Born on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, in 1861, Pauline was the daughter of a Mohawk father and an English mother. She was educated in an informal setting, and read the English poets, Byron, Scott, Keats, Tennyson and the American poet, Longfellow. She learned about her father’s family history and the legends told by her grandfather.
She first began to publish poems in 1884, and two of her poems appeared in Songs of the Great Dominion, one of the first anthologies of Canadian poetry, in 1889. She was praised as being an "authentic" Native voice, a notion reinforced by her performances. For half of her readings, Pauline would appear wearing traditional Native dress; the other half she would wear traditional Victorian attire. She was a popular and compelling performer, touring Canada, the United States and England.
The white wampum was published in 1895, and her other volumes of poetry were Canadian Born (1903) and Flint and Feather (1912). After she retired from touring, she published Legends of Vancouver, a collection of short pieces told to her by Joe Capilano, a Squamish Chief. Two other collections of her writings appeared after her death in 1913. Although more widely known as a poet, Pauline also wrote adventure stories for the juvenile market.
Pauline Johnson is a complicated part of Canadian literary history. While some call her poems "derivative and shallow" copies of the Confederation Poets, others champion her as the first Native voice in Canadian literature. She was the first Canadian woman, Indian and writer to be honored with a commemorative stamp in 1961. Others question her authenticity as a Native poet/voice, citing that she celebrated European culture and values. But she was aware of the negative situation of Natives in Canada, and a number of her poems reflect that reality, even if they are written in a more European style of poetry. In 1886, she changed her name to Tekahionwake, after her Grandfather. Her attempts to resolve both her Native and European heritage was also a subject of some of her poems. (Lee Skallerup)
Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services