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Paddling Her Own Canoe: The Times and Texts of Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake)

By Veronica Strong-Boag, Carole Gerson

November 4, 2013

Review By Armand Ruffo

POET, WRITER, storyteller, spokesperson, performer, actress, performance artist. Pauline Johnson is certainly the most public and popular writer that nineteenth-century Canada produced, and perhaps even the most public Canadian writer of the last century. Such is the fame that she embodies some ninety years after her death in 1913. And yet, despite this exposure, Johnson remains essentially an enigma. For as Veronica Strong-Boag and Carole Gerson state in the introduction to Paddling Her Own Canoe: The Times and Texts of E. Pauline Johnson, “the conversation between Johnson and her audiences did not end with her death. Authors from Earle Birney to Ethel Wilson, Margaret Atwood and Beth Brant continued to address her contributions. Their varying attention reflects their own knowledge, mostly fragmentary, of her work and history.” Because the idea of the “Indian” has continuously changed, as the society doing the gazing changes, so too does the perception of Johnson evolve. The question, therefore, becomes how to locate the essential subject while recognizing one’s own biases and shortcomings. From my reading it appears that there are two fundamental ways writers tend to approach biography. In laying out their copious, researched facts, they either try to enliven their narrative by employing many novelistic techniques in order to recreate particular episodes and scenes, or they take the opposite approach and simply present the facts. It is the latter approach to biography that academics Veronica Strong-Boag and Carole Gerson take: they focus specifically on the “texts and times” of Pauline Johnson rather than on her life per se. Where Strong-Boag and Gerson do probe Johnson’s life, it is always in relation to her written work and it always occurs within a spécifie context. To say that the authors have done a copious amount of research in unearthing every shred of writing by and about Johnson would not be an overstatement. As the text’s endnotes and bibliography indicate, they have gone to great lengths to track down everything from the earliest juvenilia to uncollected and scattered poems and articles from a variety of sources. 

This is not to say that the authors do not have an agenda. From the outset, they tell us that they are both “Euro-Canadian feminist academics – a literary critic and an historian” (5) who “both came to this shared project with long-standing commitments to recovering women in Canadian literature and history” (15). Their “unashamedly partisan” position is therefore aimed at analyzing Johnson’s writing to “return her to center stage” (ibid). To their credit, the authors do not presume to know more than they do. They make it clear that, upon Johnson’s death, many of her private papers were destroyed. They also note that nearly all of the sources for this text are non-Native, which makes for further gaps in the E. Pauline Johnson story. Nevertheless, by working closely with what is available, the authors engage “seriously and systematically” with the entire body of Johnson’s surviving work. Pointing out that the current reassessment of Johnson is due to contemporary interest in early Canadian literature by women and a renewed interest in Aboriginal peoples, the authors look to Johnson – a mix of Mohawk and United Empire Loyalist— as the nineteenth-century embodiment of Canada itself. 

What makes Paddling Her Own Canoe so interesting, then, is that the authors wade through the entire body of Johnson’s work to find clues to her “true” nature and identity, while being conscious of their “own making” of Johnson. Thus, beginning with her childhood on the Six Nations Reserve and moving on to her career as one of Canada’s major writers of her time, the authors document and analyze the facts of Johnson’s life through what one might call their nationalistic/feminist filter. 

So what exactly do the authors advance that we might not already know? Lots. Adhering to their text-based methodology, they begin with an overview of “The Politics of Race, the Six Nations and the Johnson Family” (19) and probe the dynamic between non-Native and Native peoples in the nineteenth century within the context of Johnson’s immediate milieu. We learn that the earliest events in Johnson’s life may have influenced what she later wrote. Likewise, we learn of the significance of the Christian “mixed-race elite” of that time, which was reflected in the Johnson family’s own dual heritage and the zealous Christianity of Johnson’s father, George Martin Johnson, an Anglican missionary and government interpreter. We realize why the Johnson family might have had to move off reserve after the death of Pauline’s father in 1884, when Pauline was only seventeen, ostensibly cutting her off from the Mohawk community. 

The authors also take special note of the “New Woman” movement of the nineteenth century and persuasively link Johnson to it. In providing evidence, they document her encounter with the suffragist Nellie McClung, her membership in the Canadian Women’s Press Club, her unorthodox relationships with men, and the network of women whom she befriended. We learn, however, that Johnson’s place in the movement is complicated because, although White middle-class women shared some issues with Aboriginal peoples, “most had too much invested in race privileges to accept Aboriginal peoples as their equals” (68). Accordingly, we are bound to ask how Johnson reconciled such contradictions in her life and writing. The authors tell us succinctly that, throughout her life, she faced this ongoing dilemma: how to be true to herself as a woman of Aboriginal heritage with close personal and professional links to Anglo-Canadian feminists. Hence, Johnson’s evolving persona as Native advocate/United Empire loyalist/ Indian Princess/Victorian Lady. 

What I personally found interesting in the subsection entitled “Lovers, Wives, and Mothers” is the authors’ statement that Johnson “dared to create young women who are much more physically expressive than their Euro-Canadian counterparts” (86). From their apparent survey of the literature of the time, Strong-Boag and Gerson even go so far as to claim that “Johnson extended Canadian literature’s range of emotional possibilities” (87). This is an aspect of her writing that has been largely ignored to date and, as the authors contend, was certainly overlooked in her time by the male-dominated literary establishment. 

Also equally remarkable is the prodigious literary output that Johnson managed in her short life. While citing the four books she published in her lifetime and the two published posthumously, the authors inform us that much of the poetry and prose she published in newspapers and magazines was never collected. This is confirmed in the text’s appendix by a comprehensive list of Johnson’s publications. If one considers the times in which she lived and the daily grind of performing in venues from one end of the country to the other, then Johnson’s achievement is quite astounding. This is made all the more impressive when we consider that she was a single woman – of Mohawk heritage – threatened by ill health. 

Johnson had a mission, and the scope of this mission is well documented. It is clear that she identified herself as a female Mohawk writer and was passionate about the Native cause. It is in examining her heritage in relationship to her writing and career that the authors’ take on Johnson becomes problematic. Quoting from reports of the time, they indicate that the “role of stage Indian inflected her public identity, as evidenced in the increase in the Native content and Native commitment of her work … Thus, to some extent, Johnson was a ‘woman who actually became her role'” (113). Given that Johnson found herself increasingly in the public eye as her career developed, and in a position to voice what really mattered to her, I find this observation troubling. It gives the impression that Johnson’s identity was as easily put on and taken off as were her costumes. It thus neglects the primacy of her Mohawk heritage (the significance of growing up with her grandfather Smoke Johnson, for example) during the formative stages of her life. Furthermore, as her career developed, and as she began to travel widely, she would have become politicized by virtue of seeing first-hand the abject poverty (“the growing misery of the prairie tribes” [214]) in which the vast majority of Aboriginal peoples lived. 

The authors further suggest that Johnson’s performance was unthreatening because of the sequence of her costumes: first the “wild Indian” and, second, the cultivated European lady. This is problematic because, from all reports (which the authors themselves acknowledge in the endnotes), Johnson did not always adhere to this order. In fact, she sometimes ended her performances dressed like a “wild Indian,” thus emphasizing her “Indianness.” This leads me to ask whether the authors’ biases (as stated themselves) have inadvertently led them to include Johnson’s Mohawk heritage under the umbrella of feminism. They would seem to substantiate this position by focusing on her English bloodline and noting that the bulk of her poetry makes no explicit reference to Aboriginal issues. Because the evidence of Johnson’s childhood is scanty and inconclusive (the earliest records were destroyed by her sister), and because much of her poetry is apolitical, it is easy to dismiss the profound impact that being even part Mohawk would have had on her in nineteenth-century Canada. 

The statement that “Johnson’s poetry forestalled the necessity to engage other Native Canadian voices” (115) also raises concern. While this may be true to some extent (Bernice Loft Winslow, Dawendine, was not published until her ninetieth year), one must consider that, at the time of Johnson’s death in 1913, the residential school system was doing its utmost to eradicate Aboriginal culture through government and church decree. That Johnson’s poetry survived to provide a voice to a disenfranchised and “voiceless” people is a testament to its durability – perhaps because it did arise out of the margin between two cultures – to its ability to survive blatant racism. It seems to me that, if the dominant culture was content to hear only Johnson’s voice over the ensuing years, then that speaks far more of the prevailing attitude of the time than of Johnson’s dominance as the representative Native poet of the period. The authors’ contention that “Modernism was most comfortable with Indians when they were cast as primitives” (129), and that Canadian modernists literally sweep Johnson’s work aside, is perhaps the most telling indication of what happened to the Native voice in the years following Johnson’s death. For if the most renowned Native poet was herself locked into the paradigm of “primitivism,” then how could there be room in a modern Canada for other Native writers? Still, as the authors point out, even in death Johnson managed to keep “Canadians from forgetting entirely the presence of a Native ‘Other’ in their midst” (216). 

What Veronica Strong-Boag and Carol Gerson’s text manages to do, then, considering their admission of their limitations, is to provide a thorough re-evaluation of Johnson’s life and work within the context of race and gender issues. By asserting a panoply of evidence that Johnson belongs at the forefront of Native literature and feminism in Canada, the authors successfully argue that the cultural and historical significance of her poetry and prose has been unjustly neglected. I say “successfully” because Paddling Her Own Canoe compels us to (re)turn to the primary sources themselves – in this case, the poems and stories of E. Pauline Johnson herself. And, in the final assessment, this is perhaps what the best biographies aspire to do. If only an inkling of the poet in Johnson had rubbed off on these two authors.