Emily Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) (March 10, 1861 – March 7, 1913), who is commonly known as E. Pauline Johnson or just Pauline Johnson, was a Canadian writer and performer. Pauline Johnson is often remembered for her poems that celebrate her aboriginal heritage at a time when little social advantage attached to such an association. One such poem is the frequently anthologized “The Song my Paddle Sings.” Pauline Johnson’s writings and performances have been rediscovered by a number of literary, feminist, and post colonial critics who appreciate her importance as a New Woman and figure of resistance to dominant ideas about race, gender, Native Rights, and Canada. Furthermore, the increase in First Nations literary activity during the 1980s and 1990s prompted writers and scholars to investigate Native oral and written literary history, a history to which Johnson made a significant contribution.
In 1758, Pauline Johnson’s great-grandfather, Dan Hansen was baptized by Jacob Tekahionwake Johnson on the encouragement of Sir William Johnson, superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern district of the American colonies. Jacob Tekahionwake Johnson eventually moved north from his home in the Mohawk River Valley, which is now New York State, to the newly designated Six Nations territory. One of his sons, John Smoke Johnson, had a talent for oratory, spoke English, and demonstrated his patriotism to the crown during the War of 1812. As a result of these abilities and actions, John Smoke Johnson was made a Pine Tree Chief upon the request of the British government. Although John Smoke Johnson’s title could not be inherited, his wife Helen Martin descended from a founding family of the Six Nations; thus, it was through her lineage and insistence that George Johnson became a chief.
George Johnson inherited his father’s gift for languages and began his career as a church translator on the Six Nations reserve. This position introduced him to Emily Howells, the sister-in-law of the Anglican missionary he assisted. News of the couple’s interracial marriage in 1853 displeased the Johnson and Howells families. However, the birth of George and Emily’s first child reconciled the Johnson family relations. In his later roles as a government interpreter and hereditary Chief, George Johnson developed a reputation as a talented mediator between Native and European interests. George Johnson also made enemies through his efforts to stop illegal trading of reserve timber for whiskey and suffered a series of violent physical attacks at the hands of Native and non-Native men involved in this traffic. George Johnson’s health was substantially weakened by these attacks, which contributed to his death from a fever in 1884.
Pauline’s mother, Emily Howells was born to a well-established British family who left England for North America in 1832, the same year as literary sisters Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill crossed the Atlantic. Henry Howells, Emily Howells’ father, was raised as a Quaker and was interested in joining the American movement to abolish slavery. He moved his family to a number of American cities, establishing schools to gain an income, before settling in Eaglewood, New Jersey. Emily Howells’ mother, Mary Best, died when Emily was five. Her father remarried twice and fathered a total of twenty-four children, who, contrary to what his educational endeavors and abolitionist agenda suggest, he treated cruelly.
Henry Howells, like a growing number of people living in the northern United States, displayed Christian outrage at the practice of slavery, which he cultivated in his children by admonishing them 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.” When Emily Howells moved to Six Nations at age twenty-one to help care for her sister’s growing family and fell in love with George Johnson, she gained a more realistic understanding of Native peoples and her father’s beliefs.
Emily Pauline Johnson was born in Chiefswood, the family home built by her father on the Six Nations Indian Reserve outside of Brantford, Ontario, in 1861. Pauline Johnson was the youngest of four children born to George Henry Martin Johnson (1816 – 1884), a Mohawk, and Emily Susanna Howells Johnson (1824-1898), an English woman.
Her mother, Emily Howells was the first cousin of American author William Dean Howells, who disparaged Pauline Johnson’s poetic abilities. Emily Howells’ dramatic life and relationships are explored in a series of articles written by Pauline Johnson for The Mother’s Magazine, which were later reprinted in The Moccasin Maker (1913).
Early life and education
The Johnsons enjoyed a high standard of living, their family and home were well known, and Chiefswood was visited by important guests such as Alexander Graham Bell, Homer Watson, and Lady and Lord Dufferin.
Emily and George Johnson encouraged their four children, who were born on Native land and were thus wards of the British government, to respect, and gain knowledge of, both the Mohawk and the English aspects of their heritage. Although Emily Johnson fostered cultural pride, she also instilled inhibitions in her children and insisted that they behave perfectly to prevent rejection. John Smoke Johnson was an important presence in the lives of his grandchildren, especially Pauline. He spent much time telling them stories in the Mohawk tongue that they learned to comprehend but not to speak. Pauline Johnson believed that she inherited her talent for elocution from her grandfather and, near her time of death, she expressed regret that she had not discovered more of her grandfather’s knowledge.
As the youngest of her siblings and being a sickly child, Pauline Johnson was not forced to attend Brantford’s Mohawk Institute, one of Canada’s first residential schools, like her oldest brothers were required to. Instead, her education was for the most part informal, deriving from her mother, a series of non-Native governesses, a few years at the small school on the reserve, and self-directed reading in Chiefswood’s library. There she became familiar with literary works by Byron, Tennyson, Keats, Browning, and Milton. She especially enjoyed reading tales about the nobility of Native peoples such as Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha and John Richardson’s Wacousta. At age 14, Johnson was sent to attend Brantford Central Collegiate with her brother Allen and she graduated in 1877. Even according to the standards of her time, Johnson’s formal education was limited and throughout her life, and she worried that her lack of education would prevent her from achieving her high literary aspirations.
Shortly after George Johnson’s death in 1884, the family rented out Chiefswood and Pauline Johnson moved with her mother and sister to a modest home in Brantford, Ontario.
Literary and stage career
During the 1880s Pauline Johnson wrote, performed in amateur theatre productions, and enjoyed the Canadian outdoors, particularly by canoe. Johnson’s first full-length poem, “My Little Jean,” a sentimental piece written for her friend Jean Morton, first appeared in the New York publication Gems of Poetry in 1883 and the production, printing, and performance of Johnson’s poetry increased steadily afterwards. In 1885, she traveled to Buffalo, New York to attend a ceremony in honor of Iroquois leader Sagoyewatha, also known as Red Jacket, and wrote a poem which relays her admiration for the renowned orator and voices pleas to reconcile feuds between British and Native peoples. At a Brantford ceremony held in October 1886 in honor of Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, Johnson presented her poem “Ode to Brant,” which expresses the importance of brotherhood between Native and European immigrants while ultimately endorsing British authority. This performance generated a long article in the Toronto Globe and increased interest in Johnson’s poetry and ancestry.
Throughout the remainder of the 1880s, Johnson established herself as a Canadian writer and cultivated an audience amongst those who read her poetry in periodicals such as Globe, The Week, and Saturday Night. Johnson contributed to the critical mass of Canadian authors who were constructing a distinct national literature. The inclusion of two of her poems in W.D. Lighthall’s Songs from the Great Dominion (1889) signaled her membership amongst Canada’s important authors. In her early literary works, Johnson drew lightly from her Mohawk heritage, and instead lyricized Canadian life, landscapes, and love in a post-Romantic mode reflective of the literary interests she shared with her mother.
In 1892, Johnson recited her poem A Cry from an Indian Wife, a work based on the battle of Cut Knife Creek during the Riel Rebellion, at a Canadian Authors Evening arranged by the Young Men’s Liberal Club. The success of this performance initiated Johnson’s 15 year stage career and encouraged perceptions of her as a girl (although she was 31 at the time of this performance), a beauty, and an exotic Aboriginal elocutionist. After her first recital season, Johnson decided to emphasize the Native aspects of her literature and performance by assembling and donning a feminine Native costume. Johnson’s decision to develop this stage persona, and the popularity it inspired, indicates that the audiences she encountered in Canada, England, and the United States were educated to recognize representations of Native peoples on stage and were entertained by such productions.
Johnson’s complete textual output is difficult to establish as much of her large body of work was published in periodicals. Her first volume of poetry, The White Wampum, was published in London in 1895, and followed by Canadian Born in 1903. The contents of these volumes, along with some additional poems, were published as Flint and Feather in 1912. This volume has been reprinted many times, becoming 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.”
After retiring from the stage in August 1909, Johnson moved to Vancouver, British Columbia and continued her writing. She created 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 support the ill and poor Johnson, a group of friends organized the publication of these stories under the title Legends of Vancouver. They remain classics of that city’s literature. The Shagganappi (1913) and The Moccasin Maker (1913), posthumous publications, are collections of selected periodical stories Johnson penned on a number of sentimental, didactic, and biographical topics. Veronica Strong-Boag and Carole Gerson provide a provisional chronological list of Johnson’s numerous and diverse writings in their text Paddling Her Own Canoe: The Times and Texts of E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) (2000).
Johnson died of breast cancer in Vancouver, British Columbia on March 7, 1913. Her funeral (the largest in Vancouver up to that time), was held on what would have been her 52nd birthday and her ashes are buried near Siwash Rock in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. In Legends of Vancouver, Johnson relates a Squamish legend of how a man was transformed into Siwash Rock “as an indestructible monument to Clean Fatherhood.” In another story, she relates the history of Deadman’s Island, a small islet off Stanley Park, that explains its name. In a small poem in the same book, Johnson coins the name Lost Lagoon to describe one of her favorite areas in the park because it seemed to disappear when the water emptied at low tide. Although Lost Lagoon has since been transformed into a permanent, fresh water lake, Johnson’s name for it remains.
Criticism and legacy
Despite the acclaim she received from contemporaries, Pauline Johnson’s reputation significantly declined in the decades between 1913 and 1961. In 1961, on the centenary of her birth, Johnson was celebrated with the issuing of 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.” Despite recognition as an important Canadian figure, a number of biographers and literary critics deride Johnson’s literary contributions and contend that her abilities as a performer, whether in her signature Native or evening dress, largely contributed to the reputation her work received during her lifetime.
Also, 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.”
Margaret Atwood admits that she did not examine literature written by Native authors in Survival, her seminal text on Canadian literature, and states that upon its publication in 1973, she could not find any such works. She questions, “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.” Atwood’s commentary indicates that questions regarding the validity of Johnson’s claims to Aboriginal identity have contributed to her critical neglect.
As Atwood suggests, in recent years, Pauline Johnson’s writings and performances have been rediscovered by a number of literary, feminist, and post colonial critics who appreciate her importance as a New Woman and figure of resistance to dominant ideas about race, gender, Native Rights, and Canada. Furthermore, the increase in First Nations literary activity during the 1980s and 1990s prompted writers and scholars to investigate Native oral and written literary history, a history to which Johnson made a significant contribution.
In addition to her commemoration on a stamp, at least four Canadian schools are named in Johnson’s honor.