Pauline Johnson Public School to open time capsules on Friday to celebrate a 50th anniversary and the Indigenous author the school was named after.

News 100 yellowBy Pepper Parr

June 5th, 2018

BURLINGTON, ON

 

She was half white and was neglected as part of the indigenous culture that was beginning to be recognized when Margaret Atwood wrote Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature in 1972.

At its publication, Atwood said she could not find Native works. She mused, “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.

The Pauline Johnson Public School in Burlington was opened in 1968 at a time when schools were being built to accommodate a growing population. This Friday the school will celebrate its 50th anniversary by opening two time capsules; the  25th Anniversary capsule laid down in 1993 and the Millennium Year capsule laid down in 2000.

Pauline in native dress

A successful writer and performer who was forgotten for a period of time Pauline Johnson is once again being fully recognized.

Emily Pauline Johnson (also known in Mohawk as Tekahionwake –pronounced: dageh-eeon-wageh, literally: ‘double-life’, was born in March 1861. Commonly known as Pauline Johnson, she was a Canadian writer and performer popular in the late 19th century. Johnson was notable for her poems and performances that celebrated her Aboriginal heritage; her father was a hereditary Mohawk chief of mixed ancestry. She also drew from English influences, as her mother was an English immigrant. One such poem is the frequently anthologized “The Song My Paddle Sings”.

Her poetry was published in Canada, the United States and Great Britain; she was one of a generation of widely read writers who began to define a Canadian literature. While her literary reputation declined after her death, since the later 20th century, there has been renewed interest in her life and works.

Chiefswood-300x300

Chiefswood, Johnson’s childhood home is now a National Monument in Brantford, Ontario

Pauline Johnson was born at Chiefswood, the family home built by her father in 1856 on his 225-acre estate at the Six Nations reserve outside Brantford, Ontario. She was the youngest of four children of Emily Susanna Howells Johnson (1824–1898), a native of England, and George Henry Martin Johnson (1816–1884), a Mohawk hereditary clan chief. His mother, Helen Martin, was of partial Dutch descent and born into the Wolf clan; his maternal grandmother, Catherine Rolleston, was a Dutch girl who became assimilated as Mohawk after being taken captive and adopted by a Wolf clan family.

Although both their families were opposed to Emily and George Johnson’s marriage, and the couple were concerned that their own mixed-race family would not be socially accepted, they were acknowledged as a leading Canadian family. The Johnsons enjoyed a high standard of living, and their family and home were well known. Chiefswood was visited by such intellectual and political guests as the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, painter Homer Watson, noted anthropologist Horatio Hale, and Lady and Lord Dufferin, Governor General of Canada.

performance dress

One of the native costumes Pauline Johnson wore on stage.

Emily and George Johnson encouraged their four children to respect and learn about both the Mohawk and the English aspects of their heritage. Because the children were born to a Native father, by British law they were legally considered Mohawk and wards of the British Crown. But under the Mohawk kinship system, because their mother was not Mohawk, they were not born into a tribal clan; they were excluded from important aspects of the tribe’s matrilineal culture. Their paternal grandfather John Smoke Johnson, who had been elected an honorary Pine Tree Chief, was an authority in the lives of his grandchildren. He told them many stories in the Mohawk language, which they comprehended but did not speak fluently. Pauline Johnson said that she inherited her talent for elocution from her grandfather. A sickly child, Johnson did not attend Brantford’s Mohawk Institute.

postage stamp

Postage stamp issued to honour Pauline Johnson

At the age of 14, Johnson went to Brantford Central Collegiate with her brother Allen. She graduated in 1877.

During the 1880s, Johnson wrote and performed in amateur theatre productions. She enjoyed the Canadian outdoors, where she traveled by canoe. In 1883 she published her first full-length poem, “My Little Jean”, in the New York Gems of Poetry. She began to increase the pace of her writing and publishing afterward.

Shortly after her father’s death in 1884, the family rented out Chiefswood. Pauline moved with her widowed mother and sister to a modest home in Brantford. She worked to support them all, and found that her stage performances allowed her to make a living. Johnson supported her mother until her death in 1898.

Brant was always pretty good at getting grants from the British, but this Council probably isn’t going to hear his argument.

“Ode to Brant” was written to mark the unveiling in Brantford of a statue honoring Joseph Brant.

Johnson promoted her identity as a Mohawk, but as an adult spent little time with people of that culture.

In 1886, Johnson was commissioned to write a poem to mark the unveiling in Brantford of a statue honoring Joseph Brant, the important Mohawk leader who was allied with the British during and after the American Revolutionary War. Her “Ode to Brant” was read at a 13 October ceremony before “the largest crowd the little city had ever seen.

The poem sparked a long article in the Toronto Globe, and increased interest in Johnson’s poetry and heritage. The Brantford businessman William F. Cockshutt read the poem at the ceremony, as Johnson was reportedly too shy.

Evening gown

Pauline Johnson used both native dress and traditional gowns in her stage performances.

Johnson retired from the stage in August 1909 and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia to continue writing. In 1911, to help support Johnson, who was ill and poor, a group of friends organized the publication of these stories under the title Legends of Vancouver. They remain classics of that city’s literature.

One of the stories was a Squamish legend of shape shifting: how a man was transformed into Siwash Rock “as an indestructible monument to Clean Fatherhood”. In another, Johnson told the history of Deadman’s Island, a small islet off Stanley Park. In a poem in the collection, she named one of her favourite areas “Lost Lagoon”, as the inlet seemed to disappear when the water emptied at low tide. The body of water has since been transformed into a permanent, fresh-water lake at Stanley Park, but it is still called “Lost Lagoon”.

native beauty

Pauline Johnson was a remarkably beautiful woman who made a lasting contribution to our understanding and appreciation of Indigenous culture.

Johnson died of breast cancer in Vancouver, British Columbia on 7 March 1913. Her funeral (the largest until then in Vancouver history) was held on what would have been her 52nd birthday. Her ashes were buried near Siwash Rock in Stanley Park. In 1922 a cairn was erected at the burial site, with an inscription reading in part, “in memory of one whose life and writings were an uplift and a blessing to our nation”.

In 1961, on the centennial of her birth, Johnson was celebrated with a commemorative stamp bearing her image, “rendering her the first woman (other than the Queen), the first author, and the first aboriginal Canadian to be thus honored.

Johnson was one of the five finalists of significant women to be featured on Canadian banknotes, a contest eventually won by Viola Desmond.

Burlington’s Pauline Johnson Public School is one of four on Ontario to bear the name of this famous Canadian.

On Friday afternoon the students, staff, alumni and local dignitaries will take part in the opening of the time capsules and honouring the author. Members of the indigenous community will take part in the event.

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