“There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.”
Michel de MontaigneThere is a stretch along the Vancouver Seawall where great conversations are held. The voices, loud and impetuous, are heard from great distances. But it is only in the winter that we are able to see the participants. Every day, they gather to discuss the events of the day, their animated caws reverberating across the bare branches. They are a community that allows for forthright discussions. And then, in unison, they stretch out their wings and make their way home.
I have been away from blogging for a few months but my research into mythology continued over the summer. I have been listening to Professor Grant L Voth’s lectures on Myth in Human History, obtained through that marvelous institution, the Vancouver Public Library. It is wonderful to be back connecting with fellow bloggers.
A few months ago, I stopped by Christ Church Cathedral, in downtown Vancouver. It was an impulse visit, prompted by curiosity and the need to leave a busy street behind. An open door welcomed me to the quiet solitude inside. There are moments when you stop, breathe and listen to the eloquence of silence.
We live in a finite existence that limits us to time and location. Perhaps that is how we come to understand the nature of sacred spaces, whether they are found in natural surroundings, or by way of human creativity and ingenuity.
Sacred spaces are those places that give meaning to a profound longing, a shared understanding. It is recognizing the story of humanity, of embracing all of creation. For if you look closely, you will see in the corner of the Tree of Life Windows, the image of the parishioner’s beloved pet.
Gift to the Cathedral by long-time parishioner Jean MacMillan Southam. The window was designed by Susan A. Point, CM a Coast Salish artist born in Alert Bay who lives on the Musqueam First Nation Reservation in Vancouver, B.C.
“No idea of any single culture will ever capture the entire human sense of god, or creation, or the hero; and to get a more complete human picture, we have to look at the myths of many cultures.” Professor Grant L. Voth
This year, marks the 100th anniversary of Pauline Johnson’s passing. She died on March 7, 1913 of breast cancer, three days short of her 52nd birthday. In the end, she called Vancouver home. Her last wish was to be buried in her beloved Stanley Park. The city of Vancouver granted her request with the proviso that she be cremated. Pauline Johnson’s ashes were held in an urn encased within a small concrete vault that was gently placed in the ground. A granite boulder, which boasted a carving of double hearts, the tribal badge of the Mohawk, marked her grave. Today, what remains is a stone monument, established by the Women’s Club of Vancouver, as a final tribute.
Pauline Johnson was a global voice that embraced universal themes of tradition, nature and compassion. These are dialogues that cannot be limited by time, space or culture. She honoured the customs of the past by preserving and sharing the stories; she paved the way for women and First Nation writers and performers to boldly pursue an artist’s path; most of all, she believed that what she wrote and spoke about was important. A woman of Mohawk and English parentage, living at the turn of a new century spoke for all of humanity. May we have the courage to do the same.
There’s wine in the cup, Vancouver,
And there’s warmth in my heart for you,
While I drink to your health, your youth, and your wealth,
And the things that you yet will do.
In a vintage rare and olden,
With a flavour fine and keen,
Fill the glass to the edge, while I stand up to pledge
My faith to my western queen. Continue reading
Pauline Johnson was famous for her warm personality, affability and charisma. Many believe that her finest character traits were marked by the fondness and loyalty for her friends. Arguably, these qualities were a compelling force during theatrical performances. Audiences were captivated by her narratives, the use of both European and First Nation attire, and stirred by the emotional nuance of her speaking voice. She was beloved by her contemporaries, yet with her passing, her reputation as a writer and poet experienced a decline. Over the years, Canadian literary critics and historians have argued that Pauline created an idealized image of the First Nation identity that was pleasing and acceptable to her “white” listeners. For that reason, Pauline was not a creditable spokesperson for their culture. She did not speak a First Nation language and spent most of her life within mainstream society.
Pauline has been disparaged by noted Canadian writers and poets such as Earle Birney, Mordecai Richler and Patrick Watson. Even the famed Margaret Atwood confessed to overlooking Pauline Johnson when she wrote, “Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972). Instead of being a strength, it seems that Pauline’s multi-cultural heritage did not give her traction in either world.
Critics, in the end, are not infallible. Pauline Johnson’s works have experienced a rebirth. Her importance as a figure of resistance against racism, gender bias, and human rights is coming full circle. Pauline dedicated 30 years to her artistic endeavours. Her contribution to the oral and written literary history of First Nation people is unequaled. She transcends her time and gives relevance to ours.
The Song My Paddle Sings
West wind, blow from your prairie nest,
Blow from the mountains, blow from the west
The sail is idle, the sailor too ;
O! wind of the west, we wait for you.
Blow, blow! Continue reading
Pauline Johnson captured the hearts and imaginations of her audience. A talented writer, she possessed an uncanny ability to understand the needs, desires, and dreams of an unpredictable public. Early in her career, she recognized the power of combining theatre and literary endeavours to craft a vibrant and dynamic performance. Pauline developed a her stage persona by dressing in tradition First Nation garments and using her father’s artifact collection that included such items as wampum belts and spiritual masks in her presentations.
Living during the last vestiges of the Victorian Age, Pauline Johnson was not defined by gender, but by an acceptance of her humanity. While not directly involved, her activities positioned her in the forefront of the women’s suffragette movement. Despite forces for change, women had few options for self-determination in the late 1800’s. Society was doggedly rigid, accepting only those who would abide by clearly outlined rules of conduct. Choices were limited to matrimony, striving for equality, or living a life outside of conventional norms. Pauline Johnson’s unique ancestry offered a viable alternative. Two cultures, two societies and two worldviews provided the necessary foundation for moving freely within a confined social structure.
The Corn Husker
Hard by the Indian lodges, where the bush
Breaks in a clearing, through ill-fashioned fields,
She comes to labour, when the first still hush
Of autumn follows large and recent yields.
Age in her fingers, hunger in her face,
Her shoulders stooped with weight of work and years,
But rich in tawny colouring of her race,
She comes a-field to strip the purple ears.
And all her thoughts are with the days gone by,
Ere might’s injustice banished from their lands
Her people, that to-day unheeded lie,
Like the dead husks that rustle through her hands.
Emily Pauline Johnson
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; Continue reading