|The Mohawk writer and performer E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) was born on 10 March 1861 at Chiefswood, the impressive
house built by her father on the Grand River Reservation of the Six Nations near Brantford, Ontario. She was the daughter of George
Henry Martin Johnson, also known as the Mohawk chief Teyonnhehkewea, and Emily Susanna Howells Johnson, the English-born
cousin of William Dean Howells. A strong influence on Johnson was her paternal grandfather, John "Smoke" Johnson
(Sakayengwaraton), a hero of the War of 1812 and a renowned orator in the Iroquois councils. A gifted speaker in his own right, her
father frequently made speeches on behalf of his people and served as a liaison between them and the whites.
Johnson was primarily educated at home by her mother, who stimulated a love of literature in Pauline and her sister and two brothers
by reading to them works by the English Romantics. Johnson's father was severely beaten in 1865 for trying to eradicate illegal alcohol
and timber traffic on the reservation. Eight years later another gang beat and shot him and left him for dead; he survived but never fully
recovered from his injuries.
Despite these attacks, and another in 1878, George Johnson redoubled his efforts to curb lawlessness on the reservation.
At fourteen Pauline Johnson enrolled at the Brantford Collegiate Institute, where she particularly enjoyed performing in plays and
pageants. After leaving school in 1877 she returned to Chiefswood and led the kind of life typical of young middle-class women of the
time as they waited to be married: attending social activities, entertaining potential suitors, visiting friends and relatives and hosting
them in return. She also wrote poetry, little of which has survived.
After George Johnson's death in 1884 the family could no longer afford to live at Chiefswood. In 1885 Pauline Johnson, her mother,
and her sister moved to nearby Brantford. Johnson returned to writing poems, several of which were published in The Week, a Toronto
magazine. Her career as a performer began in 1892 when her recitation of her poem "A Cry from an Indian Wife" at a Toronto literary
evening electrified her audience. To earn money to go to Great Britain to arrange for the publication of her poetry, Johnson toured for
the next two years, reciting her works to enthusiastic audiences in Ontario and along the East Coast of the United States. Billed as "The
Mohawk Princess," Johnson performed the Indian portion of her program in a fringed buckskin dress of her own design and the
remainder in an evening gown.
In April 1894 Johnson traveled to London, where she performed or was a guest in the homes of such prominent members of society as
Sir Charles Tupper, the Canadian high commissioner to London; George Frederick Samuel Robinson, first marquis and second earl of
Ripon, the former viceroy of India and Britain's colonial secretary; Lady Helen Munroe-Ferguson, duchess of Montrose; and Lady
Constance Villiers Stanley, countess of Derby.
Johnson's first volume of poetry, The White Wampum (1895), comprising thirty-six poems, established Johnson as an Indian writer of
talent and sensibility. The Week praised her "power of lucid, picturesque, forcible expression." The destructiveness of intertribal
warfare is the theme of several of the eight poems that are devoted to Indian subjects. "As Red Men Die," a tribute to an ancestor of
the author's, describes the bravery of a Mohawk captive who defies his Huron torturers. "Dawadine" recounts the legend of an Indian
maid's love for an enemy warrior. "Ojistoh," a melodramatic monologue with complex sexual overtones, depicts a Mohawk wife's struggle
to outwit the Hurons who kidnap her: riding behind one of her captors, Ojistoh seduces her enemy into loosening her bonds and then
kills him with his own knife. In "Cattle Thief" a Cree woman's powerful speech about how whites have destroyed the Indians dissuades
white vigilantes from mutilating the body of the fearless Brave Eagle, whom they have just murdered for stealing cattle to feed his
In "A Cry from an Indian Wife" a woman alternates between grief at the knowledge that her husband will probably die if he goes to war
against whites and her courageous commitment to resisting white depredations against her people.
"Wolverine," a dramatic monologue told in dialect by a white narrator, chronicles whites' unjust treatment of an Indian brave who tries to
help them, while tragic love between a white man and an Indian woman is the focus of "The Pilot of the Plains." Some of Johnson's
Indian poems lament the inevitability of the displacement of traditional Indian life by white migration.
"The Happy Hunting Grounds" celebrates the beauty of the western prairies and mourns the demise of the Plains Indians' traditional
way of life. This displacement is also the subject of "Joe," a portrait of a nine-year-old "semi-savage" son of white settlers who husks
Indian corn before shambling home to the backwoods, where forests await the pioneer's ax and the settler's plow.
Most of the poems in the volume are lyrical evocations of nature; especially popular were those on canoeing. Johnson's best-known
poem is "The Song My Paddle Sings," which was memorized by generations of Canadian schoolchildren. The author, an accomplished
canoeist, describes drifting dreamily along a river and then plunging through the boiling rapids to arrive at a silent pool."
Another favorite is the descriptive-reflective "Shadow River (Muskoka)," a delicate lyric in which the author depicts her reactions as she
floats on the river. "In the Shadows," which recalls Alfred Tennyson's "Soft and Low," captures the author's sensuous response to
nature while canoeing languorously on the river:
"On the water's idle pillow
Sleeps the overhanging willow,
Green and cool;
Where the rushes lift their burnished
Oval heads from out the tarnished
For most of Johnson's adult life, performing was her major source of income. Following her return to Canada in July 1894, she
expanded her tours to western Ontario, northern Michigan, Manitoba, and British Columbia. After her mother died in 1898 Johnson
moved to Winnipeg.
That year she became engaged to Charles Robert Lumley Drayton, whose parents opposed their son's marriage to a mixed-blood
stage performer who was older than he. Drayton broke the engagement in 1900 to marry someone else. Vulnerable after her broken
engagement and the loss of her mother, Johnson may have been romantically involved in 1900-1901 with her unscrupulous manager,
Charles Wuerz (in Pauline: A Biography of Pauline Johnson  Betty Keller incorrectly gives his name as Wurz). The theme of the
betrayal of Indian women by white men runs through many of her works, both before and after her relationships with Drayton and
Wuerz. In 1909 Walter McRaye, with whom she had toured briefly in 1897, became her partner and manager.
Johnson's second poetry collection, Canadian Born (1903), disappointed critics because it included many poems written years earlier
and because the new ones lacked the fresh voice of the earlier volume. Canadian Born comprises thirty-one poems; especially
poignant is "The Corn Husker," in which an old Indian woman, "Age in her fingers, hunger in her face, / Her shoulders stooped with
weight of work and years," remembers the days before injustice banished her people, who are unheeded like "the dead husks that
rustle through her hands," from their land. Johnson also pays tribute to Indian women in "The Quill Worker," about the daughter of a
Sioux chief. "The Legend of Qu' Apelle Valley" describes a young brave's journey to his beloved, only to find her dead. The best of the
other poems focus on nature; one of these, "Crows' Nest Pass," was undoubtedly influenced by Shelley's "Mont Blanc."
Johnson received rave reviews for her performances in London in 1906. In 1907 she and McRaye toured the midwestern United States,
Colorado, and Massachusetts. That year she began contributing stories and articles to The Mother's Magazine and Boys' World, both
of which were published by the David C. Cook Company of Elgin, Illinois. In 1908 she retired from performing and settled in Vancouver.
She continued writing for the two magazines until 1912.
Legends of Vancouver (1911), which Johnson wanted to call "Legends of the Capilanos," gathers together her imaginative and
dramatic interpretations of stories from the Northwest Coast Indians, many of which she learned from Chief Joe Capilano, an old
Squamish chief she had met in London in 1906. Johnson also incorporates some Iroquois stories. The stories, many of which originally
appeared in the Vancouver Province in 1910 and 1911, include some of her best writing.
"Deep Waters" includes both Squamish and Iroquois flood myths. "A Royal Mohawk Chief" recounts the 1869 ceremony in which Queen
Victoria's son Arthur, duke of Connaught, was made a chief of the Six Nations Indians; the author's Mohawk grandfather and father
participated in the event. Most of the Northwest Coast stories are associated with specific places, which Johnson describes in poetic
detail. She frames the Indian stories with a description of the circumstances of the storytelling, such as conversations she had with
Capilano during a walk or family picnic or a chance meeting with an old Salish woman friend. Johnson concludes each story with a
return to the setting, the storyteller, and the listener. She achieves a far more conversational style in this volume than in her original
fiction or her poetry.
From the beginning of her career Johnson took on the role of serving as a mediator between the Indian, particularly the Iroquois, and
white worlds. She explained Iroquois history, culture, and customs in such articles as "Indian Medicine Men and Their Magic" (1892);
"The Iroquois of the Grand River" (1894); "The Six Nations" (1895); "A'bram" (1901); "Mothers of a Great Red Race" (1908), revised as
"Iroquois Women of Canada" (1909); and "The Great New Year White Dog: Sacrifice of the Onondagas" (1911). In "A Strong Race
Opinion on the Indian Girl in Modern Fiction" (1892), most of which is reprinted in Keller's book, Johnson criticizes the portrayals of
Indian women by non-Indian writers.
She strongly attacks white authors for denying Indian girls' spontaneity, originality, and specific tribal backgrounds while depicting them
as suicidal and as victims of doomed love affairs. Keller, however, argues that Johnson's own later articles and comments sometimes
seem condescending and reflect a loss of faith in the Indians' adaptability. Johnson's skill as a travel writer is exemplified in "Forty-Five
Miles on the Grand" (1892) and especially in "Coaching on the Cariboo Trail" (1914), a revised and expanded version of "The Cariboo
In 1912 Johnson published Flint and Feather, including poems from her two earlier volumes as well as additional work. During the final
stages of her struggle with cancer her supporters published The Shagganappi (1913), a collection of twenty-one stories and an essay
on how the Iroquois raised their sons. Dedicated to the Boy Scouts, the volume includes a tribute to Johnson by Ernest Thompson
Seton. The stories, which are designed to provide boys with suitable role models, recount the exploits of Indian and non-Indian boys
courageously facing danger and doing good deeds.
The Indians are uniformly generous, honest, and loyal to the whites they befriend. Johnson's concern with the theme of the mixed-blood
is reflected in the title story, which depicts the prejudice encountered by young Fire Flint Larocque, who is part French but mostly Cree.
The stories provide ethnographic information on such groups as the Iroquois, Blackfoot, and Salish. Some are fictionalized versions of
actual events, such as "The Delaware Idol," an account of how her father destroyed a Delaware religious artifact when he was sixteen.
Johnson died on 7 March 1913.
Johnson's finest lyrics are "Morrow Land," written at Easter 1900; "Heidelburgh" (originally titled "To C. W."); and "Song," all
unpublished in her lifetime. Keller and Carole Gerson conjecture that these poems reflect Johnson's relationship with Wuerz. Canadian
Magazine published "Song" in October 1913 and "Heidelburgh" -- here spelled "Heidelberg" -- in November 1913. Mrs. W. Garland
Foster published "Morrow Land" in The Mohawk Princess (1931). "Heidelburgh" reveals powerful and bitter personal emotions not
present in Johnson's earlier work. Her mature lyricism is exemplified in "Song":
"The night-long shadows faded into gray,
Then silvered into glad and gold sunlight,
Because you came to me, like a new day
Born of the beauty of an autumn night."
The author's supporters collected her stories about women and her essay "A Pagan in St. Paul's Cathedral" as The Moccasin Maker,
which was published posthumously in 1913. Like the heroines in most women's nineteenth-century fiction, the female protagonists of
Johnson's stories inevitably triumph over great difficulty. They and their lovers recognize that genuine love between men and women
reflects shared values.
Johnson combines the domestic romance with protest literature, expressing her anger at the injustices experienced by women and
Indians in "Red Girl's Reasoning" and "As It Was in the Beginning," two of the best stories in the collection. In both, she combines the
plot of the mixed-blood woman betrayed by a weak white lover with a forceful attack on white religious hypocrisy. "The Legend of
Lillooet Falls," "Tenas Klootchman," and "Catherine of the 'Crow's Nest' " depict the deep love Indian women feel for their natural and
adopted children, as well as the roles they play as guardians of tribal traditions.
Mother love is also a powerful force in Johnson's stories about white frontier women, such as "My Mother," a fictionalized account of her
parents' courtship and marriage. In "A Pagan in St. Paul's Cathedral" Johnson draws parallels between Indian and white religions and
concludes that the differences are unimportant.
Critics have varied reactions to Johnson’s work. Some feel she used too much sentimentalism in novels and poetry. Some say her
poetry was authentically Native American, while others think it was not.
Charles Mair, a Canadian poet and a friend of Johnson's, acclaimed her as one " 'who spoke loud and bold,' not for the Iroquois alone,
but for the whole red race, and sang of its glories and its wrongs in strains of poetic fire." The British critic Theodore Watts-Dunton saw
her as representing an authentic Indian voice and predicted in his introduction to the 1913 edition of Flint and Feather that Johnson
would hold a "memorable place among poets in virtue of her descent and also in virtue of the work she has left behind, small as the
quantity of that work is." Johnson's reputation reached its zenith in the 1920s, when Canadian critics focused new attention on her
generation of writers. The reaction against her poetry is voiced most forcefully by A. J. M. Smith, who argues that critics and journalists
played up her Indian birth, which "has been accepted as convincing proof that she spoke with the authentic voice of the Red Man." He
did not realize that this was the style of many 19th century writers.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a renewed interest in Johnson's poetry. Ray Daniels, a Canadian literary scholar, ascribes her popularity to
the fact that she wrote at the beginning of Canadian literature and "satisfied a felt need. Like [Robert] Service and [William Wilfrid]
Campbell, she associates a broadly Romantic view of life with the elements of the vast natural landscape." Norman Shrive says that
Johnson was "one of the few people who saw through the new popular image of the Indian and said so in writing" but that her work
reflects the "flabby Victorian romanticism so familiar" in the art of the period.
Elizabeth Loosely emphasizes the Indian-white dualism in Johnson's work. Loosely and Marcus Van Steen suggest that Johnson's need
to perform and write to support herself and her mother may have prevented her from reaching her full potential. George W. Lyon notes
that Johnson does not create characters or actions in her Indian poems that are "culturally representative of any tribe." Like Loosely,
he finds Johnson both attracted to and repulsed by Christianity. A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff has focused new attention on The Moccasin
Maker; in her introduction to the 1987 edition of that work and in her article "Justice for Indians and Women: The Protest Fiction of Alice
Callahan and Pauline Johnson" (1992) she examines Johnson's use of the domestic romance and the traditions of sentimentalism
popular in nineteenth- and turn-of-the-century women's fiction as a vehicle for protesting injustices to Native American women.
With the rise of interest in Native American and women's literature Johnson has gained new readers. In the United States there is
greater interest in her prose than in her poetry. The first Indian woman to publish books of poetry and a collection of short fiction,
Johnson was also one of the first to explore the theme of the search for identity of those with mixed ancestry and to focus on issues
affecting Indian women.
Gray, C. Flint and Feather : The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake. 2003.
Johnsotn, S. M.F. Buckskin & Broadcloth: A Celebration of E. Pauline Johnson-Tekahionwake, 1861-1913. 1997.
Johnson, E. P. The White Wampum. 1895.
Johnson, E. P. Canadian Born. 1903.
Johnson, E. P. Legends of Vancouver. 1911.
Johnson, E. P. Flint and Feather. 1912.
Johnson, E. P. The Moccasin Maker. 1913.
Johnson, E. P. The Shagganappi. 1913.
|E. Pauline Johnson, Mohawk Indian