By Tiffany Johnstone
“Be strong, O paddle! be brave, canoe!”
-Johnson, “The Song My Paddle Sings”, 82.
On March 10th, 1913, flags were lowered as Vancouver came to a stand still for the largest funeral in the city’s history. Huge crowds lined Georgia Street to witness the passage of E. Pauline Johnson’s coffin. Vancouver was saying goodbye to an icon. An internationally renowned poet and performance artist, Johnson played the difficult roles of defining Canada on the world stage and of making a place for women and First Nations people on that stage at the turn of the 20th century. A hundred years after her funeral, Johnson remains an influential, yet challenging and enigmatic, figure in Canadian literature. Important recent studies have again brought Johnson into the spotlight arguing for the complexity and importance of her work (Gerson and Strong-Boag; Gray). City Opera Vancouver has even announced an upcoming chamber opera called Pauline, written by Margaret Atwood and composer, Tobin Stokes, though issues of appropriation linger and little information is available about the project. Since the 1920s, a westward facing monument marks Johnson’s grave in an out of the way clearing near Ferguson Point in Stanley Park. Half-hidden by the surrounding trees, this monument is a reminder of how easy it has been to overlook Johnson’s contributions to Canadian literature and identity, and of the quiet persistence of her place in our history against so many odds.
Despite Johnson’s impressive send off and continuing legacy, her life and career were marked as much by struggle as by success. On another March 10th in 1861 Emily Pauline Johnson was born on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford Ontario. She was also given the Mohawk name, Tekahionwake, which means double life. In fact, doubleness characterized her life and work. Her father was a Mohawk chief of mixed Mohawk and European heritage and her mother was born in England. Johnson was raised and educated according to her mother’s English middle-class background, while encouraged to respect and learn from her Mohawk relatives. The marriage of Johnson’s parents met disquiet from both families. In 1884 her father died after a beating by white liquor traders whom he had opposed. With the loss of the main breadwinner, the family, like many others, faced reduced circumstances. They were forced to leave their prominent home on the reserve and Johnson turned to writing and then to performance to make a living. From 1884 onward, she published poetry under the name of E. Pauline Johnson in North American magazines such as Outing (New York), Saturday Night (Toronto), and the Weekly Detroit Free Press. In 1892, she began to recite her poems to captivated audiences. She designed and wore an elaborate costume inspired by a diverse range of North American Aboriginal groups. Her trademark move required her to change out of this costume and into an evening gown for the second half of the show. Johnson toured across Canada, the United States, and England, and finally in 1909 settled in Vancouver where she befriended Squamish chief Joe Capilano (Su-a-u-luck) and his wife Mary Agnes (Lixwelut) and published in local magazines. Her book, Legends of Vancouver (1911) recounted her conversations with local Aboriginal elders, particularly Capilano. In the last years of her life, Johnson suffered from breast cancer and had little income. However, she was supported by a network of female activists and journalists located in B.C. and beyond—members of organizations such as the Women’s Canadian Club and the Women’s Press Club—who aside from arranging her funeral, also oversaw the publication of Legends and the poetry collection, Flint and Feather (1912) during her last years as well as the posthumous publication of other work to pay off her debts. Despite Johnson’s celebrity status, she died in her early 50s in relative poverty.
The doubleness that Johnson experienced as a mixed race woman in Canada at the turn of the 20th century shaped the way that her work has been published and received. Right from the beginning, the public had difficulty in classifying her cultural and literary doubleness. Johnson was always evaluated against the literary backdrop of the mostly white and male so-called ‘Confederation poets’ of the late 19th century. These contemporaries—Bliss Carmen, Archibald Lampman, and Duncan Campbell Scott—drew on British Victorian poets, and took for their subjects nationalism and the natural environment. One of the best known of Johnson’s contributions, “The Song My Paddle Sings,” is among the most heavily anthologized Canadians poems of that period and resembles in style and subject the work of her male peers. However, while this poem was steadily anthologized, Johnson’s overall body of work was publicly disparaged by 20th century male writers and academics, such as Mordecai Richler, Earle Birney (Gerson and Strong-Boag xxvi), Robertson Davies, and Desmond Pacey, the latter of whom employs obvious misogynist hyperbole in describing her work as “cheap, vulgar and almost incredibly bad” (Gray 398). To be both popular and female was effectively to be exiled from the literary pantheon of ‘greats’. Such critics found it hard to understand, let alone accept, what was so often difficult to classify. As with defining citizenship, the task of defining the Canadian literary canon, has relied on fraught systems of classification that, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, enforced assumptions about gender and race behind the veil of ostensibly objective aesthetic standards.
Just as female activists and writers supported Johnson at the end of her life, so too did feminist scholars reclaim her at the end of the 20th century. This reminds us that the stereotype of the “colonial Other” that Johnson may have seemed to perpetuate was often actively imposed on her by publishers (Gerson and Strong-Boag xx). Johnson was mostly writing and performing for a white middle-class audience. Her cultural marginalization and financial insecurity required her to cater, more than her male peers, to the preferences of publishers, readers, and audience members. Feminist scholars have also nevertheless observed Johnson’s ability to epitomize the defiance and independence of the New Woman (Gerson and Strong-Boag xvii). While Johnson’s poetry has a similar sound and subject to the Confederation poets, it offers a more multifaceted perspective on the surrounding landscape, and by extension, the nation. Unlike her contemporaries who wrote often of empty wilderness landscapes and of the inevitable dissolution of Aboriginal culture, Johnson confidently inhabited and engaged with the river in “The Song My Paddle Sings” and other verse. This particular poem offers the innovative point of view of a lone woman in a canoe. She dauntlessly navigates the rapids and even engages in a kind of conversation with the surrounding environment by directly addressing the paddle, the canoe, and the wind. According to Johnson, Canadian identity was open to interpretation, dialogue and revision by women and First Nations people. Her vision of the essential fluidity of Canada also emerged in the aesthetically challenging aspects of her art. In Legends of Vancouver, she periodically slips between English and Chinoook. She also tells stories within stories and often self-consciously frames her retelling of the Squamish legends by explaining how she interprets them through her own lens of cultural and racial hybridity. As was the case with Johnson’s notorious costume changes, readers could not relax and interpret the stories in any single or simple way.
Like many literary figures of her time, Johnson has been adopted as a figurehead of Canadian women’s history, despite her unwillingness to publicly endorse women’s suffrage. She can nevertheless be seen as a literary advocate of women’s rights and of the rights of Aboriginal people and people of mixed race throughout North America. Even if Johnson employed the stereotypes and hyperboles that shaped the vocabulary of Canadian writers at the time, her most lasting aesthetic and political contribution is the plurality she recognized in Canada. Forcing audiences to consider her as both Aboriginal and English-Canadian, she removed the wall between the stage and the people, between the self and the other, and encouraged recognition of diversity. As the Idle No More movement gains international recognition amidst criticism for what some perceive to be its lack of coherence, it is worth considering how and why the literature of E. Pauline Johnson has recently been rediscovered and defended. Refusing to classify her too easily in either positive or negative terms, scholars argue that it is the very doubleness, innovation, and complexity of Johnson’s message about Canada, the First Nations, and women that speaks to the present, as indeed it did to the past.
Further Reading & Resources
Carole Gerson and Veronica Strong-Boag, eds. E. Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 2002.
Gray, Charlotte. Flint and Feather: The Life And Times of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2002.
Johnson, Pauline. Legends of Vancouver. 1911. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1997.
—. “The Song My Paddle Sings.” E. Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 2002. 81-83.