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Sept. 27, 2002

Gray's story of Pauline Johnson best Biography yet

Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), poet, author, and actress, was one of Canada's  most independent and popular personalities at the turn of the century.  Much  has been written about her, and her writing has been re-published regularly.    Her best biography yet, the 438-page Flint and Feather: the Life and Times  of E. Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake is hot off the press this month.  It is  written by one of Canada's premier biographers Charlotte Gray and reads  easily like a novel.  Gray feels that Johnson was "one of those rare,  remarkable women who rise above conventions and assumptions of their day,  and carve their own paths."

Most people my age studied some of her poetry in school, especially "The Song My Paddle Sings," and many remember the title of one of her books, Flint and Feather.  I remember that she was called a "Mohawk Princess."  A  Pauline Johnson Canadian stamp was produced on her 100th birthday in 1961.

The title of the new book uses the "Flint and Feather" reference and her Mohawk name, Tekahionwake.  The title reference to "life and times" is relevant because the book is not just about her life, but contemporary history of the era is woven into the story to enhance it.

The cover of Charlotte Gray's new biography Flint and Feather:  The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson Teekahionwake, published this month.

This book is available to purchase online from the Past Forward Company store


Gray writes in detail about the early native history of Pauline's family in New York State, where they were powerful leaders.  They remained loyal to  the crown and were among those who fled to Ontario during the American  Revolution in the 1770s.  The tribes of the Six Nation Iroquois Confederacy,  including the Mohawks, were given a large tract of land on the Grand River  in southern Ontario for their loyalty.  The Six Nation reserve remains there  today and is where Pauline grew up during her early years.  Her story is of  particular interest to me because of stories about my United Empire Loyalist  grandmother (1864-1941), who grew up in Dunnville on the Grand River near  the reserve and was good friends with several of the native women there.   One of my best friends and roommate at Teacher's College was a Mohawk who  had moved to my hometown from the reserve.

Pauline grew up as the daughter of a Chief and a well-to-do English mother,  and lived in a large house on the banks of the Grand River.  She became an  excellent canoeist in her early years, and competed regularly and  successfully.  Gray's lengthy description of canoe racing was a nice addition to the book, The Canoe: A Living Tradition, mentioned in my column  last week.

Pauline went to elementary school on the reserve, as did two brothers and a  sister.  When their father died, they gave up their big house and classy lifestyle and moved to Brampton where she went to secondary school for a  couple of years.  Her brothers had successful careers in the insurance business.  Pauline wrote poetry and enjoyed life in Brampton, until on one occasion she was asked to give a reading of her poetry to a large group and  was a big hit.  She loved it and began a 20-year career as an actor-performer, putting on hundreds of shows on nineteen trips across Canada and in England and the United States.  She travelled by train and undoubtedly gave performances in North Bay.

In later life she began to write short stories for magazines and more poetry and eventually wrote six books, which provided income for her life in Vancouver, where she retired.  When she died, three days before her fifty-second birthday, she received the largest funeral Vancouver had seen.   In a rare exception she was allowed to be buried in Stanley Park.

What makes Pauline Johnson so fascinating was her liberated way of life in a  very conservative era.  The fact that she made a living as an actor was very  disconcerting for her mother and her sister.  She was extremely attractive  and had many love affairs which she kept to herself, and she never married.   Much of the material on Johnson's personal life was destroyed by her sister  after her death, much to the chagrin of Charlotte Gray.

The most interesting aspect of her life was her dual Mohawk/English background, which she used to full advantage and with full acceptance at the  time.  Her performances were usually in two parts, with the first half in  full Native regalia, with Native themes, and the second half in the dress of  an English lady.  She was proud of her native heritage and took strong positions on native spirituality and native rights.  In later life she  became close friends with the Squamish people in British Columbia, and in particular with their Chief Joe Capilano.  She transcribed many of his stories into one of her most popular books, Legends of Vancouver.

In retrospect a century later, she has been criticized by some for never returning to the Six Nation reserve and for using her Mohawk heritage for personal gain.  She was Native, but did not live like a Native person, as compared to Archie Belaney (Grey Owl) who lived a Native way of life but was  not himself Native.  Nevertheless, she had a very successful life that will  undoubtedly be enhanced by this powerful new biography.  This new book is a  great read about a remarkable woman ahead of her time.

Incidentally, her Collected Poems and Selected Prose was published in June  2002 by the University of Toronto Press and is available, as is her biography, in bookstores.

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