Tuesday, August 3, 2010

'Tekahionwake': E. Pauline Johnson, Native Canadian Poet and Entertainer

Born in 1861 at her family home of Chiefswood in Brantford Ontario, Emily Pauline Johnson was one of Canada's most popular and successful entertainers at the turn-of-the-century. The daughter of a Mohawk Native-Canadian father and an English mother, Pauline Johnson's Mohawk name was "Tekahionwake". This name translated literally means 'double life', a perfect name for a woman home schooled in the works of Scott, Milton, and Shakespeare and the Native legends and war stories of her beloved Mohawk grandfather. Pauline Johnson was proud to share her Native heritage saying, "My aim, my joy, my pride is to sing the glories of my own people".

At the age of 31 rather than marry and have children, 'Tekahionwake' toured Canada, New England, and parts of England. She gave recitations of her poetry, performed comedy routines and staged plays. Even her performances reflected her 'double life' as she would often begin them wearing a ball gown, and end them in Native dress. Johnson was the first Native poet to have her work published in Canada. She was also one of the few female writers of the period who made a living from her written and performance work.
Johnson's most famous poem, "The Song My Paddle Sings", celebrates part of her native heritage. Her work has long been part of the English Literature curriculum of many Canadian school children.

I stow the sail, unship the mast:
I wooed you long but my wooing's past;
My paddle will lull you into rest.
O! drowsy wind of the drowsy west,
Sleep, sleep,
By your mountain steep,
Or down where the prairie grasses sweep!
Now fold in slumber your laggard wings,
For soft is the song my paddle sings.
'Tekahionwake' died of breast cancer in Vancouver Canada 7 March 1913. She was 52 years old. Johnson asked that no stone mark her final resting place; however, in her beloved Stanley Park in Vancouver a stone, depicted above, and emblazoned with her image stands over the place in which her ashes are interred. A large boulder, pictured below, stands next to the Chapel of the Mohawks in the Johnson Family plot, Brantford Ontario and bears a plaque as a memorial to her.
The Pauline Johnson Archive, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario
Brant, Beth. Writing as Witness: Essays and Talk. Toronto: Women's Press, 1994.
Photographs Copyright: National Archives Canada; J. Geraghty-Gorman; Vancouver Ventures: J. Geraghty-Gorman
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