||Sept. 27, 2002
Gray's story of Pauline Johnson best Biography
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
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
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