Pauline Johnson (1861–1913) was a poet and writer of Mohawk and English descent from the Six Nations territory in Ontario. Her father was an influential and well-respected Mohawk chief who worked as an interpreter and negotiator between the Six Nations and the British and Canadian governments, at a time when First Nations were an important military ally and regarded as equals. After the War of 1812, various European powers had more of less finished dividing up North America, and that role became redundant, leading to the third phase of Native-colonial relations: that of relics of history relegated to distant reserves. Pauline Johnson knew relatively little about her own Mohawk background (never becoming fluent in the language, and expressing regret as an adult that she knew so little of its culture and stories), but she did inherit a strong sense of pride and self-worth that caused her to strike back against the condescension and benign neglect towards Native peoples that was becoming the norm in her lifetime.
An independent woman at a time when that was a difficult feat, she never married and was able to support herself as a writer and public speaker, something which remains difficult today for would-be professional poets. Her primary literary influences were the romantic poets of her day, but she soon realized that her Native identity and voice were what would gain her an audience, going so far as to perform in public wearing an entirely fabricated buckskin outfit purchased from a mail-order company and adorned with claw and feather decorations of her own design (bearing no resemblance whatsoever to traditional Mohawk clothing). Johnson was able to publish a few volumes of poems and stories, plus the occasional article in newspapers or magazines, but mostly lived as a travelling public speaker, a common professional in the days before radio and film. Living on the road for almost all her adult life, she had limited time to write anything other than stories that would play well to small-town audiences, but managed enough “serious” poetry to be a fixture of the Canadian literary scene in competition with a club of independently wealthy older men.
I began this book because I was interested to read the story of an early Native writer, but in the end found it almost more interesting as a book about life as a independent woman author from the turn of the century. For example, at the end of her life, she settled in Vancouver because of its liberal ways: “sights that would have shocked Toronto, such as women driving cars, women entering restaurants alone, women with bare heads, and female bylines in the newspapers, were commonplace”. Johnson’s life is worth learning about for anyone interested in the history of Canadian literature and/or the social construction of Native identity, as evidenced by the fact that this is just the latest of several biographies, and a chamber opera about her life is currently in preparation (with a libretto by Margaret Atwood). Johnson was and remains a woman of note; to quote the title of an earlier biography, she paddled her own canoe.