Emily Pauline Johnson (also known as Tekahionwake, “double wampum”) poet, writer, artist and performer (born 10 March 1861 on the Six Nations Reserve, Canada West; died 7 March 1913 in Vancouver, BC) was one of North America’s most notable entertainers of the late 19th century. A gifted writer and poised speaker, she toured extensively throughout Canada and the United States, captivating audiences with her flare for the dramatic arts.
Early Life and Education
Pauline Johnson was born on the Six Nations Reserve near the Grand River, at Chiefswood — a villa near Tuscarora (also known as Middleport), located southeast of Brantford, in present-day Ontario. Chiefswood served as the family home to Johnson and her three siblings, Eliza Helen, Allen Wawanosh and Henry Beverly, from 1856 to 1884. It was close to the Anglican mission where her father, George H.M. Johnson, worked as an interpreter and cultural negotiator between the Mohawk, the British and the Government of Canada. Suffering poor health as a child, Pauline Johnson did not attend day school at the reserve like other Indigenous children during this period. Instead, she received an Anglican education at the instruction of her mother, family members and non-Indigenous governesses. When she was 14, she attended the Brantford Central Collegiate, graduating in 1877.
As her Mohawk name, Tekahionwake (“double wampum”), indicates, Johnson’s life was heavily influenced by her mixed race identity as Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and British. Her father was of Mohawk and European descent, and her mother, Emily Susanna Howells, was born in England and immigrated to the United States with her family as a small child. Originally from Bristol, the Howells were known for their interest in the literary arts. Emily met George while visiting her sister on a mission to Mohawk territory. At the time, George was acting as an interpreter for the Anglican Churchmission. The couple married in 1853. George became chief of the Six Nations soon thereafter, and was also appointed as a Crown interpreter for the Six Nations.
Although her parents’ mixed raced union was initially criticized, Pauline Johnson and her family enjoyed a privileged position in society, mainly because of her father’s social status as a cultural go-between. Her parents hosted notable dignitaries, intellectuals and artists at Chiefswood while her father was alive. Although she lived in an age of institutional racism, Johnson was taught to appreciate and respect her Mohawk ancestry. She understood the Mohawk language, having been told many stories by her paternal grandfather, Chief John Smoke Johnson, whose own dramatic talents inspired her work as a poet. She and her siblings inherited a number of their family’s traditional Mohawk cultural artifacts when their father passed away in 1884. Johnson would come to use many of these items in her performances, including wampum belts and masks.
Writing and Poetry
Pauline Johnson began writing poetry in her mid-teens. Her upbringing appeared to have influenced her insights on life, love and the human condition. She was best known by her contemporaries for her portrayals of Indigenous culture — particularly women and children. Her talent for the literary arts grew to be multifaceted, and she enjoyed great success during her lifetime. She published prolifically in newspapers and magazines in the early years of her professional writing career, making it difficult to know the entirely of her life’s work, though literary scholars and feminist historians continue to research and write about her.
In 1884, Johnson had her work professionally published in the New York magazine Gems of Poetry. She published another three poems in this magazine before 1885, and eight more in the Toronto based newspaper Week. Johnson soon began to recite her poetry and stories for groups and audiences, mixing representations of Indigeneity and Anglo-Canadianism. In 1895, at the height of her success as an oratory performer, she released a collection of poetry, The White Wampum. This was followed by Canadian Born (1903) and Flint and Feather (1912). Johnson published Legends of Vancouver in 1911, which was a series of tales and short stories told to her by Joe Capilano, a Squamish chief. Two books of short stories were published in 1913 after her death, The Shagganappi and The Moccasin Maker.
Pauline Johnson was in her early 20s in 1884 when her father died. She moved to Brantford with her ageing mother and sister, and began pursuing a professional career in spoken word performances. In a society with ridged gender roles for women, Johnson and her widowed mother were vulnerable to poverty. Johnson used the money she made publishing and touring to support herself and her family.
Sometime after 1884, Johnson embarked on a series of speaking tours in Canada, the United States and England that continued until 1909. Her recitations of patriotic poems made her popular among audiences. After she found success performing her own poetry, she adapted Indigenous items in her show, starting her performance in traditional Mohawk dress, and then changing into Victorian clothing. Evidently this helped to propel her success and notoriety among audiences.
Much of Pauline Johnson’s writing and performance styling reflected early expressions of English Canadian nationalism during an intense period of state formation following Confederation. It has been suggested that she was one of the first Canadian poets to write passionately about camping and living in the wilderness. Some of her poems were included in the anthology Songs of the Great Dominion (1889) by W.D. Lighthall, which was one of the first collections to include French-Canadian and Indigenous poetry together. She was also loosely associated with the Confederation Poets, whose literary style linked a love of the natural environment to the essence of being Canadian in the 1880s.
Her mixed race parentage and her feminine identity also influenced the tone of her writing and poetry. Johnson’s dual allegiances to her heritage represent the complex politics of her personal and political experiences during an intense period of restrictive legal policy and state regulation of Indigenous peoples by the Canadian government (see Indian Act; Reserves; Residential Schools). As a racialized and unmarried woman, her position in society was precarious. Although her status as a single and childless woman, in some ways, nurtured the possibility of her professional career in the literary arts, it also contributed to the poverty she suffered. This was despite her rise as a well-known Canadian poet and performer of the time, and happened amid calls by the women’s movement to expand respectable roles for women. Some historians have argued that Johnson’s choice to commercialize her Indigenous ancestry helped her to survive the poverty that accompanied her status as a racialized and unmarried woman in White society.
Pauline Johnson spoke of herself as an Indian, but some critics have challenged this identity, noting that her adult life was spent away from Mohawk culture, and somewhat removed from Indigenous people. Additionally, her poetry and performances were produced to suit the tastes of White audiences, who were inclined to hold antiquated and racist misconceptions about Indigenous peoples. Her work indicated that she was influenced by an attachment to her Anglo-Canadian roots. Johnson’s performance themes drew heavily on the tropes of the “Indian Princess” and “noble savage,” as they are now recognized by Indigenous peoples, scholars, post-colonial theorists and literary critics.
Although she often romanticized interactions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, Johnson wrote critically about the stereotypes and circumstances faced by Indigenous peoples during this period, drawing connections between racism, poverty and violence. For example, in “A Red Girl’s Reasoning,” she effectively humanized Indigenous peoples in a climate where mainstream views supported the ignorant claims of scientific racism, which created offensive and false categorizations of non-White people in the service of colonization. Johnson was also critical of the motivations and consequences of Christianity on Indigenous ways of life, though she moved diplomatically between distaste for the hard hand of institutionalized church teachings to a subtler expression of deference for religious authority.
Pauline Johnson died in Vancouver, the city where she spent the last years of her life, on 7 March 1913, days before her 53rd birthday. A monument in Stanley Park commemorates her work and legacy. She is also listed as a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada. Her childhood home, Chiefswood, remains a National Historic Site and public museum. In 2016, the federal government announced that Johnson was one of 12 iconic Canadian women in consideration to appear on a new banknote.
Johnson has been celebrated widely since the end of the 20th century as someone who made an important contribution to Indigenous and Canadian oral and written culture and history. As a single, Indigenous woman, and a successful poet and entertainer, Johnson transgressed prejudicial ideas of race and gender at the time. Although her work was well received by critics and popular audiences during her lifetime, it was largely forgotten in the decades after her death. By the latter half of the 20th century, and with the centennial of her birth in 1961, there was renewed interest in her work. Pauline Johnson continues to be recognized in the 21st century as a talented literary figure.
Select Published Works
The White Wampum (1895).
In the Shadows (1898).
Canadian Born (1903).
When George was King and Other Poems (1908).
Flint and Feather (1912).
Legends of Vancouver (1911).
Legends of Siwash Rock (1952).
Moccasin Maker (1913).
The Shagganappi (1913).