E. Pauline Johnson

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E. Pauline Johnson
E. Pauline Johnson, c. 1885–1895
E. Pauline Johnson, c. 1885–1895
BornEmily Pauline Johnson
(1861-03-10)10 March 1861
Six Nations, Ontario
Died7 March 1913(1913-03-07) (aged 51)
Vancouver, British Columbia
Resting placeStanley Park, Vancouver
LanguageMohawk, English
CitizenshipMohawk Nation / British subject
Notable worksThe White Wampum, Canadian Born, Flint and Feather

Emily Pauline Johnson (also known in Mohawk as Tekahionwake –pronounced: dageh-eeon-wageh, literally: 'double-life')[1] (10 March 1861 – 7 March 1913), commonly known as E. Pauline Johnson or just Pauline Johnson, was a Canadian writer and performer popular in the late 19th century.

Johnson's poetry was published in Canada, the United States and Great Britain. Johnson was one of a generation of widely read writers who began to define a Canadian literature. While her literary reputation declined after her death, since the later 20th century, there has been renewed interest in her life and works. A complete collection of her known poetry was published in 2002.

Johnson was notable for her poems and performances that celebrated her Indigenous heritage; her father was a hereditary Mohawk chief of mixed ancestry. She also drew from English influences, as her mother was an English immigrant. One such poem is the frequently anthologized "The Song My Paddle Sings".


Early life[edit]

A young E. Pauline Johnson

E. Pauline Johnson was born at Chiefswood, the family home built by her father in 1856 on his 225-acre estate at the Six Nations reserve outside Brantford, Ontario. She was the youngest of four children of Emily Susanna Howells Johnson (1824–1898), a native of England, and George Henry Martin Johnson (1816–1884), a Mohawk hereditary clan chief. His mother, Helen Martin, was of partial Dutch descent and born into the Wolf clan; his maternal grandmother, Catherine Rolleston, was a Dutch girl who became assimilated as Mohawk after being taken captive and adopted by a Wolf clan family.[2][3]:136 Emily Susanna Howells immigrated to the United States in 1832 as a young child with her father, stepmother, and siblings.

Although both their families were opposed to Emily and George Johnson's marriage, and the couple were concerned that their own mixed-race family would not be socially accepted, they were acknowledged as a leading Canadian family.[4]:61 The Johnsons enjoyed a high standard of living, and their family and home were well known. Chiefswood was visited by such intellectual and political guests as the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, painter Homer Watson, noted anthropologist Horatio Hale, and Lady and Lord Dufferin, Governor General of Canada.

Emily and George Johnson encouraged their four children to respect and learn about both the Mohawk and the English aspects of their heritage. Because the children were born to a Mohawk father, by British law they were legally considered Mohawk and wards of the British Crown. But under the Mohawk kinship system, because their mother was not Mohawk, they were not born into a tribal clan; they were excluded from important aspects of the tribe's matrilineal culture. Their paternal grandfather John Smoke Johnson, who had been elected an honorary Pine Tree Chief, was an authority in the lives of his grandchildren. He told them many stories in the Mohawk language, which they comprehended but did not speak fluently.[4]:47 Pauline Johnson said that she inherited her talent for elocution from her grandfather. Late in life, she expressed regret for not learning more of his Mohawk heritage.[5]:21

Early education[edit]

A sickly child, Johnson did not attend Brantford's Mohawk Institute. It was established in 1834 as one of Canada's first residential schools for Native children. Her education was mostly at home and informal, derived from her mother, a series of non-Native governesses, a few years at the small school on the reserve, and self-directed reading in the family's expansive library. She became familiar with literary works by Byron, Tennyson, Keats, Browning, and Milton.[6]:398 She enjoyed reading tales about Native peoples, such as Longfellow's epic poem The Song of Hiawatha and John Richardson's Wacousta.[4]:53

At the age of 14, Johnson went to Brantford Central Collegiate with her brother Allen. She graduated in 1877. A schoolmate was Sara Jeannette Duncan, who developed her own journalistic and literary career.

Literary and stage career[edit]

E. Pauline Johnson posing

During the 1880s, E. Pauline Johnson wrote and performed in amateur theatre productions. She enjoyed the Canadian outdoors, where she traveled by canoe. In 1883 she published her first full-length poem, "My Little Jean", in the New York Gems of Poetry. She began to increase the pace of her writing and publishing afterward.

Shortly after her father's death in 1884, the family rented out Chiefswood. E. Pauline Johnson moved with her widowed mother and sister to a modest home in Brantford. She worked to support them all, and found that her stage performances allowed her to make a living. Johnson supported her mother until her death in 1898.[3]:136

In 1885, Charles G. D. Roberts published Johnson's "A Cry from an Indian Wife" in The Week, Goldwin Smith's Toronto magazine. She based it on events of the battle of Cut Knife Creek during the Riel Rebellion. Roberts and Johnson became lifelong friends.[7] Johnson promoted her identity as a Mohawk, but as an adult spent little time with people of that culture.[3]:136 In 1885, Johnson traveled to Buffalo, New York to attend a ceremony honoring the Iroquois leader Sagoyewatha, also known as Red Jacket. She wrote a poem expressing admiration for him and a plea for reconciliation between British and Native peoples.[4]:90

In 1886, Johnson was commissioned to write a poem to mark the unveiling in Brantford of a statue honoring Joseph Brant, the important Mohawk leader who was allied with the British during and after the American Revolutionary War. Her "Ode to Brant" was read at a 13 October ceremony before "the largest crowd the little city had ever seen".[8] It called for brotherhood between Native and white Canadians under British imperial authority.[4]:90 The poem sparked a long article in the Toronto Globe, and increased interest in Johnson's poetry and heritage. The Brantford businessman William F. Cockshutt read the poem at the ceremony, as Johnson was reportedly too shy.[7][8]

During the 1880s, Johnson built her reputation as a Canadian writer, regularly publishing in periodicals such as Globe, The Week, and Saturday Night. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, she published nearly every month, mostly in Saturday Night.[8] Johnson was one of a group of Canadian authors contributing to a distinct national literature.[9][10] The inclusion of two of her poems in W.D. Lighthall's anthology, Songs of the Great Dominion (1889), signaled her recognition[11]:101 and Theodore Watts-Dunton noted her for praise in his review of the book; he quoted her entire poem "In the Shadows" and called her "the most interesting poetess now living".[8] In her early works, Johnson wrote mostly about Canadian life, landscapes, and love in a post-Romantic mode, reflective of literary interests shared with her mother rather than her Mohawk heritage.[11]:101

The Young Men's Liberal Association invited Johnson to a Canadian Authors Evening, held 16 January 1892 at the Toronto Art School Gallery. The only woman at the event, she read to an overflow crowd, along with luminaries such as Lighthall, William Wilfred Campbell, and Duncan Campbell Scott. "The poise and grace of this beautiful young woman standing before them captivated the audience even before she began to recite—not read, as the others had done"—her "Cry from an Indian Wife". She was the only author to be called back for an encore. "She had scored a personal triumph and saved the evening from turning into a disaster."[8]

The success of this performance began the poet's 15-year stage career, as she was signed up by Frank Yeigh, who had organized the Liberal event. He gave her the headline for her first show on 19 February 1892, where she debuted a new poem written for the event, "The Song My Paddle Sings".[8] Johnson was perceived as quite young (although she was then 31), a beauty, and an exotic Native performer.[11]:102 After her first recital season, she decided to emphasize the Native aspects of her public figure by assembling and wearing a feminine Native costume.[11]:9–10 She wore it during the first part of the show, when reciting her dramatic "Indian" lyrics. At intermission she changed into fashionable English dress; in the second half, she appeared as a Victorian lady to recite her "English" verse.[8]

Johnson's decision to develop her stage persona, and the popularity it inspired, showed that the audiences she encountered in Canada, England, and the United States recognized and were entertained by Native peoples in performance. There was great interest in Native Americans; the 1890s were also the period of popularity of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and ethnological aboriginal exhibits.[11]:111 Johnson and her siblings inherited an artifact collection from their father, which included significant items such as Mohawk wampum belts and spiritual masks. She used some items in her stage performances, but sold most later to museums, such as the Ontario Provincial Museum, or to collectors, such as the prominent American George Gustav Heye.[12]

Siwash Rock in Stanley Park, which story is told in Legends of Vancouver. Johnson's burial site is nearby. (Photo by Andrew Raun.)

After retiring from the stage in August 1909, Johnson moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, and continued writing. Her pieces included a series of articles for the Daily Province, based on stories related by her friend Chief Joe Capilano of the Squamish people of North Vancouver. In 1911, to help support Johnson, who was ill and poor, a group of friends organized the publication of these stories under the title Legends of Vancouver. They remain classics of that city's literature.

One of the stories was a Squamish legend of shape shifting: how a man was transformed into Siwash Rock "as an indestructible monument to Clean Fatherhood".[13] In another, Johnson told the history of Deadman's Island, a small islet off Stanley Park. In a poem in the collection, she named one of her favourite areas "Lost Lagoon", as the inlet seemed to disappear when the water emptied at low tide. The body of water has since been transformed into a permanent, fresh-water lake at Stanley Park, but it is still called "Lost Lagoon".

The posthumous Shagganappi (1913) and The Moccasin Maker (1913) are collections of selected stories first published in periodicals. Johnson wrote on a variety of sentimental, didactic, and biographical topics. Veronica Strong-Boag and Carole Gerson provided a provisional chronological list of Johnson's writings in their book Paddling Her Own Canoe: The Times and Texts of E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) (2000).

Johnson died of breast cancer in Vancouver, British Columbia on 7 March 1913. Her funeral (the largest until then in Vancouver history) was held on what would have been her 52nd birthday. Her ashes were buried near Siwash Rock in Stanley Park. In 1922 a cairn was erected at the burial site, with an inscription reading in part, "in memory of one whose life and writings were an uplift and a blessing to our nation".[7]

Criticism and legacy[edit]

Pauline Johnson monument in Stanley Park

Scholars have had difficulty identifying Johnson's complete works, as much was published in periodicals. Her first volume of poetry, The White Wampum, was published in London, England in 1895. It was followed by Canadian Born in 1903. The contents of these volumes, together with additional poems, were published as the collection Flint and Feather in 1912. Reprinted many times, this book has been one of the best-selling titles of Canadian poetry. Since the 1917 edition, Flint and Feather has been misleadingly subtitled "The Complete Poems of E. Pauline Johnson". But in 2002, professors Carole Gerson and Veronica Strong-Boag produced an edition, Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose, that contains all of Johnson's poems found up to that date. A number of biographers and literary critics have downplayed her literary contributions, as they contend that her performances contributed most to her literary reputation during her lifetime.[6][14] W. J. Keith wrote: "Pauline Johnson's life was more interesting than her writing ... with ambitions as a poet, she produced little or nothing of value in the eyes of critics who emphasize style rather than content."[15]

Despite the acclaim she received from contemporaries, Johnson had a decline in reputation in the decades after her death.[10]:91 It was not until 1961, with commemoration of the centenary of her birth, that Johnson began to be recognized as an important Canadian cultural figure.

The author Margaret Atwood admitted that she did not study literature by Native authors when preparing Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), her seminal work. At its publication, she had said she could not find Native works. She mused, "Why did I overlook Pauline Johnson? Perhaps because, being half-white, she somehow didn't rate as the real thing, even among Natives; although she is undergoing reclamation today."[16] Atwood's comments indicated that Johnson's multicultural identity contributed to her neglect by critics.

As Atwood noted, since the late 20th century, Johnson's writings and performance career have been reevaluated by literary, feminist, and postcolonial critics. They have appreciated her importance as a New Woman and a figure of resistance to dominant ideas about race, gender, Native Rights, and Canada.[11]:3 The growth in literature written by First Nations people during the 1980s and 1990s has prompted writers and scholars to investigate Native oral and written literary history, to which Johnson made a significant contribution.[11]:174

Legacy and honours[edit]

Ceremony unveiling the Pauline Johnson monument at her burial site in Stanley Park, 1922
1961 Stamp
  • In 1922, the city of Vancouver erected a monument in Pauline Johnson's honour at her well-loved Stanley Park.
  • 1945, Johnson was designated a Person of National Historic Significance.[2][17]
  • In 1961, on the centennial of her birth, Johnson was celebrated with a commemorative stamp bearing her image, "rendering her the first woman (other than the Queen), the first author, and the first aboriginal Canadian to be thus honored.".[10]:90
  • Four Canadian schools have been named in Johnson's honour: elementary schools in West Vancouver, British Columbia; Scarborough, Ontario; Hamilton, Ontario; and Burlington, Ontario; and a high school in Brantford, Ontario.
  • Chiefswood, Johnson's childhood home constructed in 1856 in Brantford, has been listed as a National Historic Site because of both her father's and her own historical importance. Preserved as a house museum, it is the oldest Native mansion surviving from pre-Confederation times.[18]
  • An Ontario Historical Plaque was erected in front of the Chiefswood house museum by the province to commemorate E. Pauline Johnson's role in the region's heritage.[19]
  • The Canadian actor Donald Sutherland read the following quote from her poem "Autumn's Orchestra", at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Know by the thread of music woven through
This fragile web of cadences I spin,
That I have only caught these songs since you
Voiced them upon your haunting violin.
  • In 2010, composer Jeff Enns was commissioned to create a song based on Johnson's poem "At Sunset". His work was sung and recorded by the Canadian Chamber Choir under the artistic direction of Julia Davids.[20][21]
  • The City Opera of Vancouver commissioned Pauline, a chamber opera dealing with her life, her multicultural identity, and her art. The composer is the Canadian Tobin Stokes, and the libretto was written by Margaret Atwood. The work premiered on 23 May 2014, at the York Theatre in Vancouver. The first opera to be written about Pauline Johnson, it is set 101 years earlier, in the last week of her life.[22]

In 2016, she was one of the five finalists of significant women to be featured on Canadian banknotes, a contest eventually won by Viola Desmond.[23]

Family history[edit]

Chiefswood, the birthplace of Pauline Johnson and a National Historic Site of Canada

The Mohawk ancestors of Johnson's father, Chief George Henry Martin Johnson, had historically lived in what became the state of New York, the Mohawk traditional homeland in the present-day United States. In 1758, her great-grandfather Tekahionwake was born in New York. When he was baptized, he took the name Jacob Johnson, taking his surname from Sir William Johnson, the influential British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, who acted as his godfather.[24] The Johnson surname was subsequently passed down in the family.

After the American Revolutionary War started, Loyalists in the Mohawk Valley came under intense pressure. The Mohawk and three other Iroquois tribes were allies of the British rather than the rebel colonists. Jacob Johnson and his family moved to Canada. After the war they settled permanently in Ontario on land given by the Crown in partial compensation for Iroquois losses of territory in New York.

His son John Smoke Johnson had a talent for oratory, spoke English as well as Mohawk, and demonstrated his patriotism to the Crown during the War of 1812. As a result, John Smoke Johnson was made a Pine Tree Chief at the request of the British government.[5]:21 Although John Smoke Johnson's title could not be inherited, his wife Helen Martin was descended from the Wolf Clan and a founding family of the Six Nations. Through her lineage and influence (as the Mohawk were matrilineal), their son George Johnson was named chief.

Chief George Johnson inherited his father's gift for languages and began his career as a church translator on the Six Nations reserve. Assisting the Anglican missionary, Johnson met his sister-in-law Emily Howells. They fell in love and married. In 1853, the couple's interracial marriage displeased both the Johnson and Howells families. (Several prominent Canadian families were descended from 18th and 19th-century marriages between British fur traders, who had capital and social standing, and daughters of First Nations chiefs, which had been considered economic and social alliances.) The birth of their first child reconciled the Johnson family to the marriage.[4]:57 In 1856 Johnson built Chiefswood, a wood mansion where the family lived for years.

In his roles as government interpreter and hereditary Chief, George Johnson developed a reputation as a talented mediator between Native and European interests.[4]:57 He was well respected in Ontario. He also made enemies because of his efforts to stop illegal trading of reserve timber. Physically attacked by Native and non-Native men involved in this traffic, Johnson suffered from health problems afterward. He died of a fever in 1884.[4]:81

Emily Howells was born in England to a well-established British family who immigrated to the United States in 1832.[4]:8–9 Her father Henry Howells was a Quaker and intended to join the American abolitionist movement. Emily's mother Mary Best Howells had died when the girl was five, before the family left England. Her father married again before they immigrated. In the US, he moved his family to several American cities, where he founded schools to gain an income, before settling in Eaglewood, New Jersey.[4]:11 After his second wife died (women had a high mortality in childbirth), Howells married a third time, and fathered a total of 24 children.[4]:12 He opposed slavery and encouraged his children to "pray for the blacks and to pity the poor Indians. Nevertheless, his compassion did not preclude the view that his own race was superior to others".[4]:57

At the age of 21, Emily Howells moved to the Six Nations reserve in Ontario, Canada to join her older sister, who had moved there with her Anglican missionary husband. Emily helped her care for her growing family. After falling in love with the Mohawk George Johnson, Howells gained a better understanding of the Native peoples and some perspective on her father's beliefs.[4]:57

Erroneous attribution[edit]

In 2017 school administrators at the High Park Alternative Public School in Toronto, Ontario characterized the song Land of the Silver Birch as racist. They mistakenly believed that Johnson wrote the poem on which the song is based. In a letter to parents they said, "While its lyrics are not overtly racist . . . the historical context of the song is racist." Some experts disagreed with this assertion and the music teacher who had the song performed at a school concert sued the administration for defamation.[25]

Selected publications[edit]

Title page of The White Wampum, 1895
  • Fee, Margery; Nason, Dory, eds. (2015). Tekahionwake: E. Pauline Johnson's Writings on Native North America. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press. ISBN 9781554811915.


Collected stories by Pauline Johnson[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pauline Johnson Archive: Tekahionwake, "Tekahionwake: an Indian Poetess in London", Archives and Research Collections, McMaster University. Retrieved 15 November 2009 Archived 10 August 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ a b "Johnson Family Tree" Archived 8 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Chiefswood National Historic Site, accessed 27 May 2011, Source: Betty Keller, Pauline: A Biography of Pauline, Halifax, NS: Formac Publishing, 1981, p. 4
  3. ^ a b c Lyon, George W. (1990). "Pauline Johnson: A Reconsideration". Studies in Canadian Literature. 15 (2): 136–159. Retrieved 21 June 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Gray, Charlotte (2002). Flint & feather : the life and times of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake (1st ed.). Toronto: HarperFlamingo Canada. ISBN 0-00-200065-2.
  5. ^ a b Johnston, Sheila M.F. (1997). Buckskin & broadcloth : a celebration of E. Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake, 1861-1913. Toronto: Natural Heritage, Natural History. ISBN 1-896219-20-9.
  6. ^ a b Jackel, David (1983). "Johnson, Pauline". In Toye, William (ed.). The Oxford companion to Canadian literature. Toronto: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-540283-9.
  7. ^ a b c "Pauline Johnson Biography," Famous Biographies, QuotesQuotations.com, Web, 30 April 2011.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Adams, John Coldwell (2007). Pauline Johnson. Confederation Voices: Seven Canadian Poets. Canadian Poetry Press. Retrieved 30 April 2011.
  9. ^ Monture, Rick (2002). "Beneath the British Flag: Iroquois and Canadian Nationalism in the Work of Pauline Johnson and Duncan Campbell Scott". Essays on Canadian Writing. limited access. 75: 118–141.
  10. ^ a b c Gerson, Carole (1998). "'The Most Canadian of all Canadian Poets': Pauline Johnson and the Construction of a National Literature" (PDF). Canadian Literature. 158: 90–107. Retrieved 21 June 2016.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Strong-Boag, Veronica; Gerson, Carole (2000). Paddling her own canoe : the times and texts of E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake). Toronto [u.a.]: Univ. of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-4162-0.
  12. ^ Michelle A Hamilton, Collections and Objections: Aboriginal Material Culture in Southern Ontario, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010
  13. ^ Johnson, E. Pauline. Legends of Vancouver. Retrieved 26 September 2015.
  14. ^ Van Steen, Marcus (1965). Pauline Johnson: Her Life and Work. Toronto: Hodder & Stoughton.
  15. ^ Keith, W. J. (2002), "2040", Canadian Book Review Annual, Toronto: Peter Martin Associates
  16. ^ Atwood, Margaret (1991). "A Double-Bladed Knife: Subversive Laughter in Two Stories by Thomas King" (PDF). In New, William H. (ed.). Native writers and Canadian writing (Special issue, reprinted. ed.). Vancouver: UBC Press. p. 243. ISBN 0-7748-0371-1.
  17. ^ Johnson, E. Pauline National Historic Person. Directory of Federal Heritage Designations. Parks Canada.
  18. ^ "Home — Chiefs Wood". chiefswood.com. Archived from the original on 23 March 2007.
  19. ^ "Ontario Plaque". ontarioplaques.com. Archived from the original on 27 May 2011.
  20. ^ Video for At Sunset performed by Canadian Chamber Choir on YouTube
  21. ^ In Good Company, Canadian Chamber Choir CD including "At Sunset"
  22. ^ "Margaret Atwood's opera debut Pauline opens in Vancouver". CBC News. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 23 May 2014. Retrieved 24 May 2014.
  23. ^ "Final 5 candidates for next Canadian woman on banknote revealed by Bank of Canada". cbc.ca.
  24. ^ Leighton, Douglas (1982). "Johnson, John". In Halpenny, Francess G (ed.). Dictionary of Canadian Biography. XI (1881–1890) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press.
  25. ^ Cruickshank, Ainslie (7 December 2017). "Toronto music teacher sues after principal, VP call folk song racist". Toronto Star.
  26. ^ a b c Pauline Johnson 1861-1913, "Canadian Women Poets," BrockU.ca, Web, 13 April 2011

Further reading[edit]

  • Crate, Joan. Pale as Real Ladies: Poems for Pauline Johnson, London, ON: Brick Books, 1991. ISBN 0-919626-43-2
  • Johnson (Tekahionwake), E. Pauline. E. Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Ed. Carole Gerson and Veronica Strong-Boag. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8020-3670-8
  • Keller, Betty. Pauline: A Biography of Pauline Johnson. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1981. ISBN 0-88894-322-9.
  • Mackay, Isabel E. Pauline Johnson : a reminiscence . 1913.
  • McRaye, Walter. Pauline Johnson and Her Friends. Toronto: Ryerson, 1947.
  • Shrive, Norman (1962). "What Happened to Pauline?". Canadian Literature. 13: 25–38.
  • Poet, Princess, Possession: Remembering Pauline Johnson, 1913, in Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers, by Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson (University of Manitoba Press, 2011

External links[edit]