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Indigenous Poets: E. Pauline Johnson

Publicity photograph of E. Pauline Johnson, from around 1895, taken by Charles Scriber Cohran. Publicity photograph of E. Pauline Johnson, from around 1895, taken by Charles Scriber Cohran.
Publicity photograph of E. Pauline Johnson taken by Charles Scriber Cohran, 1895
Courtesy of library and archives canada: source page | photo information page

Today it is almost a commonplace that there are Indigenous poets, or that Indigenous writers would devote a significant part of their work to poetry. This expectation does not seem to be for the same reasons as for the frequency of early autobiographical works by Indigenous writers. I have encountered a loosely based, common sense argument – which means it needs to be thoroughly tested and is probably wrong – that "autobiography" is easier to write, hence it is the most likely genre for the less educated to write in. Yet many of the earliest identifiable Indigenous writers were in fact writing poetry, from within their own traditions, or having learnt european approaches, using european modes. There were also many Indigenous people who performed oral narratives for anthropologists or at least with anthropologists in attendance, which later analysts such as Dell Hymes, Robert Brightman, and Dennis Tedlock have belatedly realized were in fact poetic in nature. There are more ways to create poetry than rhyming and raw repetition, but until the 1960s it was a commonplace (close cousin to the dangerously persuasive common sense!) to deny that Indigenous peoples anywhere could have applied such sophisticated methods. So when she moved into her publishing and later performance career, in 1884 and 1892 respectively, E. Pauline Johnson caused a certain amount of difficulty for the everyday expectations of her time.

Born in 1861 on the Six Nations reserve to a non-native mother, Emily Susanna Howells, and a Mohawk father, George Henry Martin Johnson, Pauline Johnson received a fairly typical middle class education for a young woman of the time. Depending on who is writing about her, Johnson's lack of education may be emphasized, but it is easy to underestimate today how much practice and reading young women could manage under what were initially affluent conditions and completion of studies at Brantford Central Collegiate, then the largest public school in the town. Her social position in the Six Nations seems to have been awkward, because her mother was from outside the community and she was apparently never adopted into the clan system or a direct participant in community affairs. Or at least, so it seems in light of most written sources, considering that her grandmother had been adopted by the Mohawks. In any case, the ambiguous information about her social position has led to her decision to take up and use her great-grandsfather's name, Tekahionwake "double wampum," to be intermittently questioned by more recent critics, although it was clearly apt to her situation and experience. Her father eventually became a condoled chief who would have the responsibility to carry a name and serve on the council. Emily Howells was 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, Johnson 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. In other words an eclectic mix of translations of greek and latin authors alongside a range of english writers active from the 1400s to that time. 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 still considered synonymous with prostitutes. As a result, Johnson revised her plans, setting out to perform her poetry at recitals, and continuing to write. She was no shrinking flower.

Pauline Johnson's famous 'Native' costume for her performances, courtesy of the museum of vancouver via canadian geographic. Pauline Johnson's famous 'Native' costume for her performances, courtesy of the museum of vancouver via canadian geographic.
Pauline Johnson's "Native" performance costume, Item AG 27a-b at the museum of vancouver. Click to enlarge.

Deeply proud of her Mohawk heritage even though she was partially separated from it, Johnson was also a shrewd judge of her potential audience, recognizing that many eurocanadians were deeply curious about Indigenous people, but expected to have their preconceptions reflected back to them rather than reality. Accordingly, Johnson used two costumes, one an "Indian" 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. Her "Native" costume is especially famous, featuring in many of her publicity photos, designed by Johnson herself from products chosen from the hudson's bay company catalogue, as recounted by Charlotte Gray in a 2017 canadian geographic article. The brilliance and irony of Johnson's approach and the origins of her famous costume likely went wholly over the heads of her mostly non-Native audience. It was risqué for its time, a bit short, which she could get away with because of her leather leggings, and baring her arms. Unfortunately, as Gray notes, the costume also unintentionally implied that Indigenous people, especially Indigenous women, could be easily assimilated into mainstream canadian culture. For Johnson, it was a prop, one she left to what is now known as the museum of vancouver. It is a shame that Johnson's own reflections on the meaning of her costumes don't seem to have survived.

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 how Canada was built on the violently expropriated lands of Indigenous nations. She firmly held her own among the group of men usually held up as "confederation poets" who are overtly defined as poets who were born in the 1860s in canada. Johnson did not just write poetry, as already noted. One of her lesser known but among some communities best loved works is a pamphlet, "Silver Craft of the Mohawks" originally written for the boys' world magazine in 1910. It was reprinted in 2004 in a fine softcover edition, oddly retitled "North American Indian Silver Craft," well after its original publication after Johnson's death. She toured for seventeen years, making a living that had the advantage of adventure and the drawback of insecurity. Although the new railway system enabled her to travel across canada nineteen times, this was still during an era when an unmarried woman had to have a chaperone outside of her home, and the climate was as unforgiving then as it is now.

After her mother's death in 1898, Johnson's home in brantford was lost in the course of settling her estate and Johnson herself moved to winnipeg, a city she had been impressed with on earlier tours. Remarkable as it may sound today, when winnipeg continues to struggle with difficult social and economic issues, it was a top city in canada in this period, expanding fast and billed as an outpost of british institutions in the west. Part of her plan was to stabilize her performance schedule and income, reasonably expecting that such a busy town, full of travellers and a growing population would provide regular full houses for her shows. This was a reasonable expectation, but she began to suffer health difficulties and cruel reminders of how much her performances depended on her appearance. Gray documents Johnson's grave illness in 1901, a bacterial infection called erysipelas that is related to a bacteria that can cause flesh-eating disease. Erysipelas is more characterized by a rash, but is just as dangerous due to its accompanying high fevers, which in Johnson's case led to the loss of her hair. Nevertheless, Johnson performed on the road for another eight years, including a trip to take the stage in england. Still, the travel was hard and her finances so strained that Johnson determined to make a change.

By 1909 Johnson had moved to vancouver, british columbia. On earlier visits she had picked up the basics of chinook jargon, the local trade language and general lingua franca between the local Indigenous Nations and the european newcomers. She had met Chief Joe Capilano in 1906 while on tour in england, where she impressed him by speaking with him in Chinook jargon rather than depending on an interpreter, and he became a great friend and mentor in the city. Johnson eventually produced the book Legends of Vancouver from the many stories he told her, including the story of Napoleon. This remains her most famous prose work, perhaps as cited as her short story "A Red Girl's Reasoning" and her poem "The Song My Paddle Sings."

From her new base, Johnson set out on a career focussed on writing magazine and newspaper articles. It was still a precarious, if steady living, she was already ill with breast cancer when she moved to vancouver, and the physical and financial cost of treatment was high. Johnson had a wide circle of friends in her adopted city, including a network of women who helped her as she struggled with her illness. Chloroform was known and used as an anaesthetic in europe, and was finally moving into common use in north america, but the only treatment for breast cancer was mastectomy, which is a gruelling procedure no matter how anaesthetized a woman is. It appears that Johnson underwent the removal of one breast in 1909 or 1910, and in 1910 she lost her dear friend Chief Capilano. Despite her illness and her loss, Johnson continued to write, including The Mocassin Maker, Flint and Feather, and The Shaganappi which was published after her death. The first two books were published to raise much-needed funds, and Johnson worked through intense pain. It seems a cruel turn that Johnson's fame finally took off and she began to receive distinguished visitors and attention only once she was known to be dying.

Johnson died on 7 March 1913, just three days short of her 52nd birthday. Memorial services were held for her all over canada, and vancouver designated 10 March a civic holiday. 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. Her stone memorial features a large cameo-style version of the famous profile in her publicity photograph, now rather worn by time and weather. More information about E. Pauline Johnson is available at the Pauline Johnson Archive, originally maintained on the mcmaster university server but now hosted by the Roy Rosenzweig center for history and new media. Another great source is one used several times already for this article, Charlotte Gray's award-winning biography, Flint and Feather: The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake. For an alternative perspective focussed more on her writing, see Veronica Strong-Boag and Carole Gerson's Paddling Her Own Canoe: The Times and Texts of E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake). Today Johnson's former childhood home on the edge of the Six Nations reserve, Chiefswood, is a historic site.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2023
Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:54:12