Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made. Our times are in his hand who saith, ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half; Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!”
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.
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.
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
“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
“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