The last time we posted about the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection was in November, and Mike happened to mention a 1931 biography called The Mohawk Princess. The subject of that biography was E. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913) also known as Tekahionwake. Thanks to the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg collection, we now hold first edition copies of all six of Johnson’s books. Johnson was one of the first Native American women to publish poetry and prose, and “one of Canada’s leading poets of the late nineteenth century…notable because she celebrated her Mohawk heritage at a time when it was not fashionable; she wrote about the Canadian landscape from a native perspective.”¹
Emily Pauline Johnson was born on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario. Her father was a Mohawk leader named George Henry Martin Johnson and her mother was Emily Susanna Howells, born in England. Johnson’s writing style reflects the influence of the English Romantics as well as stories learned from her paternal grandfather. Johnson published poems in newspapers and magazines in the 1880s and 1890s.
Beginning in 1892, she began to perform her works at “literary evenings” and recitals. The money she made from these performances financed her first trip to England in 1894. “…She carried numerous letters of introduction which opened doors of London society to her. Both as a performer and as a guest at many social evenings given by aristocratic London hostesses, she was the hit of the season…[London] granted her the status of being “both the cultivated lady and the princess from the primeval forests” that she had been trying so hard to establish in Canada. In London she also achieved her goal of finding a publisher for her poetry manuscript when the Bodley Head, foremost publisher of all new English poetry, accepted The White Wampum.”²
She continued to perform readings (including on the Chautauqua circuit) all across North America throughout her life, until forced to stop by her battle with cancer. In her final years, she published three books of prose stories and essays. She had settled in Vancouver, and some of her best work came from a collaboration with Joe Capilano, a Squamish chief. She published the stories in the Vancouver Daily Province, and then gathered them together in Legends of Vancouver in 1911. As she explains in her foreword to the volume:
These legends (with two or three exceptions) were told to me personally by my honored friend, the late Chief Joe Capilano, of Vancouver, whom I had the privilege of first meeting in London … To the fact that I was able to greet Chief Capilano in the Chinook tongue, while we were both many thousands of miles from home, I owe the friendship and the confidence which he so freely gave me when I came to reside on the Pacific Coast. These legends he told me from time to time, just as the mood possessed him, and he frequently remarked that they had never been revealed to any other English-speaking person save myself.
When she died in March of 1913, her funeral procession in Vancouver passed by mourners lining the streets, public offices were closed and flags flew at half-mast. Her ashes were buried in Stanley Park. If your curiosity is peaked, and you want to learn more, I highly recommend Charlotte Gray’s biography Flint and Feather: The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake (2002).
¹ “Johnson, Emily Pauline,” American Indian Biographies, Rev. ed., (Salem Press, 2005), 235.
² Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown, Introduction to The Moccasin Maker, by E. Pauline Johnson, (Univ. of Arizona Press, 1987), 8-9.