Biography Emily Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake)

Emily Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake)

photo of Emily Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake)
  • Time Period1861 - 1914
  • PlaceOntario
  • CountryCanada

Poet Biography

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 used the Mohawk name "Tekahionwake". Then, at the age of 31 when her society expected her to marry and have children, she began to tour the country. She gave popular recitals of her poetry, comedy routines and plays from Halifax to Vancouver. She was the first Native poet to have her work published in Canada. She was also one of the few female writers at the time who could make an independent living from what she wrote and performed. Pauline Johnson was proud of her Native heritage and wrote that "My aim, my joy, my pride is to sing the glories of my own people."

Her most famous poem, "The Song My Paddle Sings", celebrates part of that heritage. It has been read by thousands of Canadian school children. But she should be remembered for more than this poem. Her life, career and travels show that she was a woman who dared to do unexpected things and who was proud of where she came from. In her own time she was, as Mohawk writer Beth Brant says, a revolutionary.


E. Pauline Johnson's Life

Emily Pauline Johnson was born March 10, 1861 on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, Canada. Her father was George Johnson, a Mohawk and a chief of the Six Nations Reserve. Her mother was Emily Johnson, a non-Native woman who had come to Canada from Ohio to escape her morally-rigid, disciplinarian father when she was a young girl. Pauline had two older brothers, Henry Beverly and Allen Wawanosh, and one sister, Eva.

By the time Pauline was born, her father had built a mansion for his family on the reserve called Chiefswood. Pauline grew up there isolated from other children on the reserve. She learned to canoe and camp on the Grand River, which flowed by her house, and she made poems even before she could write. She had schooling for only seven years. But at home, she read works by famous English writers like Sir Walter Scott, John Milton, and William Shakespeare. She also listened to Native legends and war stories told by her grandfather, John "Smoke" Johnson. These stories would later become part of the stories, legends and poems Pauline wrote.

In 1884, Pauline's father died from injuries he sustained earlier when he was stopping illegal timber trade on the Six Nations Reserve. The Johnson family did not have enough money to live at the Chiefswood mansion, so they rented it and moved to Brantford. Although Pauline expected to marry and had an active social life in Brantford society, no young men proposed. To make a living, Pauline wrote poems for money, which she published in local papers like the Brantford Expositor and in an anthology called Songs of the Great Dominion. She also began to recite her poems to small audiences in Brantford.

In 1892, helped by her friend and first manager Frank Yeigh, Pauline began to appear in professional recitals so that she could pay for the publication of her first book of poetry. She was such a success with audiences that she began to tour all over Ontario to enthusiastic crowds. Pauline's recitals of poems with Native subjects such as "Cry from an Indian Wife" or "The Song My Paddle Sings" could frighten audiences or move them to tears. She also made audiences laugh with clever jokes and stories of her travels. To attract crowds, she recited the first half of her program in a ball gown. For the second half of her program she recited her "Indian" poems in a costume which she made herself from buckskin, Mohawk metal work, rabbit pelts, a hunting knife, her grandfather's Huron scalp and another scalp which she bought from someone in the American mid-west.

For the next seventeen years, Pauline toured in London, England, parts of New England and most of Canada. She gave hundreds of recitals with musicians or stand-up comics as her partners. She became one of the best-known performers of her time. Pauline also earned a reputation as a popular writer when she published the books of poetry The White Wampum (1895), Canadian Born (1903) and Flint and Feather (1912). She wrote stories about about Indian life for boys' magazines, travel articles for newspapers and family life articles for women's journals.

Pauline retired from touring in 1909 and settled in Vancouver. She wrote in a small apartment, paddled her canoe around the bays of the city and entertained friends. She also listened to the legends and stories of the Squamish people as told to her by her friend Chief Joe Capilano. She later published these in a book called Legends of Vancouver (1911). But by this time, Pauline discovered that she had breast cancer and that surgery would not help her. When she could not write any longer because of her illness, her friends began a trust fund to raise money in order to pay her expenses. Although she was in great pain and in her last writings looked forward to its end, her poem "And He Said Fight On" expresses her optimism and her will to live: "Time and its ally, Dark Disarmament,Have compassed me about Have massed their armies, and on battle bentMy forces put to rout; But though I fight alone, and fall, and die,/Talk terms of Peace? Not I."

Pauline Johnson died March 7, 1913. She was only 52 years old. All flags in Vancouver flew at half-mast the day she was buried. Her funeral procession included all of the city's distinguished men and women, and representatives from every society and club. A large group of Squamish Indians with their chief, the son of Pauline's friend Chief Joe Capilano, walked near the end of the procession. Before her death, Pauline had asked to be buried in Stanley Park, her favourite place in Vancouver. She is the only person who has ever been buried in the park. Although she had requested that her grave site have no monument, a large stone with her picture and Mohawk designs was placed there later by the Women's Canadian Club.