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Emily Pauline Johnson

[Tekahionwake] (10 March 1861 – 7 March 1913 / Chiefswood, Ontario)

Biography of Emily Pauline Johnson

Emily Pauline Johnson poet

Emily Pauline Johnson (also known in Mohawk as Tekahionwake –pronounced: dageh-eeon-wageh, literally: 'double-life'), commonly known as E. Pauline Johnson or just Pauline Johnson, was a Canadian writer and performer popular in the late 19th century. Johnson was notable for her poems and performances that celebrated her First Nations heritage; her father was a Mohawk chief of mixed ancestry, and her mother an English immigrant. One such poem is the frequently anthologized "The Song My Paddle Sings".

Her 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.Pauline Johnson was born at Chiefswood, the family home built by her father in 1856 on the Six Nations Indian 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 chief whose mother was half European. Howells had immigrated to the United States in 1832 as a young child with her father, stepmother and siblings. Howells met Johnson while living with her older sister on the reserve, where her brother-in-law was an Anglican missionary.

Although Emily and George Johnson's marriage had been opposed by both their families, and they were concerned that their mixed-race family would not be socially accepted, they were acknowledged as a leading Canadian family (Gray 2002, p. 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 Native father, by British law they were legally considered Mohawk and wards of the British Crown. Because their mother was not Mohawk, they were excluded from aspects of the tribe's matrilineal culture. Their paternal grandfather John Smoke Johnson, who had been elected a 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.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.

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. She enjoyed reading tales about Native peoples, such as Longfellow's epic poem The Song of Hiawatha and John Richardson's Wacousta. At age 14, Johnson went to Brantford Central Collegiate with her brother Allen, and she graduated in 1877. A schoolmate was Sara Jeannette Duncan, who developed her own journalistic and literary career.

Literary and Stage Career

During the 1880s, 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. 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.

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 the battle of Cut Knife Creek during the Riel Rebellion. Roberts and Johnson became lifelong friends. Johnson promoted her identity as a Mohawk, but spent little time with people of the culture as an adult. 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 (Gray 2002, p. 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 during and after the American Revolutionary War. Her "Ode to Brant" was read at an 13 October ceremony before "the largest crowd the little city had ever seen." It called for brotherhood between Native and white Canadians under British imperial authority (Gray 2002, p. 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. 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.Johnson was one of a group of Canadian authors contributing to a distinct national literature. The inclusion of two of her poems in W.D. Lighthall's anthology, Songs of the Great Dominion (1889), signaled her recognition 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." 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.

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."

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." Johnson was perceived as quite young (although she was then 31), a beauty, and an exotic Native performer. After her first recital season, she decided to emphasize the Native aspects by assembling and wearing a feminine Native costume. 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.

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. The 1890s were also the period of popularity of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and ethnological aboriginal exhibits. She and her siblings inherited an artifact collection from their father, which included significant items such as 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.

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."

Later Life

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." 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 who’s life and writings were an uplift and a blessing to our nation".

Criticism and Legacy

Despite the acclaim she received from contemporaries, Johnson's reputation significantly declined in the decades after her death. 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. 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. 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."

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."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. 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.In 1922, the city of Vancouver erected a monument in Pauline Johnson's honour at her well-loved Stanley Park. 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."

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. 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.

On 11 March 2008, City Opera Vancouver announced its commission of Pauline, a chamber opera to star the dramatic mezzo Judith Forst. The composer is Christos Hatzis, with libretto by Margaret Atwood. The work is planned for premiere in early 2011. The first opera to be written about Pauline Johnson, it is set in Vancouver in March 1913, in the last week of her life.

The Canadian actor Donald Sutherland narrated the following quote from her poem "Autumn's Orchestra", at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. 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.

Family History

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. 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. 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. 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.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.

Emily Howells was born in England to a well-established British family who immigrated to the United States in 1832. 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. After his second wife died (women had a high mortality in childbirth), Howells married a third time, and fathered a total of 24 children. Although 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".

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 George Johnson, Howells gained a better understanding of the Native peoples and some perspective on her father's beliefs.

Emily Pauline Johnson's Works:

The White Wampum. Toronto: Copp Clark, 1895; London: John Lane, 1895.] (Early Canadiana Online)
In the Shadows. Gouverneur, NY: Adirondack, [1898?] (Early Canadiana Online)
Canadian Born. Toronto: Morang, 1903
When George Was King and Other Poems. Brockville, ON: Brockville Times, 1908
Flint and Feather. Toronto: Musson Book Co., 1912
Flint and Feather by E. Pauline Johnson at Project Gutenberg (Project Gutenberg)
Watts-Dunton, Theodore, ed. Flint and Feather: The Complete Poems of E. Pauline Johnson. Toronto: Musson Book Co., 1917
Van Steen, Marcus, ed. Pauline Johnson, Her Life and Work: Biography Written By and Poems Selected By Marcus Van Steen. Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965
Gerson, Carole and Veronica Strong-Boag, eds. Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002

Collected stories by Pauline Johnson

Legends of Vancouver. Vancouver, [privately printed], 1911. Vancouver: Vancouver Business and Professional Women's Club, 1952
The Mocassin Maker. Toronto: William Briggs, 1913
The Shagganappi. Toronto: William Briggs, 1913

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PoemHunter.com Updates

Moonset

Idles the night wind through the dreaming firs,
That waking murmur low,
As some lost melody returning stirs
The love of long ago;
And through the far, cool distance, zephyr fanned.
The moon is sinking into shadow-land.

The troubled night-bird, calling plaintively,
Wanders on restless wing;

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