Emily Pauline Johnson, the Canadian poet and performer, died from breast cancer in Vancouver, B.C. on March 7, 1913 just three days before her 52nd birthday.
Johnson, also known by her indigenous name Tekahionwake, was born in 1861 on the Six Nations reserve in Ontario where her father was a hereditary Mohawk chief. Her mother was a white woman who had come to Canada as a child with her British Quaker father.
Being mixed-race put Johnson in an odd position on the reserve. Legally she was considered to be an “Indian” and subject to governmental control and restrictions. But the native traditions of tribal acceptance and kinship were matrilineal; despite her father’s influential position on the reserve Johnson and her siblings were excluded from many tribal activities.
Through her mother Johnson became a great lover of poetry. The family had a large library and Johnson read widely among the Romantic poets — Byron, Keats and Shelley — as well as Tennyson and Longfellow.
Johnson began writing poems in her early twenties after she moved off the reserve to nearby Brantford after her father’s death. She was regularly published in newspapers and magazines in Toronto, particularly in the weekly Saturday Night.
Some of her early poems took on First Nations themes, such as “A Cry from an Indian Wife” in 1885 about the Riel Rebellion, but most were about nature and the Canadian landscape.
She began to offer recitals of her poetry in Toronto and they became very popular. In 1889 she decided to add a new dramatic feature to her recitals.
Inspired by the immense popularity of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show which had just passed through Brantford and Toronto she decided to appear in a buckskin “Indian Princess” costume.
As Charlotte Gray, Johnson’s biographer, noted, Johnson’s eventual costume was “both sexy and symbol-laden, seductive and misleading.”
Johnson decorated her costume with actual artifacts such as two wampum belts, a bear claw necklace, her father’s hunting knife and a Huron scalp that her grandfather had owned, but threw it all together in an inauthentic hodgepodge.
“This entirely synthetic creation answered all Johnson’s theatrical needs,” said Gray. “It combined glitter and shapely femininity (the skirt was daringly short) with a fit that allowed the poet to loosen her corset, take deeper breaths and project a stronger voice.”
Johnson criss-crossed Canada and the northern United States with her recitals which became dramatic performance pieces highlighting her mixed heritage.
She appeared in the first half in her Native costume and recited her poems on First Nations themes. During intermission she changed and reappeared as a proper young Victorian woman for her lyric poetry.
Johnson’s fame went into eclipse after her death. Her reputation has grown in the past half century, as much for her importance as a performer, a feminist role model, and a Native rights activist as for the lasting value of her published poetry.