Known as Tekahionwake, “Double Wampum,” this Mohawk poet enjoyed both critical and popular acclaim for her writing around the turn of the century. She was born near Brantford, Ontario on March 10, 1861, the daughter of Hohawk chief Henry Martin Johnson (Onwanonsyshon) and his English wife, Emily S. Howells. An older cousin on her mother’s side was the writer William Dean Howells.
Pauline was a precocious youngster, and by the age of 12 had read most of Scott, Longfellow, Shakespeare, Byron, and other classical English writers. She had also begun to write verse of her own, although for several years she was too shy to present it for publication. When, in her mid-teens, she submitted a poem to the local newspaper, the editor advised her to send her work to more widely circulated publications. This she did, and during those early years her poetry appeared in Harper’s Weekly, Smart Set, The Anatheum, and similar literary publications of the period.
Another turning point in her life occurred in 1892 when the Young Liberals Club of Toronto sponsored an evening program devoted to the presentation of Canadian literature. In Mohawk costume, Pauline Johnson read one of her most recent poems entitled, “A Cry From an Indian Wife,” which relates the story of the Northwest Rebellion from the Indian point of view:
O! coward self I hesitate no more;
Go forth, and win the glories of war.
Go forth, nor bend to greed of white men’s hands,
By right, by birth, we Indians own these lands.
The audience was deeply moved and called for more of her writing. The next morning’s press spread the word of her triumph and she soon gave full evening readings of her work. It was for this presentation that she wrote what was probably her most famous work—The Song My Paddle Sings.
Her first book—Songs of the Great Dominion—appeared in 1889. The success of her early recitals was such that she soon embarked on a tour of Canadian cities and then, in 1894, gave several readings in London. The timing was just right for the general tone of her compositions, and she was able to meet most of the English literary world. She was favorably reviewed by most of the critics and arranged for the publication in 1895 of White Wampum, a book which received equally warm acceptance.
She was on tour for a large part of the next 15 years, from Vancouver to Halifax and from Boulder, Colorado to Birmingham, England. In 1903 a volume of her poetry, Canadian Born, was quickly sold out of its first edition. When she finally retired from the exhausting schedule of public appearances, she settled in Vancouver, British Columbia.
She gathered a collection of Legends of Vancouver, published in 1911, which one critic hailed as “an imaginative treatment of Indian folklore . . . the beginning of a new literature.” But for the now famous poet it was close to the end. Her final books, The Shaganappi, appeared in 1913, followed closely by Flint and Feathers. She died of cancer on March 7, 1913 at her home in Vancouver and was buried at Stanley Park in that city. In commemoration of her role in Canadian literature, the government issued a 5¢ postage stamp in 1961 celebrating the centenary of her birth, and featuring her portrait—the first such issue honoring an author to appear on a Canadian postage stamp—and the first Indian so recognized.
Source: Great North American Indians by Frederick J. Duckstander