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Paddling her own canoe

E. Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake, celebrated poet and performer, died 100 years ago. But her life still resonates today.

By Carolyn Pogue

If I had a time machine, I’d slip back to the 1890s so I could attend an E. Pauline Johnson performance. I would have loved to see her appear, dressed as her father’s people, in a buckskin dress, red robe, Mohawk silver jewelry and a bear claw necklace glinting in the stage lights. I would have loved to watch when she appeared after the intermission dressed as her mother’s people, in a satin dress with lace and a bustle, gold locket, dainty satin shoes. What creative power she displayed in choosing this way to entertain and educate Canadian, American and British audiences.

At a time when women were expected to marry and have babies, were barred from the ballot box, were fainting from wearing tight corsets and were not supposed to write books or take to the stage, Pauline paddled her own canoe, and down a different river. She added Tekahionwake, her great-grandfather’s name, to her Christian name early in her career. The name translates as “double life”; she knew exactly what she was about from the beginning.

She was a bridge between worlds — risky business even today. Pauline was at home whether performing for British royalty in London or for gold miners in the wilds of British Columbia. She was raised in the Anglican tradition by a Quaker mother, and steeped in Mohawk myths, history and spirituality, taught by her father’s father. Her schooling (at home and in public school) included English and Iroquoian classics. She filtered it all and from her pen came hearts and flowers, as well as blood and guts.

E. Pauline Johnson, Mohawk-English poet and performer
E. Pauline Johnson, Mohawk-English poet and performer

Her first book, White Wampum, published in 1894 contained poems such as “The Cattle Thief,” and “As Red Men Die.” It’s stunning to imagine her performing these narrative poems, written soon after the Riel Rebellion ended and the treaties were signed. Other books followed: Flint and Feather, In the Shadows, Canadian Born, Legends of Vancouver. Poetry, essays and short stories appeared in anthologies such as Boys Own and in newspapers and magazines such as Saturday Night.

I had read Pauline Johnson’s poetry as a child, but had not consciously carried her with me into adulthood. It was when I wanted to write a novel based on stories of British Home Children that I returned to her. Or she returned to me. When I realized that this “Mohawk poet,” “comedienne” and “Canadian performer,” was publishing and performing in the 1890s, I found the start to my story, one of many gifts she left me.

Pauline grew up at Chiefswood house (now a national historic site) on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve in Ontario. This beautiful home speaks volumes about the kind of parents she had: the front and back entrances are identical, so that neither visitors arriving from the riverside (mostly Mohawk) nor visitors from the roadside (mostly white) would enter a back door.

Her funeral was the largest ever in the history of Vancouver, the city she called home for the last four years of her life. Her ashes were buried in Stanley Park on her 52nd birthday, March 10, 1913.

This spring, Chiefswood celebrates her contributions to literature and history. Several events, both at Chiefswood and at McMaster University in nearby Hamilton, will give visitors the opportunity to better know Pauline’s legacy.

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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