Celebrating E. Pauline Johnson
Celebrated native Canadian poet E. Pauline Johnson was born 154 years ago on this day March 10th (1861). “And we two rode, rode as sea-wind chased, I, bound with buckskin to his hated waist,” (excerpt from Ojistoh). If you are a Canadian baby boomer (or were enrolled in a Canadian school between 1920-1970), chances are you might have come across her poetry.
Father George Johnson was a Mohawk of Wolf Clan on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario with a facility for languages (English, German, French in addition to his native tongue). In 1840 George was appointed as interpreter for the new Church of England Missionary for the Grand River Indians, the Reverend Adam Elliott. In his role as interpreter, he lived with the Elliott family; when recent English immigrant Emily Howells (daughter of a Quaker and abolitionist and Reverend Elliott’s sister-in-law), came to live with them in 1845, she and George met and fell in love.
According to the Sachem Gazette “They kept their engagement a secret for five years, exchanging love letters hidden in a hollow tree.” In 1850 George and Emily married, against the wishes of both of their families; interracial marriages were highly unusual at the time. Reverend Elliott refused to perform the service and the young couple had to travel to Kingston to be married by another Anglican priest.
George had a new home “Chiefswood” built on the banks of the Grand River outside Brantford for his new bride. It was at Chiefswood, into this unique background with two strong willed, culturally diverse parents, that their youngest child Emily Pauline Johnson (known as E. Pauline Johnson) was born and raised. Her parents were well received in Canadian intellectual and political circles, and visitors to Chiefswood included Alexander Graham Bell (Canadian inventor of the telephone among other things), and the Governor General of Canada and his wife, Lord and Lady Dufferin.
The Johnsons ensured their children learned about both of their heritages at home. Young Pauline was schooled at home and on the reserve, until she attended Brantford Central Collegiate at age 14, where she graduated 2 years later in 1877. Back at home in 1877 Pauline passed the time waiting to get married (at the time, the ultimate career goal for women) by visiting friends and family, and canoeing on the Grand River. When her father died in 1844 their privileged family life ended, and with her mother and sister, Pauline moved to Brantford and started looking for a way to support herself (since she was now at the advanced age of 23 and had no immediate marriage prospects).
She began writing poetry and had producing pieces with some success under the name E. Pauline Johnson as well as Tekahionwake (her great-grandfather Jacob Johnson’s native name). By the early 1890’s she started to earn an income from her poetry, through publication and recognition, and by publicly “performing” her works. She began appearing in native costume for the first half of her performances and formal “english” gowns for the second half, emphasizing her split between two cultures. By 1893 some of her most famous works The Song My Paddle Sings and Ojistoh were being regularly performed by her.
By 1894 Pauline was performing her works in London, England, and in 1895 her first book of poetry The White Wampum was published. She continued to write, publish and perform her poetry across Canada and the United States until retiring to live in Vancouver in 1909. Although she survived financially and was well respected for her work during her lifetime, her income was never sufficient to grant her the financial security she had grown up with. E. Pauline Johnson’s personal life didn’t thrive either…after her mother died in 1898 she lost ties with her sister, family home & clan. In 1900 she was jilted by her fiancee Charles Drayton.
In 1912 a few months before her death, friends in Vancouver formed a committee to raise funds for her care and assist with publication of her poetry volume Flint and Feather. She died March 7, 1913 at the (for today) young age of 52, from breast cancer. A statue of E. Pauline Johnson stands in Vancouver’s Stanley Park (where her ashes were buried) and a commemorative stamp was issued by the Canadian government in 1961 on the centennial of her birth – the first Canadian woman, author, and aboriginal Canadian to be thus honoured.
Senior City celebrates E. Pauline Johnson and her poetry.