Johnson, Emily Pauline
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Authored by: Tanya PrinceEmily Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake), the poet, writer, performer and social commentator, Tekahionwake, also known as Emily Pauline Johnson, was born March 10, 1861 on her family’s estate, known as Chiefswood on the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory near Brantford Ontario (Robinson). Her father Onwanonsyshon, or George Henry Martin Johnson, was an influential Mohawk Chief who worked as an interpreter and cultural negotiator between the Six Nations, and the British and Canadian Governments (Rose). George Johnson came from a long line of Mohawk leaders, including his father Sakayanwaraton, or Jacob “Smoke” Johnson who fought alongside Joseph Brant and Sir Isaac Brock in the War of 1812 (Johnson 21). Her mother was the English-born Emily Susanna Howells who met her future husband while assisting her sister’s family with Anglican missionary work with the Six Nations (Robinson). George and Emily married in 1861. Paradoxically, Pauline at birth, according to Canadian and British law was “status Indian” through her father. However, the matriarchal culture of the Mohawks meant that Pauline was not born into any clan, leaving her with an uncertain position within Mohawk society and the inability to pass on what had been her family’s hereditary chieftainship (Johnson 23).
Pauline’s dual heritage informed her upbringing, her identity, her writing and performances. Due to various childhood illnesses Pauline was largely educated at home by her mother and sporadic governesses. She read extensively in the family’s library – Scott, Byron, Shakespeare but from her grandfather learned her Mohawk history and stories (Johnson 38, 40). Both heritages were honored by her parents and passed on to their children as were the values they held in common – faith in the Anglican church, and allegiance to the British crown. Pauline briefly attended Brantford Central Collegiate from the age of 14 to her graduation in 1877 and it was around this time that she began writing poetry. She also participated in amateur dramatics and was an avid canoeist (Rose).
1884 was a pivotal year. Pauline’s father George died that year and due to the family’s reduced financial circumstances Pauline, with her sister and mother, left the family estate for rented accommodation in Brantford (Rose). That same year one of Pauline’s poems was published in a New York magazine “Emily Pauline”).
In 1886 Pauline’s poem, “An Ode to Brant” was recited at a ceremony marking the unveiling of a statue commemorating Joseph Brandt and she was interviewed by a reporter from Toronto’s The Globe newspaper (Rose). Over the next 6 years Pauline would continue to have her poems, stories and articles appear in magazines, newspapers and books (“Emily Pauline”).
Another major turning point in Pauline’s life occurred in 1892 when she was asked by a fellow writer and friend from her high school years, Frank Yeigh, to perform her poems at a literary evening in Toronto, along with a number of established male poets. According to newspaper reports, Pauline’s recital of her poem “A Cry from an Indian Wife”, written about the Riel Rebellion from the perspective of a First Nations wife, was the best performance of the evening (Johnson 98).
And so began Pauline’s career as a star performer of her own poetry. For the next 17 years Pauline toured Canada, Great Britain and the United States, working remote beer halls for audiences of miners to large London recital halls with seats filled by members of the British establishment (“Emily Pauline”). While the poems continually changed, Pauline quickly established a hallmark of her performance. One half of the show she would wear a European evening dress and during the other half, First Nations clothing. The aboriginal attire was not culturally accurate, however the accessories she wore, such as the masks and wampum belts, had passed down through her family (Robinson). While on a punishing touring schedule over these years, she continued to write and publish her work in newspapers, magazines and books (Rose).
In 1909 Pauline finally gave up her public performances and settled in Vancouver to concentrate on her writing but was diagnosed with breast cancer soon after. Pauline died in March 1913 and is buried, as she requested, in Stanley Park (“Emily Pauline”).
“Emily Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake).” Library and Archives Canada, 28 Feb. 2015, http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/aboriginal-heritage/first-nations/Pages/pauline-johnson.aspx.
Johnston, Shiela M.F. Buckskin and Broadcloth: A Celebration of E. Pauline Johnson – Tekahionwake 1861-1913. Natural Heritage Books, 1997, https://www.library.yorku.ca/find/Record/1495791.
Robinson, Amanda. “Pauline Johnson.” Canadian Encyclopedia. 7 Aug. 2016, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/pauline-johnson/.Rose, Marilyn J. “Johnson, Emily Pauline.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Universite Laval, 1998, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnson_emily_pauline_14E.html.