The Storyteller

Cedars

There are defining moments in life.  For Pauline, it was the premature passing of her father, Chief George Johnson in 1884.  His death was attributed to the beatings he sustained attempting to thwart both the sale of alcohol in his community and the illegal harvesting of timber on the reserve.  Without her father’s income, their beloved home, Chiefswood was given over to renters.  The family took up residence in nearby Brantford, Ontario.

Pauline continued to write her poetry and gained modest acclaim for her first published poem “Ode to Brant” which was dedicated to the memory of Chief Joseph Brant.  However, it was her dramatic, “A Cry from an Indian Wife,” published in 1885 that garnered  immediate notoriety . In 1892, a Toronto audience of four hundred sat mesmerized as she recited the poem, based on the battle of Cut Knife Creek fought on May 2, 1885 at Battleford, Saskatchewan during the Louis Riel Rebellion. On that day, a small force of Cree and Assiniboine warriors mounted a successful defense against the mounted police, militia and the Canadian army regulars. Both sides sustained losses.

Pauline’s words were a poignant reminder of this tragic event, fresh in everyone’s memory. She spoke as no one had spoken before – as a First Nation woman.  From that moment on, she became Tekahionake, the Storyteller.

A Cry from an Indian Wife

My forest brave, my Red-skin love, farewell;
We may not meet to-morrow; who can tell
What mighty ills befall our little band,
Or what you’ll suffer from the white man’s hand?
Here is your knife! I thought ’twas sheathed for aye.
No roaming bison calls for it to-day;
No hide of prairie cattle will it maim; 
The plains are bare, it seeks a nobler game:
‘Twill drink the life-blood of a soldier host.
Go; rise and strike, no matter what the cost.
Yet stay. Revolt not at the Union Jack,
Nor raise Thy hand against this stripling pack
Of white-faced warriors, marching West to quell
Our fallen tribe that rises to rebel.
They all are young and beautiful and good;
Curse to the war that drinks their harmless blood.
Curse to the fate that brought them from the East
To be our chiefs–to make our nation least
That breathes the air of this vast continent.
Still their new rule and council is well meant.
They but forget we Indians owned the land
From ocean unto ocean; that they stand
Upon a soil that centuries agone
Was our sole kingdom and our right alone.
They never think how they would feel to-day,
If some great nation came from far away,
Wresting their country from their hapless braves,
Giving what they gave us–but wars and graves.
Then go and strike for liberty and life,
And bring back honour to your Indian wife.
Your wife? Ah, what of that, who cares for me?
Who pities my poor love and agony?
What white-robed priest prays for your safety here,
As prayer is said for every volunteer
That swells the ranks that Canada sends out?
Who prays for vict’ry for the Indian scout?
Who prays for our poor nation lying low?
None–therefore take your tomahawk and go.
My heart may break and burn into its core,
But I am strong to bid you go to war.
Yet stay, my heart is not the only one
That grieves the loss of husband and of son;
Think of the mothers o’er the inland seas;
Think of the pale-faced maiden on her knees;
One pleads her God to guard some sweet-faced child
That marches on toward the North-West wild.
The other prays to shield her love from harm,
To strengthen his young, proud uplifted arm.
Ah, how her white face quivers thus to think,
Your tomahawk his life’s best blood will drink.
She never thinks of my wild aching breast,
Nor prays for your dark face and eagle crest
Endangered by a thousand rifle balls,
My heart the target if my warrior falls.
O! coward self I hesitate no more;
Go forth, and win the glories of the war.
Go forth, nor bend to greed of white men’s hands,
By right, by birth we Indians own these lands,
Though starved, crushed, plundered, lies our nation low…
Perhaps the white man’s God has willed it so

Tekahionwake, Mohawk First Nation

12 thoughts on “The Storyteller

  1. What a powerful poem. That is the wonder of poetry isn’t it, to express succinctly so much meaning. And Tekahionwake is a master storyteller. And she is a generous soul. Thanks for sharing this.

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    • She had a way about her, didn’t she? She understood what people needed to hear, to express what others were unable to say. Her words are still relevant in today’s world. Thank you for stopping by – I look forward to your comments.

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  2. “They never think how they would feel to-day,
    If some great nation came from far away,
    Wresting their country from their hapless braves,
    Giving what they gave us–but wars and graves.”

    This behavior is alive and well today. Frustrating and sad.

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  3. The poem shows how much she was caught in the two cultures of her life but finally the pull of the land wins. Interesting that with the battle so fresh she was able to speak so freely and to a large audience. Her poem would resonate today with some of the land issues in New Zealand.

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    • Ah, you are very intuitive. While I am not an expert on Canadian politics at the time of the Louis Riel rebellion, the Toronto audience of 400 was mostly attached to the Liberal Party. They seemed open to her message. I agree; her words are relevant in this age.

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