects of human nature in art and poetry is no exception. Any literary work contains one or several gender perspectives, primarily male or female. It is noteworthy that only these two existed in the era of Romanticism, the time when the two discussed poets lived. (Perez 178). “Absence,” “To the Pine Tree,” and “The Indian Corn Planter” are poems of the past, namely the 19th century, so they have only one point of view, which is female. However, it manifests differently in each work in ways similar to Indigenous women’s social roles in the US and Canada at the time.

Societal Roles of Wife, Mother, and Daughter from a Native American Perspective

After reading the English versions of “Absence” and “To the Pine Tree,” one might assume that two different lyricists wrote them, the former by a white American writer and only the latter by a Native poet. However, these two literary pieces are the work of Schoolcraft. The reason for their cultural difference is that the author has absorbed the cultures of both Indigenous and Western societies (Schoolcraft 90). The poems contain a clearly defined female gender perspective, which is expressed in the traditional social roles of women as wives, mothers, and daughters.

Images of a Wife and Mother in “Absence” by Schoolcraft

It can be said that “Absence” is one of Schoolcraft’s most personal poems as it portrays her experiences of sadness and anxiety associated with a long separation from her husband. The author masterfully conveyed the matrimonial aspect of the female social role, and lines as “while strays far from my sight, stranger I am to all delight” are proof of this (Schoolcraft 120). The poem is very revealing in terms of how some North American tribes, the Ojibwe in this case, assimilated into white colonial society and adopted their social norms and patterns. Schoolcraft’s social behavior as a wife described in “Absence” is almost indistinguishable from white Christian women of the 19th century. The reason may be that the Ojibwe were one of the few Native American tribes whose politico-social ties with the colonizers were mostly peaceful (Schoolcraft 4). Her behavior as a mother shown in this work also does not have any distinctive elements inherent only in her native tribe.

The Image of the Daughter in “To the Pine Tree” by Schoolcraft

“To the Pine Tree” differs significantly from “Absence” discussed above in that it not only provides a feminine perspective and the daughter’s social figure but also portrays these through a Native American lens. Schoolcraft expresses her true happiness at returning from Europe to her ancestral lands in this short poem (Schoolcraft 90). Schoolcraft says that she is coming back to her “native land” in her work (89). “To my own dear bright motherland” is a clear indication that the writer perceives her and her tribe’s native places as a parent and relates to these lands in a family way where her position is a daughter (Schoolcraft 89). It can be assumed that she perceives homeland and nature as both a father and a mother, which could be a residual influence of Ojibwe culture and religious beliefs.

Societal Roles of Lover and Widow from a Native American Perspective

The female gender in Johnson’s poetry differs from Schoolcraft’s one both structurally and culturally. There is no direct and clear female perspective in “The Indian Corn Planter,” but the fact that a woman wrote it provides enough context to take it from a female point of view. Such an analytical approach allows one to identify and explore two other roles of the female gender in society, which are the lover and the widow.

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The Image of Lover in “The Indian Corn Planter” by Johnson

A lover is one of the hidden female roles in “The Indian Corn Planter.” It can be found and identified in such lines as “for mating game his arrows ne’er despoil” and “he needs must leave … the women dulcet voices” (Johnson 124-125). The admiration for the brown hands of a Native American farmer is a very sensual and sexual element of this poem, especially for the late 19th century. One might say that it was the release of female sexual energy, which had much more freedom in the cultures of Indigenous people in the pre-colonial period. This poem is also the spiritual support of the Indigenous women of Canada to their men who had difficulty adapting to a new way of life caused by the influence of the Western social order.

The Image of Widow in “The Indian Corn Planter” by Johnson

The widow is another female social role that one can find in this literary work by Johnson. According to Johnson, “he needs must leave … for the grim realities of laboring for bread” (125). This phrase sounds like the protagonist of this poem descends into the underworld. The description of the soil as “dormant” also indicates that the poem’s plot is allegorical (Johnson 124). From places full of vitality, light, darkness, and people, he goes to where there is only soil, sun, moon, and hard daily work. One can see that the author personally mourns the impending imminent semi-metaphorical death of her man. It is a self-reflection on the dying pagan and tribal culture of the Indigenous people of Canada and their natural way of life, which is fading into the past quickly and inevitably due to the colonial nations dominating them. Although the overall plot sounds sad, the poet inspires her men on their new journey, which is a sign of cultural resistance.

The Presence of Native American Languages in Poems of Schoolcraft and Johnson

Previous work has argued that storytelling and poetry are necessary for the survival and development of Native cultures. These two cultural mechanisms have a shared element that directly affects their effectiveness, and it is the native language. Its presence in poetry and other oral and written forms of storytelling is vital to preserving primary cultural forms and meanings. Often native words and phrases carry culturally critical meanings and uninterpretable puns. One also must mention that literature in the mother tongue allows Indigenous peoples to be distinguishable and have “their own voice” among other nations (Perez 183). Its absence in ethnic literary works is a sign of complete cultural assimilation.

The Presence of Ojibwe Language in “Absence” and “To the Pine Tree” by Schoolcraft

Ojibwe Language in “Absence”

As mentioned above, Schoolcraft knew both her native Ojibwe and European languages, with English as the main one. Native writers use non-native languages for various reasons, one of which is cultural assimilation by the colonizers. Another one may be Indigenous artists’ desire to appeal to the masses and use the colonial infrastructure so that their work reaches many other Native Americans. The third one is the concealment of the complete meaning of the piece of art and the cultural differentiation of ethnic artwork from the dominant cultural paradigm. For example, “Absence” does not contain any specific Ojibwe idioms or speech patterns, and only subheadings remind readers that the lyricist is a member of the Indigenous People (Schoolcraft 120). It is these four included native words that complete the idea of “Absence,” which could only be understood by other Ojibwe people.

Ojibwe Language in “To the Pine Tree”

One can say that “To the Pine Tree” is a perfect example of Native American poetry. It was initially written in the Ojibwe language, and its imagery, symbolism, and feelings are strongly associated with the Ojibwe’s native land and the tribe itself. According to Schoolcraft, “the English text, with its meter and its different pattern of rhyme, is not a literal translation of the Ojibwe text” and, therefore, cannot be fully cognized and comprehended by people outside this ethnicity. It is both a love letter to one of her parental cultures and a show of respect for her ethnic ancestors.

The Presence of Mohawk Language in “The Indian Corn Planter” by Johnson

Another thing in which the poetry of Schoolcraft and Johnson differ is the presence of Native American languages. Unfortunately, Johnson’s poem does not have lines or even a single word in the Mohawk language (124). It is worth noting that this is paradoxical for a poem that praises the original way of life of the Indigenous people and has a motif of resistance. Perhaps the inclusion of Mohawk linguistic elements was not there for the purposes of the lyricist.

Native American Pagan Beliefs in the Poems of Schoolcraft and Johnson

Poetry, literature, and oral storytelling are not the only cultural instruments small Indigenous peoples can use to preserve and maintain their traditions. North American Paganism beliefs and religions were the original methods of perceiving the world, weather, flora, and fauna for Native people. Unfortunately, many unique myths, rituals, and pantheons have been lost due to the forced Christianization of the Indigenous Peoples of the New World (Perez 176). Their inclusion in ethnic literature is always a welcome addition that sometimes creates unusual plot points and twists never seen in Western and other literature.

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Native American Pagan Beliefs in “Absence” and “To the Pine Tree” by Schoolcraft

Native pagan elements and motifs were not found in the two discussed Schoolcraft poems. Conversely, one may find many references to the Christian God and Abrahamic ideas in “Absence.” For example, there are lines such as “that He the God of love and pow’r, may bless and guard him through each hour” and “knowledge of God is Wisdom’s height” which is very ethnocentric in terms of narrative, central idea, and style (Schoolcraft 121). Interestingly, there are no Christian elements in “To the Pine Tree.” Comparing these two poems shows how cultural assimilation through religion works over time.

Native American Pagan Beliefs in “The Indian Corn Planter” by Johnson

“The Indian Corn Planter” analysis showed that Johnson differs from Schoolcraft in incorporating religious elements into her poetry. She mentions both the Christian God and “simple pagan faith” (Johnson 125). The author uses them to describe the protagonist’s actions and thoughts and reinforce the overall imagery of the poem. It shows Canadian Indigenous tribes, and the Mohawks specifically, still remember their pagan origins and respect both religious communities.

Comparison of Styles of Poems by Schoolcraft and Johnson

Common Things in Poems of Schoolcraft and Johnson

It is obvious that the poems of Schoolcraft and Johnson have both common stylistic elements and specific significant and minor differences. The first fundamental similarity is the literary movement to which they belong which is Romanticism. Narrative elements in Schoolcraft’s writings that indicate that this is romantic literary poetry are the poet’s focus on her own emotions and related individual experiences and the frequent and detailed description of nature’s elements. According to Schoolcraft, “ah beauteous tree … that greets me on my native strand” (89). Johnson’s poem also emphasizes and describes the background; she metaphorically describes the seasons and time passage (125). Her writing is also filled with a mystical pagan atmosphere and melancholy. Speaking of narrative similarities, both “To the Pine Tree” and “The Indian Corn Planter” discusses pre-colonial Native cultures as beautiful and colorful past. Another common thing is small phonetic changes in words to create a more rhythmic flow of lines.

Differences in Poems of Schoolcraft and Johnson

Differences between the works of Schoolcraft and Johnson are also present due to upbringing, lifestyle, outside influences, environments, and times in which these poets lived. The big narrative difference between their styles is that the former uses personal experience as the basis for the plot of the poems, while the latter relies more on imagination and metaphor. As mentioned several times above, both of Schoolcraft’s literary works are about herself (Schoolcraft 120). Johnson creates a culturally-related fictional setting to share with readers her anxieties and hopes (124). It is also worth noting the differing approaches to rhyming. The Ojibwe writer uses a short meter while the Mohawk poet resorts to a long one.

Conclusion and Future Suggestions

It was a detailed comparative analysis of three poems whose lyricists are of Native American origin. These literary works are “Absence,” “To the Pine Tree,” and “The Indian Corn Planter.” Jane Johnston School wrote the first two, and Emily Pauline Johnson created the third. Schoolcraft is considered a US romantic poet, and Johnson is a Canadian writer of the same literary movement. These include female gender and its manifestations in Native American poetry, the presence of Native American languages, Native American pagan beliefs, and stylistic similarities and differences in the poems.

Consequently, several interesting cultural patterns and literary elements were discovered. For example, the gender perspective of the discussed female Native American poets has similar sociocultural manifestations to the European ones of those times. They are wife, mother, daughter, lover, and widow. The latter proved to be the most interesting as they have a stronger connection with the pre-colonial culture of the Indigenous people. The inclusion of Native language words promotes greater distancing from the dominant post-colonial societal norm. It also contributes to the better preservation of fundamental cultural meanings. Another interesting finding is that old times, childhood, paganism, and happiness are intertwined concepts in Native American poetry of the 19th century. One also has to note that the creative styles of Schoolcraft and Johnson have more similar features than differences, and most of these can be found in their approaches to the narration. More comparative and analytical studies of multiple Indigenous writers will allow discovering and identifying new, unusual cultural elements and proving the thoughts and hypotheses described and explained here.

Works Cited

Johnson, Emily Pauline. E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Edited by Carole Gerson and Veronica Strong-Boag, University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Pérez, L. S. “A Concise Overview of Native American Written Literature: Early Beginnings to 1968.” International Journal of Languages, Literature and Linguistics, vol. 5, no. 3, 2019, pp. 176-185.

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Schoolcraft, Jane Johnston. The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft. Edited by Robert D. Parker, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

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