Pauline Johnson, a 19th century Canadian poet who was part Mohawk and part English, became famous for her dramatic poetry readings in which she appeared first in “Indian costume” and then in European evening dress.
The daughter of a Mohawk chief and his English wife, Pauline was raised in a bicultural family. It was this biculturalism that made her famous in drawing rooms, church halls and theatres throughout Canada, the United States and England.
Images of Pauline’s stage presence now overshadow her talents as a writer yet she was a gifted poet who showed early promise. Her poems were published in prestigious journals in Canada, the United States and Great Britain and she was highly regarded by the group who became known as Canada’s Confederation Poets. But when her father died at an early age, his hereditary home returned to the Mohawk people and the family left the reservation and their life of privilege. As promising as her writing prospects were, it would not have been easy to earn a living from publishing poetry and so Pauline chose to become what was then known as an “elocutionist” and read her poetry in public rather than embarking on a purely literary career.
At first Pauline’s presentations did not emphasize her “Indian” half. However, gradually she introduced more of her aboriginal heritage into her performances. She adopted her paternal grandfather’s name “Tekahionwake” and divided her programme into two acts. In the first act, she appeared in a “fusion costume” that she assembled from a variety of aboriginal cultural traditions. The dress itself was based on images of the fictional character Minnehaha, created by Longfellow in his story of Hiawatha! In the second act, she would surprise her audiences by appearing in European evening dress.
Pauline’s decision to present herself in this way has provoked controversy in academic and advocacy circles ever since. On the one hand, she has been labelled a “stage Indian” who romanticized aboriginal people while, on the other hand, some have labelled her poetry “derivative” because of its inspiration in the work of English poets such as Swinburne. Yet unquestionably her performance style and the subjects of her poems introduced audiences to ways of life and a level of intelligent discourse that their prejudices would not otherwise have allowed them to see.
Over the years, she became increasingly vocal about concerns of aboriginal people and an advocate for their rights. Her poetry could be strong, bloody and political, not hesitating to reveal racism and vile behaviour by Europeans. Her well-known poem A Cry from an Indian Wife ends with the words:
“Go forth nor bend to greed of white men’s hands,
By right, by birth we Indians own these lands,
Though starved, crushed, plundered lies our nation low… Perhaps the white man’s God has willed it so.”
Today Pauline Johnson’s public persona and her poems about aboriginal peoples have renewed relevance. The recommendations issued in June by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on abuse in residential schools for aboriginal children call for non-aboriginal peoples to learn from aboriginal peoples about their cultures and history. The words of this Mohawk-Canadian published in a volume of her collected poems Flint and Feather ring as true today as they did in the 19th century.
Written for Sheroes of History by Kristine Greenaway
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Watch this documentary about Pauline’s life: