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Tekahionwake E. Pauline Johnson

by Charlotte Gray | January 24, 2005

Pauline Johnson had so much going for her. She was an inspired and hard-working writer; she had enormous stage presence; she had the kind of ambition that gets you to the top.

But she also faced difficult challenges. She was a woman, born in 1861 into a world where there were no women doctors, lawyers or politicians, and where women could not vote. Marriage and motherhood (in that order, and never motherhood without a wedding ring) were virtually the only respectable options. Many women in stuffy late Victorian Canada struggled with these restrictions, but there was a further barrier facing Pauline. Born of an English mother and a father who was a Mohawk chief on Ontario’s Six Nations Reserve where she was raised, Pauline was subjected to the kind of racism that blighted the lives of so many First Nations people in her era – and now.

Yet Pauline rarely let the slights and prejudices – the taunts of halfbreed, the struggle to support herself – hold her back. She knew from a young age that she wanted to be a poet, and she did not allow the early rejections by editors deter her. It helped that she had the kind of joie-de-vivre and good looks that made her popular amongst her contemporaries. Slender and shapely, with thick brown hair and sparkling grey eyes, she radiated health and athleticism in an age when most women were laced so tightly into their corsets they could barely breathe, and when a delicate pallor was supposed to be the ideal female beauty. In Brantford, 80 km southwest of Toronto, where she and her mother moved after her father’s death in 1884, Pauline Johnson was a much sought-after participant in the local drama society and canoe regattas.

In the 1880s and 1890s, when Pauline was trying to carve out her literary career, Canada’s literary world was dominated by a group of young men known as the Confederation Poets. They wrote inspiring verses (usually about roaring waterfalls, brilliant sunsets and ancient pines) with all the confidence that a good education and important contacts in publishing bestow. Pauline had little schooling and knew nobody important. But she had two assets that set her apart from most of her rivals. She could write stirring ballads about the bloodthirsty Iroquois myths she had learned at her grandfather’s knee, and magical poems about the joys of canoeing (she paddled far better than any of her male admirers). And she could recite her work in public with a charisma and stagecraft that left her audiences gasping, and clamouring for more.

Pauline’s national debut came in 1892, when she appeared in a well-attended Evening with Canadian Authors in Toronto. Despite the presence on the program of far better-known writers, she stole the show. Soon requests were arriving from all over the country for Pauline to perform in local church halls and opera houses, and recite favourites such as “As Red Men Die” and “The Song My Paddle Sings.” In 1892, she performed in Ottawa for the Governor General. In 1895, a slim volume of her poetry, entitled White Wampum, was published in London, England, the capital of the then-mighty British Empire. Pauline published two more books of poetry, and one of prose, during her own lifetime.

Pauline Johnson was Canada’s first celebrity, known coast-to-coast thanks to her extensive tours on the newly built transcontinental railway. At a time when women rarely travelled, she crossed the country 19 times and the Atlantic three times. She lobbied English Canada to take the First Nations seriously, celebrating her aboriginal heritage both in her verses and in the buckskin outfit, complete with a scalp, dagger and bear-claw necklace, that she often wore on stage. She used both the names her parents had christened her with, Emily Pauline, and her Mohawk name, Tekahionwake.

Yet it was a hard life: her gruelling years on the road yielded little income. An incurable romantic, she was often betrayed by her partners and she never married. She watched native peoples being pushed to the margins of society, and their children herded into residential schools. When she died of breast cancer in Vancouver in 1913, age 52, only the hospital matron was with her.

Yet she was a woman ahead of her time who had risen above the conventions and assumptions of her day to carve her own path. She had a vision of a society that drew on the strengths of its citizens regardless of race, colour or religion. She was an icon of multiculturalism before the word had even been invented.

resources for this story
  • Flint and Feather, by PAULINE JOHNSON, Musson, ISBN: 0665746989 | 1913
  • Flint and Feather, The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake, by CHARLOTTE GRAY, HarperFlamingoCanada, ISBN: 0002000652 | 2002
  • Buckskin and Broadcloth: A Celebration of E. Pauline Johnson – Tekahionwake 1861-1913, by SHEILA JOHNSTON, Natrual Heritage/Natural History, ISBN: 1896219209 | 1997
  • Paddling Her Own Canoe: The Times and Texts of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake, by VERONICA STRONG-BOAG and CAROLE GERSON, University of Toronto Press, ISBN: 0802080243 | 2000
  • E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose, by VERONICA STRONG-BOAG and CAROLE GERSON, University of Toronto Press, ISBN: 0802084974 | 2001

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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