A Cultural Ambassador
E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake; 1861–1913) was a popular poet, critic, and performer. In this chapter, we address a small sampling of her wide range of poems and prose. The life and career of Pauline Johnson has been the subject of renewed academic attention since the 1960s, in particular with the growing interest in feminism, Indigeneity, and diversity. Johnson’s part-Mohawk ancestry informed her work and its reception—Johnson’s father was a Mohawk chief who had been educated at the Mohawk Institute and trained as a translator for the missionaries; her mother was a middle-class Englishwoman. Johnson publically embraced her mixed heritage at poetry readings, and when reading and performing on Indigenous topics, she often wore beads and buckskin, changing to evening dress for the other half of her performance.
Although Johnson was a famous writer during her lifetime, her literary reputation suffered after her death. In the 1930s and 40s, Romantic verse poetry went out of style in Canada, and modernist poets such as A. J. M. Smith publically dismissed Johnson’s writing and questioned her authenticity: “‘the romantic fact of her Indian birth, played up by critics and journalists, has been accepted as convincing proof that she spoke with the authentic voice of Red Man’” (qtd. in Shrive 26). Along with questioning her authenticity, Smith criticized her poetry, calling her rhythm “‘heavy, the imagery conventional, and the language melodramatic and forced’” (27). Although literary scholar Norman Shrive called for the recovery of Johnson’s work in a 1962 issue of Canadian Literature, literary critics did not turn their attention back to Johnson until the late 1990s.
As Gerson and Strong-Boag note, “Johnson devoted much of her writing to the problem of furthering communication between the First Nations and the European newcomers” (xxxvii). Johnson took courageous political stances by presenting Indigenous perspectives and exploring issues of colonial stigmas, stereotypes, and racialization, as well as women’s rights and power struggles. At the same time she wrote passionately about the environment, relationships, communities, and a range of other topics.
Johnson’s writing and performances happened during the assimilationist phase in Canadian history. The goal of the federal government at that time was to assimilate all Indigenous people into mainstream Canadian culture. When Duncan Campbell Scott was the deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, he said that the goal of Canada’s policy was to “‘finally overcome the lingering traces of native custom and tradition’” among Indigenous peoples in Canada (qtd. in Monture 126). Johnson’s performances, poetry, and prose resist assimilation and encourage intercultural understanding.
Gerson and Strong-Boag observe that in her publication history, Johnson “would never escape this stereotype of the colonial Other” (xx), since the marketing of her books often emphasized “the thrill of encountering savagery within the comfort of an aesthetically familiar format” (xxi). These stereotypes of savagery and otherness mixed with familiarity signalled her hybridity, a position between the dominant Anglo-Canadian culture and her Mohawk identity, which can provide insights into differences. Thus, her hybridity positioned Johnson as a type of cultural ambassador.
At the same time, Johnson’s hybridity, as well as her gender, also excluded her from recognition by some Canadian literary critics. In her influential guide to Canadian literature, Survival (1972), Margaret Atwood devotes a chapter to Indigenous characters in literature, but she does not discuss Indigenous writers because she could not find any Indigenous writers of note in Canada. Atwood, notably, does not discuss Johnson’s writing, even though Johnson was one of the few Canadian writers of her time living off of their work—albeit barely. Johnson’s famous performances and prolific writings made her a household name in her day. Atwood reflected on her omission in her 1990 article
A Double-Bladed Knife: Subversive Laughter in Two Stories by Thomas King, wondering if she overlooked Johnson because of her hybridity: “Perhaps because, being half-white, she didn’t rate as the real thing, even among Natives” (243).
Johnson’s ability to engage a popular audience with difficult topics such as racialized, gendered, and economic disparities, gave public voice to a range of Indigenous and feminist experiences that challenged many popular assumptions. Her work inspired many later Indigenous authors, including Rita Joe, Lee Maracle, and Jeannette C. Armstrong. Notably, Joan Crate draws on her shared identification with Johnson as a poet of mixed ancestry in her collection Pale as Real Ladies: Poems for Pauline Johnson. Mohawk writer Beth Brant asserts, “‘It is … time to recognize Johnson for the revolutionary that she was’” (qtd. in Gerson 99). This chapter contains a small sampling of texts to help build this recognition.
Questions to Keep in Mind While Reading
- Experience and Knowledges: Which experiences do the poems describe, and in what ways are we prompted to interpret them? What types of knowledge are emphasized?
- Colonial and Contemporary Assumptions: What colonial assumptions about Indigenous values and diversity, such as the goal of Indigenous erasure, does Johnson engage with and what does she do to them? How relevant are Johnson’s engagements to contemporary Indigenous and non-Indigenous interactions?
- Social Interactions: What types of social interactions and power dynamics are described and how do they contribute to the meaning of the work? How does colonial history and assumptions about gender roles inform these interactions?
- Atwood, Margaret. “A Double-Bladed Knife: Subversive Laughter in Two Stories by Thomas King.” Canadian Literature 124-25 (1990): 243-253. Print. (PDF)
- Gerson, Carole.
Canadian Literature 158 (1998): 90–107. Print. (PDF)
The Most Canadian of all Canadian Poets: Pauline Johnson and the Construction of a National Literature.
- Gerson, Carole, and Veronica Strong-Boag.
Introduction:E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Ed. Gerson and Strong-Boag. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2002. xiii–xliv. Print.
The Firm Handiwork of Will.
- Monture, Rick.
Essays on Canadian Writing 75 (2002): 118–41. Print.
Beneath the British Flag: Iroquois and Canadian Nationalism in the Work of Pauline Johnson and Duncan Campbell Scott.
- Shrive, Norman.
What Happened to Pauline?Canadian Literature 13 (1962): 25–38. Print. (PDF)