Performing Presence: Pauline Johnson and Her Predecessors

Pauline Johnson (1861-1913) was the best known female Canadian poet of her time.

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.

From “Dawendine”

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.

However, a more recent study done by Professor Manina Jones and Dr. Neal Ferris (the Lawson Chair of Canadian Archaeology) suggests otherwise. When considered in the context of Haudenosaunee diplomatic tradition, Johnson becomes one of many to use language and costume as tools for negotiation.

Take, for example, Joseph Brant (c. 1742-1807), also known as Thayendanegea. As a leader for the Mohawk Nation during and after the American Revolutionary War,

Brant spoke and wrote fluent English with his British allies. He also adapted his clothes to different situations:  he wore a European suit for formal meetings with politicians, but changed to traditional dress during a visit to Fort Niagara. The suit displayed his cultural understanding and flexibility, while the traditional costume served as a reminder of the Six Nations’ alliance with the British military.

As well as asserting his own and other Nations’ presence in British North America, Brant’s public appearances drew on Mohawk and Haudenosaunee traditions which had existed before European settlers arrived. When the Six Nations and their allies met, they often performed traditional dances for each other and shared their history, crafts, and innovations. In the nineteenth century, Pauline Johnson shared her stories and culture through poetry.

Want to learn more about Pauline Johnson’s family and the history of Six Nations’ Reserve? Stay tuned for the second post in this series, “The Two Front Doors of Chiefswood,” coming soon!

Works Cited

Ferris, Neal and Manina Jones. “Flint, Feather and Other Material Selves: Negotiating the Performance Poetics of E. Pauline Johnson.” American Indian Quarterly. 41, 2, 2017. 33-157.

Ferris, Neal. Archaeology of Native-Lived Colonialism. University of Arizona Press, 2009.

Johnson, E. Pauline. “Dawendine.” The White Wampum. Toronto: The Copp Clark Co., 1895. 19-23.

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