Pauline Johnson

views updated May 23 2018

Pauline Johnson

Pauline Johnson (1861-1913) was the first Native American poet to have her work published in Canada and was one of the few women of her time who succeeded in supporting herself from her writings and recitals. Thousands of Canadian schoolchildren have read her poem "The Song My Paddle Sings."

Johnson was unique in her time because she recited her own work rather than that of others. Her recitals of her own poems, anecdotes, and plays were a refreshing change for American and Canadian audiences whose usual theatrical fare was Shakespeare or Ibsen. Johnson was never able to make much money from her writing, and most of her income came from her speaking tours.

Mixed Heritage

Emily Pauline Johnson was born on March 10, 1861, near Brantford, Ontario. She was one of four children born to George Johnson, a Mohawk chief on the Six Nations Indian Reserve, and Emily Howells, a wealthy white woman originally from Bristol, England. Her paternal grandfather was Mohawk chief Smoke Johnson.

Johnson's mother was living with her family in Ohio when she decided to join her sister, who was living near Brantford. While staying there, she met George Johnson, who had been raised primarily among whites.

George and Emily Johnson were married in 1853 despite opposition from some white citizens of Brantford. Emily Johnson's brother-in-law, a minister, refused to marry the couple. George Johnson's mother was also opposed to the marriage; she was concerned their children would not be considered Mohawks. They had a private wedding but were hounded by curious onlookers after the ceremony.

George Johnson bought two hundred acres on the Indian reserve and built a mansion there that he named Chiefswood. Johnson grew up at Chiefswood. Although she had few playmates, she managed to find companionship in nature. The Grand River flowed alongside her house, and she enjoyed camping and canoeing. Chiefswood frequently played host to important visitors from England. In 1869, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, who would later become governor-general of Canada, paid a visit.

Johnson's mother encouraged her daughter to read the classics in English literature, including the works of Sir Walter Scott, John Milton, and William Shakespeare. Johnson attended the Brantford Model School and also had private instruction from her governess. Her formal education ended after seven years and she did not attend college. Her father and grandfather taught her Mohawk legends.

Budding Poet

As soon as she could write, Johnson started creating poems. Her early writings were influenced by her grandfather's Indian tales and by the English poetry she heard from her mother. Canoeing would take on special significance in some of her poems, including "The Song My Paddle Sings." By the time she had reached her late teens, she was a competent poet but not yet published.

George Johnson died in 1884 at the age of 67 following a beating he received while trying to stop whites from illegally taking timber from the Six Nations Reserve. After his death, the family could not afford to remain at Chiefswood, so they rented out the house and moved to Brantford. Johnson expected to marry but found no suitors. She brought in some income by writing poems, which she published in the local newspaper and in an anthology entitled Songs of the Great Dominion.

Poetry Recitations

Johnson initially wanted to take up acting, but her mother objected. In the minds of many Victorian women, acting was not a reputable occupation. Instead, Johnson agreed to give poetry recitations, a highly respectable occupation for women in those days. Over the next seventeen years, Johnson recited her poems in England, New England, and Canada. During much of this period, she lived in trains and hotels. All told, she made nineteen trips across Canada and six forays into the United States. Some of her recitals were accompanied by musicians or comedians.

Although Johnson never married, she was involved with her manager and traveling partner Walter McRaye. Johnson first met McRaye in 1897, when she was 35 and near the peak of her career. McRaye, who was giving recitals of French-Canadian dialect poems throughout Canada and the United States, was 20. In 1899, the two formed a partnership; McRaye took responsibility for arranging their tours, bookings, and transportation. McRaye remained Johnson's constant companion and co-performer until she retired.

In 1892, using the Mohawk name Tekahionwake, Johnson made her reading debut at a poetry recital held at the Young Liberals Club in Toronto. At the recital, Johnson read her poem "A Cry from an Indian Wife," which argued that Canada had been taken unfairly from its first inhabitants. In "Indian Poet Princess," she asked, "If some great nation came from far away,/Wresting their country from their hapless braves,/Giving what they gave us—but wars and graves." During half the performance, she wore an evening gown, but in the other half, she dressed in buckskin embellished with silver brooches, wampum belts, a blanket, and two scalps.

Johnson toured to help defray the cost of printing her first book of poetry. She read her poetry throughout Canada. Her recitals took place in church halls, schoolhouses, and even saloons. In larger towns she might appear in an opera house.

Traveled to England

Johnson performed throughout Canada before traveling to England, where she hoped to find a publisher for her first book of poems. In England, she was warmly accepted and frequently invited to recite her poetry at private parties held by wealthy socialites.

Her first book of poetry, The White Wampum, appeared in 1895 while she was still in England. It included her famous poem "The Song My Paddle Sings." After her return to Canada, she again began touring while publishing in North American magazines. Besides poetry, Johnson wrote stories about Indian life, travel articles, and family stories for a variety of magazines. Because she covered a wide range of topics, she reached a diverse audience.

Johnson's second book, Canadian Born, appeared in 1903. Critics did not consider the poems in it as strong as those in her first collection, but the book sold well. Focusing on the shared heritage of all Canadians, Johnson emphasized the debt that her themes had to Native American culture. In the book's preface, she wrote, "White race and Red are one if they are but Canadian born." About this time, Johnson began cutting back on her public readings, having begun to feel the toll of constant traveling on her health.

Hoping to retire in England, she made a second trip there in 1906 but found no English journals or magazines willing to publish her work. The "drawing room entertainments" that had included Johnson on her visit to London twelve years earlier were no longer in vogue. She made her stage debut during this second trip in a large concert hall, billed as "E. Pauline Johnson—Tekahionwake, Indian Princess."


Not finding the reception she had hoped for in England, Johnson decided to make her home in Vancouver in 1909. In 1911, she published Legends of Vancouver, based on stories she had heard from Chief Joe Capilano of the Squamish tribe of British Columbia. Johnson's novel The Moccasin Maker recounted experiences of Canadian women—white, Indian and mixed-blood.

By 1911, Johnson knew that she had inoperable breast cancer. She nevertheless continued to write through the last years of her life. Many of her readers purchased her fourth book, Flint and Feather, which contained all of her poems in one volume, by subscription at premium rates to help defray her medical expenses. Her poem from this period, "And He Said Fight On," conveyed her determination to defeat the illness that was taking her life: "Time and its ally, Dark Disarmament,/Have compassed me about/Have massed their armies, and on battle bent/My forces put to rout;/But though I fight alone, and fall, and die,/Talk terms of Peace? Not I."

Johnson died on March 7, 1913, in Vancouver, British Columbia, three days before her fifty-second birthday. Her ashes were placed in Vancouver's Stanley Park and later marked by a large stone. Her final book, The Shagganappi, was published posthumously.


In the years immediately following Johnson's death, her work went largely ignored. But in the mid-1920s, there was renewed interest in her poetry. Canadian schoolchildren began studying "The Song My Paddle Sings." In 1961, to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth, the Canadian government issued a Pauline Johnson postage stamp, the first stamp to recognize a Canadian Indian and the first Canadian stamp to recognize a woman who was not a member of the British royal family.

Some critics believed Johnson was Canada's best Native American poet. Some others attributed her success to her theatrical talents or to her successful blending of Indian and English elements in her poetry. For her part, Johnson seemed to care little whether she was remembered as a great poet. "Forget that I was Pauline Johnson, but remember that I was Tekahionwake, the Mohawk that humbly aspired to be the saga singer of her people," she was quoted as saying in Lucie Hartley's biography, Pauline Johnson.


Lucie Hartley, Pauline Johnson, Dillon Press, 1978.


"E. Pauline Johnson's Legacy," McMaster University, (February 2003).

"Emily Pauline Johnson (1861-1913)," University of Minnesota Voices from the Gaps, (February 2003).

"The Pauline Johnson Archive," McMaster University, (February 2003). □