Sunday, September 02, 2007

Emily Pauline Johnson

Grandma was a collector of books written by Canadian authors and I have inherited a number of her volumes. Pauline Johnson, or Tekahionwake, (1861-1913) was the daughter of an Englishwoman and the chief of the Six Nations reserve in Brant County, Ontario. She started writing poetry as a child and captured the essence of a new nation, a blend of Native Canadian and European cultures. I have Grandma's leather bound volume of the poet's complete works, published in 1913, the year of her death. She writes about Indian life, about her love for the nation of Canada, about rivers, lakes, oceans and the natural world around them. Some of her poems reflect on her Christian faith, and her bravest poem challenged death as it stalked her in the form of tuberculosis or cancer (depending on which biographer you read).

Pauline Johnson travelled all over North America and Britain doing recital tours. She appeared on stage in native dress and recited her poetry dramatically from memory. She represented the intrigue and romance of the New World in Europe and was very well received by her audiences. Brantford, Ontario is home to Wayne Gretzky and Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. Pauline Johnson is also recognized with these men as a famous and loved daughter of the region.

I read Flint and Feather when I was on vacation in July and only then realized that Pauline Johnson grew up in our area on the banks of the Grand River;-the same river that I walk along several times a week. Chiefswood is now a national historic site and the large house that Chief George Johnson, or Ohwanosyshon built for his British bride stands as museum on the Six Nations' land by the river.

Chiefswood- Birthplace of Pauline Johnson

We have explored the site twice this month, as well as the adjacent reserve. Becka found the Six Nations Reserve very interesting and the contrast with the nearby towns is striking. I have done community visits here, treating patients with mobility problems usually related to complications from diabetes. Diabetes is endemic in this population along with other problems that are common to all groups of native North Americans. The reserve has many run down areas, and too many shacks selling "cheap smokes". But we also noticed some well kept homes and businesses and evidence of people trying to make the best of their lives. Our native population continues to struggle with the past and can find it difficult to maintain their heritage and integrate with mainstream Canadian culture. Pauline Johnson made the best of her joint heritage and continues to be a role model for her Mohawk people.

Grand River at Chiefswood, near Ohsweken, Six Nations Reserve, Ontario

Here is a brief excerpt from one of her most famous poems, The Song My Paddle Sings. I like to think she is writing of a canoe trip down the Grand River.

August is laughing across the sky,
Laughing while paddle, canoe and I,
Drift, drift,
Where the hills uplift
On either side of the current swift.

The river rolls in its rocky bed;
My paddle is plying its way ahead;
Dip, dip,
While the waters flip
In foam as over their breast we slip...

And up on the hills against the sky,
A fir tree rocking its lullaby,
Swings, swings,
Its emerald wings,
Swelling the song that my paddle sings


  1. What memories your blog revived. I memorized "The Song My Paddle Sings" when just a small child. Repeated it on camping canoe trips across Algonquin Park in the early 40"s and again when your Dad and I had autumn canoe adventures in Haliburton in the early 70"s. I shall re-read it in your home.
    Mexico Mom

  2. Oh my, Ruth, this is very interesting. What a treasure you have there with your Grandmother's books. I love the poem, I bet her other poems are wonderful, too. Thank you so much for sharing all of this interesting information!

  3. I'm also familiar with the book but you have reminded me I need to look at it closer in my more "mature" years. My husband is Mohawk and I am always interested in learning more of the history of this particular group of native Indians.

  4. Mom- I really hadn't read this book, and it has been on my shelf for 17 years now. I will have to take you to Ohsweken when you come next.

    Pam- I share your love of books, especially old books and the history that goes with them. All her poems are online at the link I had in the post.

    2puppies- I am sure you will enjoy Johnson's poems, especially because of your husband's heritage. We are far more politically correct now, and I hesitate to use the word "Indian". But the word is used in her poems.

  5. I love reading about history form a personal point of view.-I'm going to look for some older books on my next vacation.

  6. Oh, that is a lovely poem. I love her portrait. Such a strong beautiful profile.

  7. Larry- There are so many new books, that it is easy to forget about the old gems. I take my old favourite books on vacation.

    Cathy- She was a strong and interesting woman who stood out in her generation.

  8. I'd never heard the paddling poem--what a perfect one for me to know!
    Thanks for acquainting me with it--I'm off to look at more of her work.
    Old books--they have charm and a language we have lost. So nice to hear it again.

  9. Nina, you are right. We have lost so much language in the past century. The complete works of Pauline Johnson are online. Like my mother commented, many Canadian children memorized the words of this poem in school.

  10. paddy's mom5:11 pm GMT-4

    My Mother-in-law, who is now 88, received the book of Poetry from her uncle. The book was bound in leather, she carried it with her everywhere until her son, (my husband) took the book and gave it to his girlfriend. The book never surfaced again. She fondly remembers it.


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