“ Pauline broke trail across this country for women, for native women and for women to make their own way as artists on their own terms. She wasn’t just writing poems, she wrote the book and shaped identity where we all appear in every stanza and every verse.”-Janet Rogers via a CBC article “Why Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson should be on Canadian money.“
A brief history of Pauline Johnson, Mohawk poet and performer
Emily Pauline Johnson, more well known as Pauline Johnson or Tekahionwake, was a famous Indigenous performer and writer in Canadian history. Born in 1861, she lived a very remarkable life until she died in 1913 due to breast cancer. Over the course of Pauline’s literary career she wrote several short stories, poems and essays that contributed greatly to the literary narrative of Canada.
Pauline was born on March 10, 1861 at the Six Nations reserve in Ontario and was the youngest daughter of George Henry Martin Johnson, a hereditary Mohawk chief, and Emily Susanna Howells, a British-Canadian settler. Her father worked as an translator and also as an interpreter for the Canadian government.
Due to the highly regarded social status of her father Pauline grew up in a relatively high-class environment. Her mother taught Pauline how to conduct herself in a way that adhered to British decorum standards. Guests who would visit the Johnson household included royalty, high-ranking officials and political figures. Having two parents who loved each other and treated each other like equals culturally, Pauline grew up proud of being Mohawk and proud of being British.
Due to her sickly health, Pauline never attended residential school and was educated at home by her mother and various governesses. Pauline’s love of literature was fostered by her mother, who made sure that Pauline was well-educated and well-read in various books of major British literary figures such as Alfred Tennyson. At the age of 14, Pauline attended the Brantford Central Collegiate.
But, life for Pauline changed after her father died and her family was forced by financial obligations to leave their home and move to Brantford, Ontario. Although Pauline was well-read and well-educated and had grown up socializing with multiple high-ranking members of Canadian society, she didn’t have very many real life skills for employment. She was in her early twenties and was expected to get married. But, in a time when it was uncommon for women to reject marriage Pauline chose to remain unmarried. She had various suitors over the course of her life, but Pauline never married and she never had children. She instead chose to become a writer and a performer, and supported her siblings and mother through her writing and performing career.
As a performer Pauline’s stage name was Tekahionwake (which translates to “double wampum” in the Mohawk language and it was also the name of her paternal great-grandfather) and performances of hers would often feature her showing up on stage in “traditional” Mohawk clothing (the clothing wasn’t truly traditional, because Pauline had been inspired to take traditional Mohawk clothing and then change it so that it would look more provocative and exotic and eye-catching) and then change clothing where she would be dressed up in proper, European style dresses. She was often referred to as a “Mohawk princess,” seeing as she was the daughter of a Chief. During her performances, Pauline would often read poetry she had written from the Indigenous perspective and then also recite classic well-known British poems. Considered exotic for her Indigenous heritage Pauline was incredibly popular with white audiences and she would often tour across Canada and the United States and even into high-class performance venues in England, where she would perform for England’s high-class society.
Pauline had started her writing career before her performing career, but the success of her writing career was boosted by her performances as “Tekahionwake.” Over the course of her literary career Pauline wrote and published various poems, essays, and short stories that greatly defined the Canadian literary landscape. She advocated for Indigenous peoples in Canada by writing about Indigenous issues and sharing her perspective as a Indigenous woman.
Due to her mixed heritage and having obtained an English style education, Pauline was criticized by some people as not being authentically Indigenous. I don’t agree with the criticism, because to me having mixed heritage doesn’t automatically cancel out your Indigenous heritage. But, there were some who believed that having mixed-heritage meant an Indigenous person was less Indigenous. Even Margaret Atwood herself said: “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.”
But, despite the criticism that Pauline has received no one can deny the impact that Pauline’s literary work has had on Canada. Her stories challenged narratives in Canadian society. At a time when it was normal in literature to present Indigenous peoples as inferior to settlers, Pauline would often present Indigenous peoples as equal or superior to settlers. Some examples of this work include “My Mother”, “A Strong Race Opinion: On the Indian Girl in Modern Fiction” and “A Red Girl’s Reasoning.”
A brief summary and analysis of some of Pauline’s writing
“My Mother” is an autobiographical story about Lydia Bestman (who is supposed to represent Pauline’s mother Susanna), an English settler who falls in love with a Mohawk Chief named George Mansion (who is the literary representation of Pauline’s father George.) This story challenged the idea that Indigenous culture was inferior to British culture, and shows a glimpse into Pauline’s life as this story was inspired by the story of how her parents fell in love. Both settler and Indigenous cultures were depicted as equal, with neither culture being presented as superior to the other.
In this essay Pauline criticized the fact that many white settlers pan-Indianize and objectify Indigenous female characters in their story. She pointed out how Indigenous woman characters are often referred to as “a Indian”, while in contrast Pauline has never come across a European woman character being referred to as “a European.” Plus, she calls out the fact that white settler writers don’t distinguish between the various tribes in Indigenous culture, placing them all under the same umbrella of being “Indian.” They think that Indigenous cultures are homogenous and the same, rather than incredibly diverse and different. And she also calls out the absurdity of the fact that so many of these “Indian girl” romances often end with the Indian girl killing herself in despair after being rejected by the white man she’s in love with.
Often, stories at the time that were written by Euro-Canadian settlers featured Indigenous girls as incredibly in love with and submissive to their white romantic partners. Often, European culture is depicted as superior to Indigenous culture, where Indigenous culture is savage but European culture is considered civilized. But, in this story Pauline flipped the script. The heroine of this story Christie, who is part Indigenous and part European, doesn’t consider Indigenous culture as inferior to settler culture. She isn’t overly submissive to her white husband Charlie and she leaves him after he says that the marriage customs of Indigenous peoples are not as valid as the marriage customs of Christianity.
In conclusion Pauline Johnson was an incredibly remarkable woman in Canadian history. Through her performances and writing she challenged and subverted many stereotypical narratives about Indigenous peoples in Canada. She brought Indigenous history and rights issues and women’s rights issues to public attention and gave a voice through her writing on the Indigenous perspective. She truly made a huge impact on the world and made a difference in the lives of many people.
Learn more about Emily Pauline Johnson through these links:
Deena is currently majoring in English. She is excited to be a blog writer since shes hopes to spread more awareness on topics she is passionate about and to also hopefully spotlight women who are doing amazing things in the local community.