There’s a spirit on the river, there’s a ghost upon the shore,
And they sing of love and loving through the starlight evermore,
As they steal amid the silence,
And the shadows of the shore.
Pauline Johnson (1861-1913) was the best known female Canadian poet of her time. Born on the Six Nations Reserve in Brantford, Ontario, she learned Mohawk stories and traditions from her father, Chief George Johnson. Her mother, an English immigrant, taught her British literature. As an adult, Pauline Johnson drew on both sides of her heritage for her poetry, often writing on indigenous themes within the European poetic style. While many people enjoyed reading her work, Johnson became famous for her public appearances in which she performed in both a “Mohawk princess” costume and in a Victorian evening gown.
These costume changes have fascinated scholars for years. Some believe that Johnson acted as a “cultural mediator,” conveying indigenous culture and concerns such as land rights to her white audiences. Others criticise her praise of British colonial rule, or question whether she played into the common Euro-Canadian opinion that Native culture was on the path to extinction. Johnson’s “Mohawk princess” costume, they argue, was only meant to add exotic appeal.