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Indigenous Poets

Long before Europeans first arrived in the Americas, First Nations and Inuit communities had developed various ways of recording information for long periods. These methods included a variety writing systems, the Incan quipus (intricately coloured and knotted lengths of string now thought to have actually been more akin to a script than a mnemonic), mnemonic devices (wampum belts), and pictographs. But most revered and beloved of all were and are the storyteller-poets, the stewards and creators of traditional stories and histories. Today's storyteller-poets may also be published by mainstream or Indigenous presses, including Jeanette Armstrong, Rita Metokosho, Joseph A. Dandurand, and Drew Hayden Taylor. But did you know that the first Indigenous storyteller-poet published in Canada was E. Pauline Johnson, who began the publishing phase of her career in 1892?

Born in 1861 on the Six Nations reserve to a non-native mother and a Mohawk father, Pauline Johnson received the Mohawk name Tekahionwake 'double wampum.' Her father was a chief at this time, her mother a wealthy immigrant from England. Both defied the social conventions of their respective communities and the disapproval of their people in order to get married. Time would show that Johnson would ignore or at least work around restrictive social conventions herself. Johnson's response to her native identity was strikingly different from another Canadian poet born in 1862 of similarly mixed heritage but very different social circumstances, Duncan Campbell Scott.

The youngest of four children, she never attended college, but did have the run of the family library, which her mother made sure included many of the books we're accustomed to seeing in the 'classics' section of the bookshop or library. Johnson had already written a great deal by the time she was thirty years old, but as yet still hadn't published her work or left her family home. Although she wanted to be an actor, her mother was strongly against this plan since at that time female actors were generally considered synonymous with prostitutes. As a result, Johnson revised her plans, setting out to perform her poetry at recitals, and continuing to write.

Deeply proud of her Mohawk heritage, Johnson was also a shrewd judge of her potential audience, recognizing that many Eurocanadians were deeply curious about Indigenous people. Accordingly, Johnson used two costumes, one an 'Indian'1 costume, the other conventional Eurocanadian women's dress. Performing half of her show in each costume, she rapidly developed into a famed and respected poet and writer who also produced five novels and numerous essays. Through her performances and writing Johnson presented Indigenous culture and viewpoints to a primarily Eurocanadian audience. It says a great deal about her skill and courage that she dealt successfully with topics that are still controversial today, including the how Canada was built on the violently expropriated lands of Indigenous nations.

Now living independently, Johnson travelled to perform in her mother's native England, and eventually moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. Early in her time there she met Chief Joe Capilano of the Squamish Nation, impressing him deeply by greeting him in his own language. Johnson eventually produced the book Legends of Vancouver from the many traditional stories he told her.

Johnson had a wide circle of friends in her adopted city, including a network of women who helped her in the last years of her life when she was suffering from breast cancer. Despite her illness, Johnson continued to write, including The Mocassin Maker, Flint and Feather, and The Shaganappi which was published after her death. Her book of essays on Indigenous silver working traditions was also published after her death, North American Indian Silver Craft. She died just before her 52nd birthday in 1913. Memorial services were held for her all over Canada. Stanley Park had been one of Johnson's favourite places in the city, and although then, just as now, burials are not permitted in the Park, an exception was made in her honour.

If you'd like to learn more about E. Pauline Johnson, an excellent source of information is the Pauline Johnson Archive. It was originally maintained on the McMaster University server but is now hosted by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:43:19 MDT