A Ride Like Miss Johnson’s “Wild Cat”[1]


West wind, blow from your prairie nest,

Blow from the mountains, blow from the west.

The sail is idle, the sailor too;

O! wind of the west, we wait for you.[2]

Those lines many will recognize as coming from the first verse of the poem “The Song My Paddle Sings,” thought of, I suggest, as one of the first old standards of First Nations writing in Canada, a piece inspired in part by the author’s youthful experience of the Grand River that’s still winding through this southern Ontario territory. Those lines of verse also come, for this occasion, from my own memory, although I did afterward check a published version of the text for the punctuation. Who uses semicolons and exclamation marks with such ease these days? These lines make up one of the few fragments of poetry I carry with me a good half century since I was in primary school, which I mention because that’s likely where I learned the poem while a student of Mrs. Minnie Green. This would have been at Number Four School over on Fifth Line just this side of its intersection with Seneca Road. (I think the building is used as a residence now.) I was one of Mrs. Green’s students for six years, six grades all squeezed into one room where a lot of our learning was by rote or, in this instance, by heart.

It marks me, I fear, as odd to admit carrying it. Who knows poems by memory anymore? “Memory work?” My own students resisted the time I assigned the practice as an exercise. I was trying to help them be storytellers, to develop their memories. But they didn’t bring enough poetry from high school. They hadn’t been taught poetry as something connected to life. Their teachers, it seemed, had been wary, didn’t really know how to handle it, beyond treating it as a language puzzle. What do you think the poet really meant by that? As if the sense had to be immediate as prose and there was no need to hold onto it. And “You can always google stuff” seemed to be their understanding. “You don’t need to know it by heart. You don’t need to own it.” But for me, the knowing it or at least some of it by heart is part of how this all makes human cultural sense.

This particular poem, “The Song My Paddle Sings,” is not one, I admit, I’d argue for as an example of a masterwork of art. The poet does have a few of those later on in her life, but this early poem is a mere good attempt. It’s the work of a talent, but it’s also small “r” romantic, composed in that late Victorian register—the Queen’s Prince Albert died the same year our author was born—that personifies nature in a way that seems, to my ears, a bit perverse if not simply naive.

I have wooed you so,

But never a favour you bestow.

Our scientific knowledge of the chaotic complexity of the natural world and the complications of our own social world, has expanded, as they say, exponentially since my poet’s time, beginning its expansion in that time. She was able in her time to be almost self-educated as a poet, attending only five years in sum at the nearby Indian day school and the central school in Brantford, by reading whatever verse might have been shelved around her parents’ house. My own more recent education added up to nineteen years and, like many of my contemporaries, in the face of so much information, often I feel I’m still not as knowledgeable as I should be. Biographies suggest my poet read, for one tradition’s sake, Scott, Longfellow, Byron, Shakespeare. She could also have learned the basics of poetic technique from such readings but had, until she left home, no way to be formed directly by the established norms of the Canadian colony, which must have helped her, now that I think about it, preserve her sense of self as a Mohawk and a woman. There are stories of her closeness to her Grandfather “Smoke” Johnson which suggest how she might have learned the Iroquoian traditions she testified were the ground out of which her understanding grew. Like the White Pine Tree of Peace, let’s say.

The most puzzling reality “The Song My Paddle Sings” suggests is that of a canoe on which you can install a “lateen.” A lateen is, my dictionary assures me, a triangular sail. In the tippiness of a canoe, how do you erect a mast? Do you rig one of your paddles vertical, assuming you carry a spare? When you think about a sailor in a canoe, does that make sense to you, oh Canadian listener? Maybe she’s not talking about a canoe at all but, say, a skiff, although in a photo I recall she’s got ahold of the sort of paddle you would canoe with. She named her own canoe “Wild Cat”—did I see that name written on the bow in the photo? Is “canoe” in lieu of “skiff,” that misspeaking, as we say, a mistake, a debilitating defect for the artwork in the context of our postmodernity? We do try for accuracy. Something to do with our inheritance from that age she was one flower of, that legacy including the accurate results of the scientific method.

The poem uses repetition, rhyme, and alliteration like, well, we still are allowed to do mostly in the nursery. Yes, the writer of that early poem is young, too inexperienced to make the mature statement one might prefer.

But this Song, with its froth of wordplay—this line about the rapids to my ears is still well done:

They seethe, and boil, and bound, and splash.

—this Song is still part of me, too, something I admit I own. Looking at it again, earlier this year, I remembered that there’s a good bunch of my own poems focused through the image of that same actual river, a bit more dammed since her time and therefore not quite so rapid an experience. My songs are not quite as consistently lyric or romantic. A few of them even have the image of a canoe in them, a vessel I can assure you that is not fit for the rigging of a sail, a definite canoe from real life experience, since my poetic canoe’s material source belonged to my dear sister Debora, the—in our youths—athletic one of us two. And my own poems, many of them, are also focused through the similar old-fashioned lyrics metaphor. Maybe it was the example of “The Song My Paddle Sings” and her other poems that gave me permission to use such conventional or traditional language without the fear of cliché stopping me at the water’s edge.

Perhaps the reason I’m going on this way about her is that my own education at Number Four and then Ohsweken’s Central School might be as focused or out of focus as hers, in that it did not supply me with all the knowledge I’d likely need to be a postmodern mainstream writer (“main stream”—now there, in this Grand River context, must be a pun!), including the clear knowledge of what a cliché might be and why it might be perceived as a problem, unlike my own writing students. As soon as they’ve expressed something in a way they suspect has been said or felt before, they halt and delete, and remain silent and feeling inadequate. They fear cliché and the embarrassment of not being original. I don’t even mention that what they’re seeing as cliché might be merely conventional or even expected expression, protocol. Instead I try to assure them that they are as original as they need to be—who else is each one of them if not her- or himself?—and that clichés are part of our social culture, that they ease communication, they’re worn and slippery, and that it’s no shame for a first draft to be “not unique.” That’s why writing’s about rewriting, revising, revisioning. But they want to get it right the first time, they want to be that kind of smart from the start, and don’t want to be seen as ordinary. No one wants to say something the usual way, at least until they eventually realize how much work revision is and just how lonely it can be to actually be extraordinary. There’s no shame in honestly feeling something that’s usual, in being part of a commonwealth, a community. There’s even sometimes a comfort. Most don’t at first want to believe me.

The word “lyrical” and the title with “song” in it, though, remind me of one thing I did learn at Central School or just a bit later. Wasn’t it Edgar Poe who theorized that poetry in its essence is energized by great emotion, a measure of ecstasy, by in this case the need to sing, that sort of not-prosaic expression? I imagine myself like any reading teenager, having heard about a scary story, say “The Tell-Tale Heart,” wading through that early-nineteenth-century prose and being only a bit disturbed by it. Young folk have the instinct for the uncanny or the creepy, but you really need some years of life experience to appreciate “the horror.” Then, despite the disappointment of that smallish disturbance, I’d go on to find stuff like “The Raven”:

[“]Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!

Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”

Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” (Poe n. pag.)

(My friend Lenore Keeshig—you’ll recall that her first name is used in Poe’s poem, which in part explains this—once suggested that a white guy who writes such a poem about one of our very North American birds and gets a lot of its mysterious power right, even in such an old-fashioned style, should really be given some respect.)

Those poems by Edgar Allan with their insistent rhythms, persistent rhymes, and expression of extreme romantic and gothic emotions in spite of their great formality, those singing, dramatic poems must also have been some sort of permission for the by-that-time high-school me, even if I didn’t need the extremes Mr. Poe’s life forced him to operate within.

And our author didn’t go to the same emotional territory either. Being the youngest of four children in her household, despite its (at that time, we’re told) rather unusual ethnic make-up, our author seems to have lived—we should all be so lucky—a relatively sheltered early existence. (There is some drama around her father’s political work, some violence for him, but that’s his story.) Would she have even been exposed to Poe’s work? His seems to be the writing of a wild and perhaps, even then, crazy guy while hers—canoe lyrics, love songs, eventually some Indian politics, history and culture, expressions of patriotism and dramatic monologues—the subject matter and/or genres and the tools at hand all seem the work of a young, and then more mature, Victorian-age, middle-class, middlebrow lady.

But clearly from her example in this paddle song, there are qualities beyond emotional and technical maturity that might make a poem memorable. And of course there are non-literary values that make some works of literature notable and even lasting. Such as being the first nationally acclaimed woman poet in the country. (I’m quoting from one rendition of the pamphlet you can pick up if you visit the Chiefswood historic site.) Yup. The first. One of our women did that.


I’ve not been naming her. Strange hesitation.

Perhaps I didn’t want to overemphasize her influence, wanted to try for some objectivity? Or I feared that talking too much about her and/or her work might mark me as a bit of literary bumpkin. But perhaps it’s too late to avoid that. I know that for most other Canadian writers—if I can include myself among them (I do have a passport)—she’s a sideshow, not on the carnival’s mainstage. They assume that’s the way the world has always worked. She was a woman, she was an Indian, she’s history.

I half remember a rumour I heard during the time Margaret Atwood was editing (I’m fairly sure) the anthology of Canadian poetry that Oxford University Press put out. I was paying the rumour attention because, it turned out, a poet I’d been to school with, former California girl Roo Borson, did get included, last one in, in Ms. Atwood’s version of poetic Canada, while a number of Roo’s contemporaries, including yours truly, didn’t. You do catch yourself comparing your accomplishments against those of your friends and peers and start rationalizing things by, say, finding small comfort in the number of poems you’ve published in magazines, not going into other reasons like fashion or not really being seen as part of the country’s story.

The other more relevant rumour that came along at the same time was that my poet almost got dumped as not really a part of the Canadian story, but that rumour hardly seemed likely, what with editor Atwood’s feminist cred. And really, my poet’s been on a Canadian stamp—1961’s five-cent, for her centenary—she’s had that much recognition. She’s definitely a phrase, say, in the song of the country.

But it’s probably healthier to just think about the influence of her reputation on me as a member of just our local community. What luck for us, really, a bunch of lower- and middle-class folks but Indians as defined by the Indian Act, inhabitants of this place we’re gathered today, the Six Nations of Grand River Territory, once a “land grant,” somehow transformed by the magic of legislation into a “reserve,” to have had our very own poet for so long.

It’s only much more recently, when you think about it, that the mainstream hasn’t had to look back to their Mother Countries for voices that might help them define themselves, even if the definitions they found there don’t quite connect to who they are, living here. Perhaps they get to some point where they enjoy the feeling of being deracinated, strangers in a strange land, immigrant imaginers. I’m not sure that even today they’re sure enough in their presence on Turtle Island to be happy if we, say, suggested Peggy Atwood, as her friends call her, might be the one to do the job. No, she hasn’t got to be the poet laureate yet. But she is a woman.

And are any of my poet’s contemporaries, any of those guys, still part of the public conversation the way she seems to be, at least in this neighbourhood? Yes, in this neighbourhood we do talk momentarily about Duncan Campbell Scott, though not as a poet but as the formulator of the Indian problem. My poet, on the other hand, has been part of our community’s permission to think about ourselves as cultured, despite what the settlers said so insistently about us, to think of ourselves, our knowledge, experience, and history as bits of our civilization. It seems those new folks weren’t listening all along or just didn’t want to hear us when we used words like “intelligentsia” in connection with their word “Indian.” It often seems that despite some of them talking about our eternal souls, all they really had on their minds was our land.

But let me try to get more personal, less political. Let me say the name Emily Pauline Johnson, E. Pauline Johnson, Pauline, a.k.a. Tekahionwake, which means Double Wampum, who her friends, it seems, called “Polly.” The lady was born at Chiefswood, Grand River Territory, Ontario, 10 March 1861, and died in Vancouver, British Columbia, 7 March 1913.

Let me say Pauline had been gone, as a person, on the road for a couple of the later decades of her shortish life, and then was ensconced and then dead and buried in beautiful Stanley Park in Vancouver a good four decades past by the time I was born at our Lady Willingdon Hospital in 1952. So it’s not like anybody I ever knew would likely have known her as a living person or professionally, at least as an adult who could talk about her or about those who knew her. Someone might have encountered her sister who did outlive her and who seemed to spend her time protecting Pauline’s name and reputation as a lady. My grandparents were certainly alive at the same time Pauline was, having all been born around the turn of the twentieth century, but as youngsters would not have encountered her since they were here and she was, it seems, on the road, away in the wider world where one could earn a living and be a performer, the cultural worker’s version of hunting and gathering.

But her name and her work were around here, starting with her father’s house, the famous two-faced, in a good way, Chiefswood miniature mansion house, with its two front doors, one facing the white man’s preferred mode of travel, the road, and the other facing the river, in stories the Indian’s version of the highway. (In the Iroquois creation story, after they were first created, the currents in rivers flowed—useful as and more beautiful than those moving walkways in airports—both up- and downstream at the same time!) That house where she spent her childhood is still here, important in the public historical sense, another site for the community to fly its Hiawatha Wampum banner from.

But here are some more personal memories of how her work or image or name came up for me during my own early years.

Another one of her verses I’m recalling set to music. My father’s youngest brother, my Uncle Jack, a violinist, was a music teacher. He would travel around visiting each of the numbered schools in a circuit. Do they teach music that hands-on now? Do they teach music? I remember him being there instructing me the first time my throat emitted something like a note. In the memory, I’m standing beside the grade one row of desks in that room at Number Four and I think we both or maybe even all, the rest of the kids in that room as well as Mrs. Green and my Uncle, are a bit delighted by the sweetness of the sound. Where did that come from? Was it under his tutelage that we memorized and sang the song made from Pauline’s “Lullaby of the Iroquois”?

Little brown baby-bird, lapped in your nest,

Wrapped in your nest,

Strapped in your nest,

Your straight little cradle-board rocks you to rest;

Its hands are your nest,

Its bands are your nest;

It swings from the down-bending branch of the oak;

You watch the camp flame, and the curling gray smoke;

But, oh, for your pretty black eyes sleep is best,—

Little brown baby of mine, go to rest. (Johnson, “Lullaby” n. pag.)

Were we part of a competition of choirs, kids assembled from our scattered Six Nations schools to a gathering in Brantford, singing our four harmonic parts in the gymnasium of, yes, the Pauline Johnson Collegiate? So Pauline’s in that moment twice, text and context.

In another moment I notice that in some photographs she looks—she’s so young—a lot like one of my second cousins, despite a high collar and an old-fashioned, pinned-up coiffure. My cousin I usually picture in a denim jacket, her hair in a loose perm. In the pictures of Pauline’s stage costume, an “Indian” dress thrown together with lots of Iroquois silver brooches and a bear claw necklace, fringes and fur tassels, a blanket (they’re black and white photos but I imagine the blanket’s red), and what looks like a wampum belt used as a belt, her hair loose, she looks like someone’s fantasy “Indian maiden.” Do I remember correctly that what looks like the small pelt of an animal dangling from that belt might actually be a scalp that someone out West gave her as a gift and that she was thrilled to have? Show business is partly about knowing what your audience expects and partly about finding ways to surprise them. Her stage costume seems a compendium of the expectedly Indian. Those contrasting images of her in versions of a Victorian lady’s street clothes seem equally romantic. Who would think that that glamorous girl in the winter fur coat and jaunty cap was one of those people, an Indian?

I found this quote in the Wikipedia article about Pauline. Margaret Atwood again muses, it says, trying to explain why her thesis about Canadian literature, the book Survival—where all the white settler people huddle in their forts afraid of the surrounding wilderness—did not take Native literature into account:

“Why did I overlook Pauline Johnson? Perhaps because, being half-white, she somehow didn’t rate as the real thing, even among Natives; although she is undergoing reclamation today.” Atwood’s comments indicated that Johnson’s multicultural identity contributed to her neglect by critics. (“E. Pauline” n. pag.)

“Multicultural identity”? Pauline presented herself, while acknowledging her English mother, as a Mohawk woman, which makes sense in our community. There’s an oft-quoted essay where she sounds offended when someone tells her how white she seems. Historically, the Iroquois are known for absorbing people of other cultures. It’s a practical strategy when you’re living closer to nature. You don’t want to waste anyone’s talents if they can get along with the group.

But our country’s take on history or mainstream culture doesn’t have the same attitudes, doesn’t take Pauline at her word. “Half-white.” What a thing to say. At least Ms. Atwood didn’t think she could say “half-breed” and get away with it. Even Atwood, someone who’s usually cool, who’s certainly culturally powerful, smart, even she, all those years ago, had had her attitudes about identity limited by mainstream ones of racism.

Race, in my experience, is not an idea we give much credence hereabouts, unless we’re trying to deal with the Indian Act. I had and have aunts and uncles who were white people and we only occasionally worried about them because sometimes they might act a bit uppity (“But just think about where they came from!”), as if they didn’t quite understand the right ways to behave. But otherwise the issue of their origins didn’t really raise much concern. We’re practical, finally, willing to adopt those who can fit in.

And then there was a version of Pauline’s life story as told by our yearly Six Nations Indian Pageant in the Forest Theatre, hers the only woman’s story among those of Tom Longboat, Joseph Brant, Cornplanter, Seneca, Tecumseh, the Peacemaker and Hiawatha, stories from recorded and local history or from so far back that the records don’t hold the story to one shape and it starts to shift into mythological territories.

The Forest Theatre is in a woodlot with a stream, a natural amphitheatre with plank bleachers, the stage a grassy spot on the in side of a crescent-shaped pond. Canoes would come around that curve, gliding elegant entrances useful for performing Pauline’s most famous poem. The recorded narrator over the public address system always interrupted the particular story being told to give an explanation of a scene that took place in an Indian village as an educational illustration of traditional culture. Audiences included first timers as well as veterans from other years, tourists and folks from Brantford, Hamilton, Buffalo, the States, and often a busload from the Toronto Indian Friendship Centre.

What excitement for us kids. We get to costume up to tell the history and during intermission wander, still in our outfits, among the visitors along the midway between the theatre and the parking lot where my Grandpa George directs traffic. For the audience, crafts are available, some having already been promoted with explanations in the Indian Village Scene. Is it the winner of a beauty pageant, one of our young women ruling this year as Miss Ontario, who poses and portrays Pauline on the August evening I’m remembering?

And much later on, with my friend Lenore, I get to experience the clear strengths, despite the old-fashioned aesthetic, of Pauline’s poetry in more mainstream venues. Lenore had graduated from York University as a teller of traditional stories, focused on Nanabozo, the Anishinaabe’s trickster. But her presentation was contemporary. She would show up for gigs in a skirt and sweater, despite expectations she might dress like an Indian. No, she didn’t need to use the ladies’ room to change, thank you. And I had no costume either. I’m not quite sure how it was arranged but I know we travelled together—maybe Vancouver, certainly Regina, with a stopover in Winnipeg—giving poetry readings, of our own poetry separately and of Pauline’s work together, Indians and poets despite expectations.

They were coming across the prairie, they were galloping hard and fast;

For the eyes of those desperate riders had sighted their man at last—

Sighted him off to Eastward, where the Cree encampment lay,

Where the cotton woods fringed the river, miles and miles away. (“The Cattle Thief” n. pag.)

I recall doing a reading, trading lines, on a stage of the theatre of the Museum of Civilization in Hull, across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill, all of it accomplished dressed in street clothes, denim, cotton, and wool, not a feather in sight.

And a final moment from my memory or my imagination: here’s my sister again, without the canoe, although she may have used it to get there since this was probably before the bridge was built. She’s working one summer across the river as a guide in the Chiefswood mansion.

“Is it haunted?” I ask her.

Not by Pauline but by her sister Eva, goes the rumour. You could enter the empty sitting room at some quiet late point in the afternoon and the chair there in the corner would be rocking, rocking of its own accord.

“Did you see it, the chair?” I ask my sister.

“Me? No way,” she says. “I’m not the one who’s off my rocker.”


Pauline has never quite disappeared from my life.

On one bookshelf, there’s a copy of Pauline Johnson: Her Life and Work, Marcus Van Steen’s 1965 biography, probably a gift from my Grandmother Bee.

At one point I had thought I might try to write about Pauline and got ahold of Betty Keller’s 1981 Pauline: A Biography of Pauline Johnson. But I felt like I’d been beaten to the punch by Joan Crate with her 1989 book of poems Pale as Real Ladies: Poems for Pauline Johnson. And Pauline was, it seemed, in those feminist hazy days, the property only of women writers. So I stepped back and don’t think I even tried to find a copy of Sheila Johnston’s 1997 Buckskin & Broadcloth: A Celebration of E. Pauline Johnson—Tekahionwake 1861-1913.

And then Allan Collins, a movie editor who had also produced a few short film dramas, proposed we do a project together. Did I suggest Pauline or did he? I think he did. So I gathered all these materials and more and came up with what we hoped might be a different take on Pauline’s story. We were three, since we now had Vancouver-based Loretta Todd, a Métis woman director of documentaries who wanted to get into features, “attached to the project.”

In film, they’re always looking for the new but ending up with the old, another version of the Fear of Cliché aesthetic, I guess. I admit that my script was probably a bit literary but I thought I’d written a draft. I figured once we got the go-ahead, I’d just edit out all the flowery bits that I needed to feel the story out, but the script editors we worked with kept complaining about the style. “That’s not how you write a film!” They did give the playwright me points for my repartee.

But perhaps it was the challenge of a story that was historical, “a costume drama,” which would so up the financial ante, all those costumes, all those locations. That’s why all these years of Murdoch Mysteries deserve our admiration.

Was it, finally, that a movie about a relatively obscure woman of colour—teenagers hadn’t heard of her—just didn’t look viable? After all, who could carry such a millions-of-dollars property? There were no Native actresses with that sort of profile. Could we refocus the story on the white guy character and get Ethan Hawke? Yeah, he was an up-and-comer, that’s how long ago this was. Hawke might even be an Indian name. At length we ran out of development funding and I had learned a bit about the business of the movies.

Allan and his family shortly thereafter moved to the East Coast. When I get to Vancouver, I have a drink with Loretta if she’s in town. The project, though, disappeared. I want to say “like the morning mist on the Grand River in the light of the sun” just to affirm something of its qualities.

But after that, I did find that I had rediscovered my interest in Pauline, not just the history but—is this the right word?—the meme of her. So I know I chose to read Paddling Her Own Canoe: The Times and Texts of E. Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake (2000), by Veronica Strong-Boag and Carole Gerson. And then my civil-servant cousin, Judith, who was friends with Charlotte Gray, who put out Flint & Feather: The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake in 2002, got me my own autographed copy.

After my frustrating movie experience, all this Pauline stuff started to feel like the culture mocking me. And then someone pointed out to me a 2011 brand-new edition of Flint and Feather: Collected Verse by E. Pauline Johnson.

Okay, she’s just not going to go away, is she?

In just these last few months, when I noticed that the Agnes Etherington Gallery at Queen’s University, had included one of Pauline’s performing costumes in its spring exhibit on images of women artists—that little broadcloth dress, decorated with silver Iroquois brooches and fur, with the bear claw necklace to top off the ensemble—I had to see it; when I stood there in the gallery, I realized that what I wanted to gather were clues to her size. Five feet and a bit, probably about average for women of her generation. How small was she and yet she made such a splash!

And then I was asked, as part of a gathering on Manitoulin Island held by the De-Ba-Jeh-Mu-Jig Theatre Group and the National Arts Centre English Theatre, to help discuss a play the Turtle Gals had once put together, The Triple Truth, about the dilemma of the show business Indian, having to embody the mainstream’s images of Indians and women but to still somehow be true to themselves as Indigenous individual artists. Of the four characters presented, one was Pauline, defending herself from accusations of being a sell-out with her strategy of presenting her show in two acts, one in which she dressed as a contemporary Victorian woman and one in which she dressed to evoke but not illustrate her aboriginality. Who comes up with that savvy liminal strategy, who does that trick? Do you believe your eyes or your preconceptions?

And then there was the historic poster encouraging tourism to Vancouver in the early twentieth century I saw at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario. It featured the emblematic West Coast totem pole, of course, but also and without comment had an image of the E. Pauline Johnson Memorial with its cameo portrait on the stone that one finds near Siwash Rock in Stanley Park. Is the thing just a memorial or is she actually the lone person who’s buried there in the park? A poet got such a public memorial in the early twentieth century, when most such stones were put up to remember royalty or politicians or military heroes. And that memorial was assumed by the makers of that travel poster to be one of the sights of Vancouver that the traveller needed to see.

And this note from moments ago, really, 26 August 2015, on the Two Row Times site:

The Fish Quill Poetry Boat’s 5th annual Fish Quill Canoe Tour . . . musicians and poets who travel via canoe visiting . . . communities alongside the Grand River. . . . “Actually the inspiration for the tour was originally Pauline Johnson and her poem ‘The Song My Paddle Sings,’” tour coordinator Dana Sipos explains. (Monture n. pag.)

Pretty persistent a presence in the broader culture for someone once dismissed as “half-white,” who “somehow didn’t rate as the real thing.” So is she an unreal thing? Or a human thing, outside the limitations of race or even almost gender.

Hey, a couple years ago, she became unreal enough that even Ms. Atwood, I’ve heard, found her own way back—or forward—to Pauline and wrote a libretto about E. P. J. and her sister Eva.


There was a time I thought I knew what was going on, understood enough of it, the process by which culture shifts and changes. I am probably remembering a sociological study that talked about the effect of the first satellite television signals, their content, on the communities of Inuit that had been assembled by moving the people in off the land into those newly created institutions, towns, which the Canadian government found much easier to administer.

There was a time I imagined all these folks no longer practising their ancient economy and customs, hunting and gathering no longer the spiritual centre of their lives. I imagined them faced with black and white and certainly spooky images on tiny screens. All the consumerism of southern culture, the strange behaviours of the people portrayed in stories about products no Inuk could afford or find any real use for, how were they to know it wasn’t a documentary, the truth? How were they to know what they saw as both overwhelming and puzzling was a slow-mo wave that even we who live in it also have to resist? A tsunami of meaning or chaos, it’s all in whether you find yourself facing it or riding it. I imagined feeling lost and frightened by this inundating strangeness and thought it all made horrible sense that there would be, as there still is in their and many of our poorer communities (who can afford this stuff?), a plague of suicides. It made a horrible sort of sense, this image of the cultural wave upturning the old and not giving us time to find our footing. This understanding was something to stand on.

It became part of that different take on Pauline’s story I’d found. When I had tried to write that movie which I called “West Wind” after the invocation she herself wrote in her most famous poem, I had a similar cultural shift in mind, a wave or a wind, in her time most incorporated by Sir John A.’s railway from sea to sea, clearing the plains of its traditional people and buffalo. The people living in the vicinity of the third sea we talk about today had to wait for the technology of television before being inundated in the flood of Canada, twisted up in and half strangled by the net of the Dominion. Or as they called the event back in Pauline’s day, the Frontier.

In the précis of Pauline’s life I’d developed, her overall movement was westerly, almost as if she, too, travelled in response to that old instruction to the extra sons of a certain class, “Go west, young man.” Yes, like a man or a warrior, hunting and gathering and bringing stuff back, this Mohawk woman went out into the world and made her way and made her name.

My director, Loretta, and my producer, Allan, wanted this former tomboy—imagine her in her canoe “Wild Cat” on the rapidly flowing Grand River, imagine some spot where she encounters joyfully the rapids the poem celebrates—to be a bit more of a lady. More conventional women, perhaps like her sister Eva, do perceive her story as doubly tragic in that not only did she die young, she also died unmarried. (I do point out that fifty-two years of age isn’t exactly young even in our era, but we are dealing now with the story, the myth of Pauline, more than her actuality.)

Imagine her equally maiden sister Eva sighing after the family’s name when Pauline came home on a rare occasion with money but no ring on that finger. Neither brother left any heirs, either, at least to speak of.

Pauline, according to the story of history, did, for a time, enjoy an engagement. But then it didn’t happen, the marriage, no explanation, and so it was that void into which, I suggested to Loretta and Allan, I could try to throw some light. Make forceful Pauline the heroine of a sort of reversed Harlequin Romance—all those love poems could mean something more than hormones. That would make a movie.

And I did find her Bobby, a young Victorian English Canadian businessman chafing at the bourgeois restraints of his upwardly mobile Toronto family. That’s why he’d taken that job in Winnipeg where I have him intrigued by Pauline’s theatricality both on the winter street and on the performing stage. He’s attracted to this surprisingly worldly, by then modern woman—my story starts days before the New Year in 1897. She’s his vision of the coming century. And Pauline finds someone courtly as her father who she enjoys teasing—she likes the way he at first blushes—although perhaps it’s largely because he’s of a class her mother, in her dotage, would approve of.

What I had in mind, beneath the surface of romance, was to find the reason Pauline had gone west, ending up on the coast, an inhabitant of Vancouver and friend to Chief Joe Capilano. Her book Legends of Vancouver, “a classic of Canadian children’s and native literature,” including her rendition of “The Legend of Siwash Rock,” is one result. Was Chief Joe for her a replacement for the grandfather and family, the roots she’d left behind? Pauline had gone west, riding that wave of transforming culture, following the trajectory of the frontier. She was, with two cultures, her Mohawk father’s chiefly assumptions and her mother’s English middle class, the incarnation of that changing frontier reality, a liminal creature, the child of the Dominion and Indian all in one, a confederation in herself, nothing halfway or half-breed about her. Hey, that’s a practical Mohawk. Canada had been made a reality mere years after her birth. John A. Macdonald should have paid her example some attention.

Unfortunately for my reversed romance of “West Wind,” it’s that unconventional doubled culture—recall that her Mohawk name, Tekahionwake, is translated as “Double Wampum”—that finally becomes something Bobby can’t deal with, that new braiding a confusing binocular vision, and his father’s attitude toward Pauline as “just a bit of brown.” Did that set of conventionally ugly motivations kill the funding stream deal for Loretta and Allan and me as well?

But what did all that have to do with the reality of her as a woman of a certain age in that era? I didn’t find evidence of her coming home much to her mother and sister in that little house they’d retreated to on Napoleon Street in Brantford. Once Pauline’s father passed and with her brothers, one dead and the other gone out into the world, there was no way the women could keep up the mansion. Polly may not have been able to afford to visit, always on the road, performing, earning a living, sending anything extra home, though Eva was also probably earning something, say, as a bookkeeper.

But I imagine Pauline coming home as she was entering her middle age, still having to deal with those questions we all get but of which women are particularly the focus. Are you seeing anyone? Are you engaged? As she got older, perhaps that was the reason she retreated from the pressures of her career and her family to the far end of the frontier, as west as you can get and still be here in the Dominion.

And then there is that final image of her funeral, the members of Chief Capilano’s community along with hundreds of others lining the Vancouver streets to watch the cortège pass by. Who was this woman that she could inspire such sombre celebration, such memorialization? The evidence of her life that still surrounds us does not suggest failure. How about an artist’s triumph? May we, some of us, do as much. May her example, all these years later still, give us some direction. Can we be somehow, even us guys, like the lady in question?

I started this investigation when I wanted to finally write a poem about a visit I had made to Alberta more than a decade ago. “The Song My Paddle Sings” and something of Pauline arrived, helping me be both there again and here.


A Ride Like Miss Johnson’s “Wild Cat”


Who knew —not me, did you?— the wind

Would be this rough? Outside Lethbridge,

It blows, it cuffs, it rocks the truck,

Shoves it sideways toward the ditch and,


Dear Pol, it’s clear, this overcast

Afternoon, out here’s no easy

Lullaby drift. Out here we veer

Back toward the centre line, spraying


Gravel from a tire, the wind

Shield all a shudder, living

Up to its name. Ahead of us

A destination I won’t get


To ever, Big Chief Mountain bright

With snow in that dark Rocky range

Below a break in November’s

Cloud. Awake now to this foothill


Place, its force, that flat of parched grass

The driver points out to the right?

The Sun Dance grounds, of course. It all

Makes sense, close to the Great Divide.


How else would you praise the source of

The wind? Out here our mere canoes,

So true to the Grand River’s flow,

Need to unbraid their bravery.


Out here they offer their bodies,

With whistles and rattles and drums,

Their songs climbing onto branches

The wind reaches into the sky.


—July-October 2015

Works Cited

  • “E. Pauline Johnson.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 28 Mar. 2017. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
  • Johnson, Emily Pauline. “The Cattle Thief.” The White Wampum. Toronto, 1895. Canadian Poetry. Canadian Poetry Press. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.
    —. Legends of Vancouver. Kingston: Quarry, 1991. Print.
    —. “Lullaby of the Iroquois.” Canadian Born. Toronto, 1903. Canadian Poetry. Canadian Poetry Press. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
    —. “The Song My Paddle Sings.” The White Wampum. Toronto, 1895. Canadian Poetry. Canadian Poetry Press. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
  • Monture, Lindsay. “Chiefswood National Historic Site rounds off the 2015 Fish Quill Canoe Tour.” Two Row Times. 26 Aug. 2016. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
  • Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Raven.” 1845. Poetry Foundation. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.


[1] This paper was first delivered as a keynote address at “The Arts of Community,” the inaugural gathering of the Indigenous Literary Studies Association (ILSA) at Six Nations Polytechnic in Six Nations of the Grand River Territory (1 October 2015). The signifiers of that oral delivery are retained in this print version to stress the importance of the community context within the author’s home territory.

[2] Unless otherwise indicated, quoted lines of poetry in this paper’s first section are from “The Song My Paddle Sings” (n. pag.).

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