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The Birth of a Pioneer in Canadian Poetry

This story was initially published in 2011

March 10, 2011, marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of E. Pauline Johnson, one of Canada’s first internationally recognized female poets. Johnson was born on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, in 1861. Her father, George Johnson, was an influential Mohawk chief who worked as an interpreter for, and was member of, the Six Nations Council. Her mother, Emily Howells, was a non-Aboriginal woman from Ohio. Johnson was tutored at home in her early years, and later attended Brantford Collegiate Institute where she became well read in English literature, and performed in amateur theatricals.

Emily Pauline Johnson in traditional mohawk dress
© Cochran of Ontario / Vancouver Public Library / VPL 9429
After the death of her father in 1884, Johnson began to write poetry as a means of supporting herself. In the following years, Johnson’s works earned popular acclaim and were published in magazines in Montréal, New York and Toronto. Although she wrote for an Anglo-Saxon audience, she never forgot her Mohawk heritage. She emphasized her Mohawk identity by signing her work as both E. Pauline Johnson and “Tekahionawakeh,” the Mohawk name of her great-grandfather. In 1892, she was invited by a school friend to recite her work on stage at a poetry reading in Toronto. Johnson’s performance was a big hit, and sparked a theatrical career which would take her on recital tours all over Canada, the United States, and England.

Johnson’s writings and performances tread a delicate balance. Poems such as her 1897 Canadian Born summed up the patriotic optimism of a young Canadian nation, and preached the union of peoples of different languages and backgrounds under a British flag in Canada. Other works voiced her resentment at English-Canadian stereotypes of the “Indian,” and the treatment of Aboriginal Peoples on reserves in the Prairies. Her most popular poetry contained Aboriginal themes that illustrated Canada’s natural landscape, such as The Song My Paddle Sings. A trademark of her on-stage performances was that she would dress in a Victorian ballroom gown for the first half of her show, and in traditional Mohawk dress for the second half. 

The funeral procession for Pauline Johnson in Vancouver
© City of Vancouver Archives / J.S. Matthews / Port P1422

In 1909, poor health and exhaustion forced Johnson to retire from touring. She moved to Vancouver where she continued to publish poetry despite battling breast cancer. Johnson died on March 7, 1913. Her friends arranged a large funeral procession through downtown Vancouver, and her grave in Stanley Park is marked by a large stone monument.

Emily Pauline Johnson was designated a national historic person in 1945 for her work as a Mohawk poet and performer. Chiefswood, her childhood home near Brantford, is a national historic site.

To read more about Pauline Johnson’s life, see Canada Grieves for Mohawk Poet. For more information on famous members of the Mohawk First Nations community, see A Mohawk Who Succeeded in the Victorian World and A Voice of Sovereignty Dies. For more stories on early Canadian poets, see A French-Canadian Romantic, Émile Nelligan, a Poet with a Tragic DestinyThe Father of Canadian Literature and The "Poet of the Rocky Mountains" is Born.

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