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A Mohawk Poet

For the week of Monday, March 2, 2015

On March 7, 1913, Canadians and members of the literary community around the world mourned the passing of a famous and respected Canadian. Emily Pauline Johnson was a Mohawk poet who engaged in a series of speaking tours between 1892 and 1910. Her poems and stories helped to make Canadians more aware of Aboriginal Peoples, and the magnitude and diversity of Canada and its people.

Pauline Johnson
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-111473

Emily Pauline Johnson was born in 1861 at Chiefswood, on the Six Nations Reserve, Ontario. The youngest daughter of a Mohawk chief and his non-native wife, she adopted the Mohawk name of her great-grandfather, "Tekahionwake." She received most of her education at home, and while she particularly liked the classics of English literature, she was also exposed to the rich oral histories and traditions of her Mohawk heritage. In 1873, Johnson started writing poetry - when she was only 12 years old! In the 1890s she began publishing her poems, essays, and short stories. She wrote about religion, nature, and Canadian nationalism, but her most famous writings were on Aboriginal themes, such as The Song My Paddle Sings.

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Chiefswood
© Parks Canada / James DeJonge

In 1892, she began touring Canada, giving recitals of her stories and poems. She became a popular and successful entertainer, and one of the few female writers at the turn of the century who made a living from what she wrote and performed. She dressed as an "Indian Princess" when entertaining, sharing her knowledge of Canada and her Aboriginal heritage with the people she met. In 1909, Johnson retired to Vancouver, B.C., where she hoped a quieter life would allow her more time for serious writing. Unfortunately, a cancerous tumour was soon discovered in her breast. She battled illness and the effects of morphine to produce new works, including her famous book Legends of Vancouver, before her death in 1913 at the age of 52.

For her unique and outstanding contribution to Canadian literature and entertainment, Pauline Johnson is a National Historic Person. She is commemorated by a plaque at Chiefswood, her birthplace and childhood home. Chiefswood is designated as a National Historic Site.

March 8, 2015, is International Women’s Day. To learn more about other contributions by Canadian women, read A Fighter, Aboriginal Women won’t be Left Behind, and Queen of the Hurricanes! in the This Week in History archives.

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada. Also, click here to learn about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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