The Controversy

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Legends

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 Canoe

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

A Free Spirit

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Two Lives

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

The Storyteller

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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;  Continue reading

A Poet’s Beginning

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Reflection

“It is dusk on the Lost Lagoon,
And we two dreaming the dusk away,
Beneath the drift of a twilight grey,
Beneath the drowse of an ending day,
And the curve of a golden moon.”

George and Emily were well known and respected.  Their home, Chiefswood, was a frequent meeting place for  intellectual and political elites such as the inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, the painter Homer Watson, anthropologist Horatio Hale and Lady and Lord Dufferin, Governor General of Canada and representative of the British monarchy.

The Biographical Notice in “Legends of Vancouver,” states that Chief George Johnson was of the “renowned Mohawk tribe, being a scion of one of the fifty noble families which composed the historical confederation founded by Haiwatha upwards of four hundred years ago.”  British law deemed that Pauline was Mohawk and a ward of the British Crown.   Her Mohawk status was not as clear within Mohawk tradition, which is based on a matrilineal culture which determines descent through the female line.

“It is dark in the Lost Lagoon,
And gone are the depths of haunting blue,
The grouping gulls, and the old canoe,
The singing firs, and the dusk and–you,
And gone is the golden moon.

Educated by her mother on works of Bryon, Tennyson, Keats, Browning and Milton; steeped in the stories told by her grandfather, John Smoke Johnson, a veteran of the War of 1812; surrounded by the natural beauty of wilderness, she wrote poetry at an early age inspired by what she embraced as a dual heritage.

O! lure of the Lost Lagoon,–
I dream to-night that my paddle blurs
The purple shade where the seaweed stirs,
I hear the call of the singing firs
In the hush of the golden moon.

E. Pauline Johnson

The Lost Lagoon

Lost Lagoon

Tekahionwake

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Cedars

“Do you think you help us by bidding us forget our blood? By teaching us to cast off all memory of our high ideals and our glorious past? I am an Indian. My pen and my life I devote to the memory of my own people. Forget that I was Pauline Johnson, but remember always that I was Tekahionwake, the Mohawk that humbly aspired to be the saga singer of her people, the bard of the noblest folk the world has ever seen, the sad historian of her own heroic race. ”

Tekahionwake, Mohawk First Nation

First and foremost, she was Tekahionwake (dageh-eeon-wageh) of the Mohawk First Nation.   In English, her name meant double-life.  The name alone foreshadowed a woman who would traverse, with style and easy elegance, two vastly dissimilar worlds.   A woman destined to bridge two nations.

Her father, George H.M. Johnson, was a Mohawk Chief of the Six Nations.  Her mother, Emily Howells, was born in Bristol, England, before moving with her family to the United States to help with the Underground Railway that transported slaves into Canada.  Fate intervened. Emily moved to the Canada to live with her sister Eliza, who was married to an Anglican missionary.  A chance meeting with George led to a secret five year engagement where their love letters were kept safe in a hollow tree.  Families on both sides were vocal in their opposition to a “mixed” marriage.  Their indignation only cemented the relationship.  The marriage took place.

On March 10, 1861 Tekahionwake was born near Brantford, Ontario, the youngest of four children, a child of two ancestries.

“Never let anyone call me a white woman.  There are those who think they pay me a compliment in saying that I am just like a white woman.  My aim, my joy, my pride is to sing the glories of my own people.”
Tekahionwake, Mohawk First Nation

E. Pauline Johnson

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Beach

“Sounds of the seas grow fainter, 
Sounds of the sands have sped;
The sweep of gales,
The far white sails,
Are silent, spent and dead.”

E. Pauline Johnson

I make a pilgrimage every year in March, the month of her birth and death, to her resting place, protected by a secluded grove of cedars in her beloved Stanley Park overlooking the cold waters of English Bay.  It is late in the day; the boulder that marks her grave holds the last rays of the setting sun as I quietly retrace my steps to the living world.  Even so, I feel her continued presence.

 

Pauline Johnson

Sounds of the days of summer
Murmur and die away,
And distance hides
The long, low tides,
As night shuts out the day.

E. Pauline Johnson, Good-bye

 

This week, I want to explore the life and stories of Emily Pauline Johnson.  She was charismatic, beautiful, controversial, and adored by a nation.  In recent times, she has been discredited, even considered a fraud.  Rather than taking a critic’s view, I prefer to follow her narrative.   We have started at the end; it is time to travel to the beginning.