“A Cry from an Indian Wife” was one of the first poems about colonial injustices written from an Indigenous perspective for a white Canadian audience (Monture 128). Here, Johnson complicates notions of nationalism and Indigenous identity. Writing about the Red River and Northwest Resistance from the viewpoint of an Indigenous woman whose husband goes to fight white Canadian forces, Johnson explores the conflicted psychology of a person attempting to sympathize with the enemy.
A Cry from an Indian Wife by E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake)
My forest brave, my Red-skin love, farewell;
We may not meet to-morrow; who can tell
What mighty ills befall our little band,
Or what you’ll suffer from the white man’s hand?
Here is your knife! I thought ’twas sheathed for aye.
No roaming bison calls for it to-day;
No hide of prairie cattle will it maim;
The plains are bare, it seeks a nobler game:
’Twill drink the life-blood of a soldier host.
Go; rise and strike, no matter what the cost.
Yet stay. Revolt not at the Union Jack,
Nor raise Thy hand against this stripling pack
Of white-faced warriors, marching West to quell
Our fallen tribe that rises to rebel.
They all are young and beautiful and good;
Curse to the war that drinks their harmless blood.
Curse to the fate that brought them from the East
To be our chiefs—to make our nation least
That breathes the air of this vast continent.
Still their new rule and council is well meant.
They but forget we Indians owned the land
From ocean unto ocean; that they stand
Upon a soil that centuries agone
Was our sole kingdom and our right alone.
They never think how they would feel to-day,
If some great nation came from far away,
Wresting their country from their hapless braves,
Giving what they gave us—but wars and graves.
Then go and strike for liberty and life,
And bring back honour to your Indian wife.
Your wife? Ah, what of that, who cares for me?
Who pities my poor love and agony?
What white-robed priest prays for your safety here,
As prayer is said for every volunteer
That swells the ranks that Canada sends out?
Who prays for vict’ry for the Indian scout?
Who prays for our poor nation lying low?
None—therefore take your tomahawk and go.
My heart may break and burn into its core,
But I am strong to bid you go to war.
Yet stay, my heart is not the only one
That grieves the loss of husband and of son;
Think of the mothers o’er the inland seas;
Think of the pale-faced maiden on her knees;
One pleads her God to guard some sweet-faced child
That marches on toward the North-West wild.
The other prays to shield her love from harm,
To strengthen his young, proud uplifted arm.
Ah, how her white face quivers thus to think,
Your tomahawk his life’s best blood will drink.
She never thinks of my wild aching breast,
Nor prays for your dark face and eagle crest
Endangered by a thousand rifle balls,
My heart the target if my warrior falls.
O! coward self I hesitate no more;
Go forth, and win the glories of the war.
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.
Note: This poem was originally published in the periodical The Week on 18 June 1885.
- How are Indigenous peoples portrayed in this poem? How is the depiction similar to or different from the portrayal of “The Onondaga Madonna” in Duncan Campbell Scott’s poem?
- How does the poem portray the roles of “new rule and council” of Europeans in Canada and the church in the conflict?
- What is the effect of the “Indian Wife”’s attempts to identify and empathize with the families of Canadian soldiers?
- Consider the poem’s final line: “Perhaps the white man’s God has willed it so.” Is the speaker submitting to white Christianity, or does the word “perhaps” suggest otherwise? Discuss.
- 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.