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People & Culture

The true story of Pauline Johnson: poet, provocateur and champion of Indigenous rights

The daughter of a hereditary Mohawk chief and an English immigrant, Johnson used her hard-won celebrity to challenge Indigenous stereotypes

  • Mar 08, 2017
  • 2,272 words
  • 10 minutes
E. Pauline Johnson, postage stamp Expand Image

Pauline Johnson was Canada’s first performance artist. In the 1890s, she criss-crossed the continent 19 times using the newly built Canadian Pacific Railway, captivating audiences with her poetry in elegant drawing rooms and in the whistle-stop towns that dotted the growing country. Today, when I look at the buckskin dress she wore when forging her career, it is hard to know whether to rhapsodize about the poet’s creativity or to theorize about post-colonial constructs. The outfit is both sexy and symbol-laden, seductive and misleading. Inauthentic when she pieced it together over a century ago, in 2017 it is a provocative museum artifact. In the light of revelations about the way Indigenous peoples have been treated in our history, its optimistic blurring of identities makes me cringe.

Born on the Six Nations reserve on the Grand River near Brantford, Ontario, in 1861, Emily Pauline Johnson was the daughter of George Johnson, a hereditary Mohawk chief, and Emily Howells, an English immigrant. When Pauline was 23 years old, her father died: she, her mother and sister moved into Brantford and never lived on the Six Nations reserve again. They struggled financially.

Johnson began composing poetry as a child, but the idea of any young woman achieving renown in this field was considered unlikely at the time. Johnson was particularly disadvantaged. She had little education and no powerful patrons; she was of mixed ancestry at a time when prejudice against Indigenous people was on the rise; she did not fit the Victorian stereotype of a demure, deferential maiden. (Although today, one wonders how many women back then bristled just as much as Johnson did against such limitations.)

Ambitious versifiers in Canada had few models to follow. The Dominion was less than three decades old, and most of its culture was painfully derivative. Landscape painters made Ontario look like Kent; novelists preferred to set their fiction in medieval England. Much of Johnson’s literary output, particularly in her early years, reflected the books that her English-born mother read aloud to her. Emily Howells Johnson loved the work of the great Victorian nature and romantic poets — William Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson and their peers. An exuberant tomboy and athlete, Johnson nimbly adapted the techniques and tone of British poetry to the landscapes of Southern Ontario — gurgling brooks, the whisper of wind in the pines, purple sunsets. In the 1880s, she wrote a cycle of verses about a lost lover with whom she had spent happy hours in a canoe.

However, Johnson also remained loyal to her Indigenous roots. Alongside the lyric love poetry, she composed extraordinary ballads about episodes in First Nations history. In spine-chilling poems such as “A Cry From an Indian Wife” (based on events in the Riel Rebellion) and “Ojistoh” (about a Mohawk wife who kills her Huron captor), she presented images of nobility and bravery.

Despite the disadvantages she faced, Johnson managed to impress the esthetic taste-makers in late 19th century Toronto. But while she romanticized the image of “redskins” (her word), government policies towards Indigenous Canadians were increasingly cruel. Across the continent, Indigenous children were forcibly removed to residential schools; on the Prairies, communities like the Dogrib, Cree and Blackfoot were confined to artificial reserves; settler attitudes towards the Dominion’s original inhabitants curdled and hardened. Behind her back, Johnson was often belittled as a “halfbreed.”

Pauline Johnson’s professional breakthrough came in January 1892, at the Toronto Art School Gallery. The Young Men’s Liberal Association invited the Brantford poet to participate in a Canadian authors evening, alongside seven older and better known writers including Duncan Campbell Scott and William Wilfred Campbell. That night, Johnson discovered she had additional appeal as a performer.

The evening was a snoozefest of droning old men — until the delicious figure of Johnson, in a pale grey silk gown, glided on to the platform. With her thick dark curls swept up into a chignon, and her sense of timing and elegant posture honed by participation in Brantford’s amateur dramatic society, the 31 year old captivated the impatient crowd of young Liberals. She remained silent in the centre of the stage until every fidget was stilled. Then, in her throaty, musical voice, she launched into “A Cry From an Indian Wife.” The final verse of the poem reads:

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.”

At the close of the poem, the poet let her eyes drift down, then turned to leave the stage. There was total silence for a moment, then the audience broke into wild applause.

This was Johnson’s first, intoxicating taste of popular success. Two days later, a reviewer in the Toronto Globe wrote, “Miss E. Pauline Johnson’s may be said to have been the pleasantest contribution of the evening. It was like the voice of the nations that once possessed this country, who have wasted away before our civilization, speaking through this cultured, gifted, soft-faced descendant.” The assumption that only settler society represented “civilization” reflected the conventional wisdom of the time.

While Johnson’s poetry is uneven, much of it is lovely. However, the poet had an agenda: she wanted to champion Indigenous rights. She resented the way that clichés such as “dog-like,” “deer-footed” or “crouching” were attached to young Indigenous women in fiction and verse by non-native writers. In a Sunday Globe article, she complained that such authors never bothered to distinguish between “the MicMacs of Gaspé and the Kwaw-Kwliths of British Columbia.” Their conception of Indigenous people, of whom “they are ignorant of, save by hearsay,” she wrote, “is dwarfed, erroneous and delusive.” She began to use her paternal Mohawk great-grandfather’s name, Tekahionwake, alongside her own birth name.

The 1892 applause now prompted Johnson to give her act more punch, and to do so she plunged into another set of clichés: the costumes worn by actors in popular Wild West shows, which featured set-piece battles between cowboys and Indians. To a modern observer, there is an uncomfortable dissonance between Johnson’s sensitivity to prejudice directed at Indigenous people and her appetite for melodrama.

In 1885, Buffalo Bill had brought a show advertised as “the Greatest Novelty of the Century” to Brantford and Toronto. It included the great Lakota chief Sitting Bull (Tatanka lyotaka), sharpshooter Annie Oakley, equestrian acrobat Buck Taylor, a cowboy band and an entourage of 52 Indians in feather war bonnets. Crowds watched noisy re-enactments of Custer’s Last Stand at the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn, complete with bare-chested, tomahawk-wielding warriors and rawhide-clad, rifle-toting cowboys. The shows sold out everywhere.

Johnson now decided to take a leaf out of Buffalo Bill’s book. As she wrote to William Lighthall, a distinguished poetry editor and anthologist who lived in Montreal, “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.” But she had a problem. No such thing as a generic “Indian dress” existed. Traditional clothing for women in most bands was similar to the clothing worn by men: tunics, leggings and blankets. On the Six Nations reserve, almost all the women now preferred full-skirted European skirts and gowns. Johnson had something quite different in mind — an outfit based on a drawing of Minnehaha, wife of Hiawatha, that she had seen in an American edition of William Longfellow’s epic poem of the same name. It was as hokey then as it is today — an imaginative illustration by a New York-based illustrator who likely had never clapped eyes on any non-European.

Johnson wasn’t only concerned with looking “Indian;” she wanted to look sexy too. “Now I know you know what is feminine,” the ambitious poet wrote to the editor. “So can you tell me if the ‘Indian stores’ in Montreal are real Indian stores, or is their stuff manufactured? I want a pair of moccasins, worked either in coloured moose hair, porcupine quills, or very heavily with fine coloured beads… If you see anything in Montreal that would assist me in getting up a costume, be it beads, quills, sashes, shoes, brooches or indeed anything at all, I will be more than obliged to know of it.”

Lighthall could not oblige, so Johnson turned to the early avatar of Canadian consumerism: the Hudson’s Bay Company. She custom-made the outfit from the company’s published list of goods. She created a kind of “Indian Princess” costume that would have been perfect for the fancy dress balls that late Victorians enjoyed. It included moccasins and a buckskin top and skirt with fringed sleeves and a red lining, plus cuffs, collar and belt decorated with beads, moose hair and porcupine quill work. Johnson was disappointed when the parcel arrived in Brantford and she tried her purchase on. It was dowdy. In an unpublished memoir, her sister, Eva Johnson, recalled the scene: “After contemplating the dress for a few minutes I said to Pauline, ‘Why not leave one sleeve the way it is and make the other of the wild beast skins you have?’ Pauline thought for a moment, then said, ‘That is exactly what I shall do.’”

The poet cut off the left sleeve and attached some rabbit pelts to the left shoulder of the bodice. Next, she decorated the front of the skirt and bodice with her Mohawk grandmother’s silver trade brooches (antique souvenirs of the fur trade) and tied to the waistband her father’s hunting knife and a Huron scalp that had belonged to her grandfather. Eventually she would add more “exotic” (a code word then and now for unconventional) accessories, including two wampum belts and a necklace of bear claws.

Pauline Johnson's performance dress Expand Image
Pauline Johnson’s performance costume, an “entirely synthetic creation” inspired by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, which she wore to recite her “Indian poems.” (Photo courtesy Museum of Vancouver collection, AG 27a-b)

This entirely synthetic creation answered all Johnson’s theatrical needs. It combined glitter and shapely femininity (the skirt was daringly short) with a fit that allowed the poet to loosen her corset, take deeper breaths and project a stronger voice. From now on, Pauline Johnson wore this outfit for the first half of her solo stage program, in which she recited works such as “As Red Men Die” and “A Cry From an Indian Wife.” During a brief interval, she would exchange her buckskin get-up for an elegant evening gown, silk stockings and pumps, which was just as much a theatrical costume as the buckskin. Then she would step back into the limelight and woo her listeners with verse about birdsong, landscapes and “the song my paddle sings.”

Audiences were enthralled. A reviewer in Saturday Night magazine wrote in December 1892: “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.”

But there was a more insidious element to the warrior-to-lady metamorphosis. Her stage act inadvertently implied that an Indigenous woman could be effortlessly assimilated into the dominant society. If she could switch seamlessly from Indigenous to European dress codes, couldn’t the rest of the First Nations smoothly accept a European-origin way-of-life, as official “Indian Affairs” policy required? If Johnson could walk away from the fur trade brooches, wampum belt and angry memories of early encounters with colonizers, couldn’t the rest of the “Indian race” do the same?

This was certainly not the message the poet intended to convey, as she earned a precarious living performing night after night. But it was the message that her audiences probably chose to hear.

Johnson spent the last four years of her life in Vancouver, where she died of breast cancer just before her 52nd birthday. Her funeral in 1913 was the largest that the young city had ever seen up until then. Public offices were closed, and flags flew at half-mast.

In her will, Johnson left her Indian princess costume to Vancouver City Museum (now the Museum of Vancouver). That’s where I saw it in 2001, while researching a biography of the poet. Carefully conserved in tissue paper, it was stored in the museum’s basement, along with the silver trade brooches, scalp, wampum belts, bear claw necklace and George Johnson’s dagger. Twenty years of performances were visible in the sweat stains, missing trade brooches and general wear and tear. I could see what hard work had gone into being a celebrity.

The buckskin dress is as much a creative achievement as any of Johnson’s poems. In 2015, it toured B.C. and Ontario as part of an exhibition entitled “The Artist Herself: Self-Portraits by Canadian Historical Women Artists.” (The dress was included only in the opening show, in Kingston, then was replaced with a photo because the original was too fragile to travel.) Throughout her life, Johnson argued that if the Dominion of Canada could integrate its Indigenous heritage with its European culture, it would emerge stronger than its constituent parts. Now we know her dream was doomed to failure, and our country is the poorer for it.


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