Women Of the Wild West

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Pauline Johnson

 

Pauline Johnson is portrayed by Kitty Bosch

Born Emily Pauline Johnson on March 10, 1861 on the Six Nations Reserve, Upper Canada.  Pauline was the daughter of George Henry Martin Johnson and Emily Susanna Howells.
She had a middle-class life of privilege at Chiefswood, an imposing residence built by her father. The house was emblematic of her status as a mixed-blood writer and performer who straddled two cultures, because of its identical entrances, one facing the road and the other the Grand River.  Her mother was English and ran a perfect house that excelled in refinement and decorum, which was attractive to man distinguished guests.  Her father being a Mohawk of the wolf clan, was acculturated to European Values.  He spoke several languages and was fluent in many native dialects. He wore conventional Canadian Dress, except for ceremony and worked in the Federal Government.  The great-granddaughter of Tekahionwake (Jacob Johnson), whose name she would later adopt, and the granddaughter of John “Smoke” Johnson, she saw herself as primarily “Indian.” At the same time, she embraced Canada, the west most fondly.
Education was a must, she was modestly schooled at home and the reserve schools then attended Brantford college from aged 14 to 16 and was well read in English Literature particularly Browning, Scot, Byron and Tennyson.  She performed in amateur theatre and returned home to Cheifswood in 1877 where she settled into typical life of leisure while awaiting marriage.  She visited and received friends, and spent long hours canoeing on the Grand River, a fashionable pursuit for women of her era, but one at which Johnson excelled and to which she would turn for pleasure and solace throughout her life.
This idyllic existence would end abruptly with the death of her father in 1884.  Unable to afford life at Cheifswood the family moved into rented quarters in Brantford.  With no marriage prospects by the age of 23 Pauline began writing as a way to support herself and was published.  As her reputation grew, she began in 1886 to sign her work as both E. Pauline Johnson and Tekahionwake, accentuating her native identity and developing the “Indian princess” persona that would serve her well. At the same time, however, her double signature suggests the complexity of Johnson’s location as a writer and performer of mixed blood who spoke from both inside and outside native experience. On the one hand, she continually emphasized the nobility of certain values that she associated with native communities, particularly respect for nature and generosity of spirit.
It would be difficult to overstate the personal difficulties that Pauline Johnson endured in bringing her work before the public. The death of her mother in 1898 and the subsequent rupture of ties with her sister and with Brantford and her birthplace, the termination of her engagement to Winnipeg insurance inspector Charles Robert Lumley Drayton at his request in 1900, misfortunes at the hands of an unscrupulous manager that year, and serious bouts of streptococcal illness between 1900 and 1902 (which caused the loss of her hair and left her skin ravaged) all took their toll. She toured throughout Canada and the US performing her own works as well as bringing awareness to the treatment and plight of the Native people.  She was an advocate and activist through her pen.  She was never financially secure but her touring funded her endeavours and allowed her generosity to prevail.  
She would travel and speak well into her illness with breast cancer that would take her life in 1909 and she would be buried in quiet fashion.  She is memorialized in Vancouver where, in 1922 a monument was erected by the Women’s Canadian Club.  A granite boulder with an inscription reading “E. Pauline Johnson, Mohawk Indian . . .” in the Johnson family plot at the Mohawk chapel records her place of origin and her genesis.