In January 1892, the members of the Young Men’s Liberal Association gathered at the Toronto Art School Gallery for a Canadian authors meeting. Invited to the event were Duncan Campbell Scott, a Confederation poet, and William Wilfred Campbell, the unofficial poet laureate of Canada.
Both men were well-established and celebrated, at least at the time, for their prose. Sitting with the two men, and five other well-known authors, was a young Mohawk woman from Brantford. The evening was in danger of being a bust, as association members did their best to stay interested while the old poets droned on. When it was her turn to speak, the woman stepped on to the platform her thick dark curls cascading over the pale silk gown she was wearing. She stood silently on stage until each person in the audience stopped fidgeting, and all eyes were on her.
Then, using the posture and timing she spent years honing with the Brantford amateur dramatic society, she captivated the crowd. Her musical voice and delivered her poem A Cry From An Indian Wife. And when she reached the last verse of the poem.
“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.”
There was silence.
As the poet left the stage, a sudden and wild applause broke out. She was the least known poet there that day, yet she was the only one called back for an encore. What she didn’t know when she took the stage, was that a reviewer for the Toronto Globe was in the audience. Who wrote a glowing review of her performance appeared in the newspaper two days later
Her name was Pauline Johnson and her life would never be the same again after that night. I’m Craig Baird….and this is Canadian History Ehx.
Pauline Johnson came from an impressive lineage dating back three generations. Her great-grandfather, Tekahionwake, was born in the Colony of New York, and took the name Jacob Johnson in honour of his godfather Sir William Johnson, the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs.
Jacob was the husband of Mary Brant, the sister of famous Indigenous leader Joseph Brant. The city of Brantford was named after him. After the Americans defeated the British in the Revolutionary War of YEAR), Jacob moved his family to Six Nations. That’s where Pauline’s grandfather, John Smoke Johnson was born. He fought for the British in the War of 1812 and was chosen as a Pine Tree Chief, a non-hereditary position among the Mohawk –continuing the tradition of greatness within the family.
His son, Pauline’s father, was Chief George Henry Martin Johnson. He became the official interpreter and diplomat between the Mohawk people and the Canadian government. While working at the Anglican missionary on the Six Nations reserve, George met then 21-year-old Emily Howells.
Emily immigrated from England with her father to the United States, where he established several schools. He married three times and had 24 children. And although he opposed slavery, he saw the white race as superior to others, including Indigenous people.
When she was 21, Emily moved to the Six Nations reserve to help her older sister, who had moved there with her Anglican missionary husband. She soon fell in love with George Johnson, who helped her gain a better understanding of his Indigenous culture and changed the perspective of what her father taught her. The couple married in 1853.
To say that the families were angry at the marriage would be an understatement, but that rift was reconciled after the birth of the couple’s first child. The family’s importance was prominently on display at Chiefswood, a mansion that dominated the Grand River area. It was in that mansion that on March 10, 1861 Pauline Johnson entered the world and became the couple’s youngest of the four children. Pauline’s mixed heritage would come to define her.
Her mother Emily had an English upbringing that emphasized refinement and decorum in the home, while George encouraged his children to respect and learn about their Mohawk and English heritage. Pauline was sickly as a child so she was educated at home using the family’s large library, rather than at the local residential school. For hours she poured over the works of Lord Byron, John Keats and John Milton.
At the same time, she explored her own Indigenous heritage in the work of Henry Longfellow, and his epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. The epic poem relates the life of Hiawatha, an Ojibwe warrior and his love for Minnehaha, a Dakota woman. The poem follows his life from birth to his ascension to the clouds.
While the poem bears the name of Hiawatha, a real historic figure who founded The Iroquois Confederacy, it has no historic connection to the actual person in prose.
Throughout her childhood, Pauline was close to her grandfather, John Smoke Johnson, who told her stories in Mohawk, a language she could understand but was not fluent in. His talents as a dramatic and engaging storyteller inspired Pauline’s future performances. From the ages of 14 to 16, she attended the Brantford Collegiate Institute and following her schooling, returned home to settle into a comfortable life on the family’s land.
The family lived on a 200 acre estate, and Pauline loved to spend time outdoors, taking long canoe trips and appreciating the nature around her. All things considered; life was pretty idyllic for the family that many would consider to be upper class. Sadly, it wouldn’t last forever.
Pauline’s father George worked as a timber ranger on the Six Nations Reserve. As a ranger, his job was to control the theft of lumber off the reserve, and the sale of whiskey by unscrupulous settlers. Those efforts made him many enemies as both trades were highly profitable.
In 1865, he was badly beaten by two men and the attack left him unconscious for five days. Eight years later, he was attacked again this time by six men. He was shot and left to die on the road near his home. He recovered from his wounds, but his health was permanently impacted, and he suffered from severe pain due to nerve damage, and constant skin infections.
Then On Feb. 19, 1884, he died in his home.
To make ends meet, Emily rented out Chiefswood and moved with her children to a modest home in Brantford. Pauline, now in her early-20s, began to work to support the family. She published her first poem, My Little Jean, in 1883.
With the family’s need for income, she increased the pace of her writing. But it was a fall from grace for the family because after her father’s death, until her breakout success, they were always on the edge of poverty. Meanwhile, between 1884 and 1886, Pauline published four poems.
Income from them and commissions for poems for important ceremonies, like the reinterment of Seneca leader Red Jacket in Buffalo, New York helped the family stay afloat. In 1885, she wrote A Cry From An Indian Wife, the poem that would eventually make her famous years later in January 1892.
The setting for the poem was the Battle of Cut Knife during the North West Resistance, and it was published in The Week by Charles G.D. Roberts. Roberts was a noted poet in his own right and a soon-to-be a lifelong friend for Pauline. As with many of her poems, she was inspired by the stories of Indigenous people. The Battle of Cut Knife was an important battle in what is now western Saskatchewan.
In the spring of 1885, the Métis living in the District of Saskatchewan formed a provisional government under Louis Riel and took control of the area around Batoche. Riel was in contact with Indigenous people in Saskatchewan and Alberta, such as the Cree and Assiniboine. The government was concerned that this Resistance would spread to other Nations across the North-West Territories. The Government of Canada quickly made preparations to send troops to crush the Resistance.
Under the leadership of Chief Poundmaker of the Cree the group went to Battleford with the purpose of lobbying for better supplies (many were starving) and to discuss the political situation. Wrongly believing that Battleford had been looted, Colonel William Otter went against orders and confronted Poundmaker and the Cree. Arriving at Cut Knife Hill with 350 men, he launched an attack against 50 to 250 Cree and Assiniboine warriors.
Otter and his men were routed in battle and forced to retreat. Poundmaker prevented the Cree from pursuing the militia, thereby saving many lives on the opposite side. Regardless there were many losses. Paulines poem centres on an Indigenous woman whose husband has gone to fight the Canadian forces attacking the hill, in it she wrote – quote
“Who prays for vict’ry for the Indian scout?
Who prays for our poor nation lying low?
None—therefore take your tomahawk and go.
My heart may break and burn into its core,
But I am strong to bid you go to war.” end quote
After the poem was published her reputation began to grow locally but the income was still paltry compared to what the family had enjoyed when George was alive. To say the odds were stacked against her is no exaggeration. As a mixed-race single woman with no powerful patrons, she did not fit the Victorian stereotype of a deferential woman. Yet, despite the societal odds, she persevered through the struggle. That is until everything changed the night she performed at the Toronto Art School Gallery
That moment, and the subsequent glowing review, reshaped her entire life. Pauline was inundated with requests and from January 1892 to May 1893, she performed her poetry 125 times, in 50 Ontario towns and villages. Using the skills she learned from her grandfather, her emotional delivery, along with her grace as a performer, she earned fans throughout the province. Pauline could not have burst onto the scene at a better time.
In Europe and North America, audiences were clamoring for the stories of Indigenous peoples. Like Pauline one person to capitalize on this was Buffalo Bill Cody. During this time Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show toured North America? including stops in Toronto and Brantford in 1885. It featured staged bison hunts, gun battles and performances by actual Indigenous leaders like Sitting Bull.
There is no record to show Pauline attended the performances, but she certainly learned something about their popularity. She wrote to poetry editor William Lighthall, quote “I am going to make a feature of costuming for recitals. For my Indian poems I am trying to get an Indian dress to recite in.” end quote
At the time no such costumes existed, and it was up to Pauline to construct her own.
For that, she turned to the Hudson’s Bay Company, from which she bought a list of goods to, including moccasins, a buckskin top and skirt, beads, and porcupine quill work. Once she assembled her costume, she cut off the left sleeve of the outfit and attached rabbit pelts. From then on she appeared in her Indigenous dress for the first half of each performance, when she focused on her poems inspired by her Indigenous background. She performed as Tekahionwake, taking the name from her great-grandfather and wore artifacts and heirlooms handed down through the generations
This was swapped out for a drawing-room gown which highlighted her English background, for the second half of her performance, With her outfits, poems and Mohawk heritage, Pauline was exactly what audiences wanted at the time. And her works expressing English Canada nationalism, also was perfectly timed. Canada was going through an intense period of state formation after Confederation.
Led by Sir Wilfrid Laurier the government promoted immigration. As the provinces were carved out of the Canadian West, massive numbers of immigrants came to the country, forging a new national identity. During this time, Pauline also saw the restrictive legal policies imposed on Metis, Indigenous and Inuit peoples. They had been pushed to reserves throughout Canada, could not vote, and were forced to abandon their cultural practices under the Indian Act. At the same time, women’s suffrage was rising in importance across the country and while Pauline wouldn’t live long enough to see women vote, she wrote about her e experiences and lent her voice to those who did not have one.
Her poems drew connections between racism, poverty, and violence. In A Red Girls’ Reasoning, she humanized her Indigenous experience at a time when the mainstream view was one marred in racism and hate. She was also critical of the impact Christianity had on the way of life of the Metis Indigenous and Inuit people. She disliked how Indigenous women were portrayed in fiction, which were inhumane by calling them deer-footed, crouching, or dog-like. She complained publicly in interviews about authors who lumped the Mi’kmaq of the Maritimes in with the Kootenai of British Columbia.
She would call them ignorant and called their fiction erroneous and delusive. One reviewer for Saturday Night in December 1892 wrote of her performance
Quote “Miss Johnson on the platform is very different from the accomplished lady so well known in social circles. When reciting one of her fiery compositions on the wrongs suffered or heroism displayed by her Indian race, she becomes the high-spirited daughter of her warrior sires and thrills the reader through and through. end quote”
In the mid-1890s she partnered with Owen Alexander Smily, to tour Canada and the United States. They went from coast-to-coast, and she performed in venues ranging from elegant concert houses to small community halls in remote settlements only accessible by stagecoach on rough wagon roads. Then in 1894, she went international when she presented a series of recitals in London, England.
That’s when she arranged for the publication of her first book of poems, The White Wampum. The book, published in 1895, was wildly successful and only increased her fame. As her popularity continued to rise, Pauline was visited with another tragedy. Her mother’s death in 1898 was the start of a dark period in her life.
The relationship with her sister fractured. Then, in 1900, Charles Robert Lumley Drayton, an insurance inspector, whom she met in 1898 shortly after her mother’s death and had been engaged to…. ended the relationship. That same year, an unscrupulous manager stole money from her.
And then her health took a hit. She got a serious streptococcal infection that caused her skin to become irritated and her hair fell out.
She was still making money from touring, but due to her spending, well-known generosity, and the people around her, that money tended to evaporate quickly. While performing in London in 1906, Pauline met Chief Joe Capilano, who was in England to meet King Edward VII and protest against hunting and fishing restrictions imposed on Indigenous peoples in British Columbia. You’ll remember II covered his life and visit in a previous episode titled Chief Joe Capilano of the podcast, so be sure to check it out.
Three years later, in 1909, Pauline retired from touring and moved permanently to Vancouver.
By this time she had made at least seven Western Canadian tours, nine Maritime tours, four American Midwest tours, five to the eastern seaboard of the United States, and two tours in London, England.
Though she stopped touring, she continued to write, even as her health was beginning to fail because she was battling cancer.
Without touring, funds soon began to dry up. If she was feeling up to it , she performed at various stages in Vancouver. To help, her friends organized the publication of a collection of poems and stories. These stories were told to her by her friend Joe Capilano, prior to his death in 1910. One of the stories centred on the Squamish legend of shape shifting.
In the story, a man transforms into Siwash Rock and becomes a monument of clean fatherhood. If you’ve been to Vancouver’s you’ve seen it in Stanley Park as it rises from the sea just off the coast at a height between 15 and 18 metres tall. A plaque near it reads that it is “Skalsh the unselfish,” who was transformed by “Q’uas the transformer” as a reward for unselfishness. In that same park you’ll find the Lost Lagoon. It was an inlet that used to disappear when the water emptied at low tide.
Her love for that location inspired another of Pauline’s poems and today, that inlet has been turned into a permanent fresh-water lake, but it is still called Lost Lagoon by locals. On March 7, 1913, Pauline died of breast cancer in Vancouver, yet two books of her short stories, The Shagganappi and The Moccasin Maker, were published that same year.
Her funeral was held on what would’ve been her 52nd birthday. The esteem she was held in was displayed by the city when it closed its offices and flew flags at half-mast. At the time, her public funeral was the largest in Vancouver’s history and it was held in the Anglican Cathedral, the most prestigious church in the city. As her funeral cortege travelled through Vancouver, the Squamish people lined the streets to bid her farewell.
The Duke of Connaught, the Governor General of the time, intervened to ensure that her ashes could be placed in Stanley Park near Siwash Rock. Her will dictated that her Indigenous costume that she wore on stage for years, would be given to the Vancouver City Museum, now the Museum of Vancouver, where it remains to this day. Despite her fame, Pauline couldn’t escape racism and behind her back she was often referred to by the derogatory term ‘half-breed’. In fact only one month after her death a letter to the editor referred to her as the half-breed poetess.
In the years to come that would change and although Pauline requested an unmarked grave, in 1922, the Women’s Canadian Club raised money for a monument in her honour. A cairn was erected at her burial site, upon which it was written,
“In memory of one whose life and writings were an uplift and a blessing to our nation.”
In 1961, on the centennial of her birth, Canada Post released a commemorative stamp. She became the first woman other than the Queen to be placed on stamps and she was the first author and the first Indigenous Canadian to be honoured in such a way. At the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Donald Sutherland read from her poem Autumn’s Orchestra. That is the story of Pauline Johnson but stick around for one more story about her family’s connection to royalty and a legendary Canadian.
Due to her father’s work with the government, Chiefwood, Pauline’s childhood home was always a hub of activity in her youth.
Visitors to the home included Queen Victoria’s children, Prince Arthur, the future Duke of Connaught and Strathearn and Princess Louise. Other notable visitors included, Lord Dufferin, and the Marquees of Lorne, both became Governor Generals.
Alexander Graham Bell was a frequent visitor to Chiefwood and a close family friend.
On Aug. 10, 1876, Pauline’s father visited the home of Bell in Brantford. While there, he became one of the first people to see the demonstration of a new device that would alter human history, the telephone.
Thank you so much for joining me information for today’s episode comes from Biographi, Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadian Geographic, Wikipedia, Vancouver Daily World
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