Pauline Johnson / “Tekahionwake”: “Let her be natural”Posted: April 11, 2013
Pauline Johnson / “Tekahionwake”
(1861 – 1913, born at Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, Ontario, Canada)
“The Cattle Thief”
They were coming across the prairie, they were
galloping hard and fast;
For the eyes of those desperate riders had sighted
their man at last –
Sighted him off to Eastward, where the Cree
Where the cotton woods fringed the river, miles and
Mistake him? Never! Mistake him? the famous
That terror to all the settlers, that desperate Cattle
That monstrous, fearless Indian, who lorded it over
Who thieved and raided, and scouted, who rode like
But they’ve tracked him across the prairie; they’ve
followed him hard and fast;
For those desperate English settlers have sighted
their man at last.
Up they wheeled to the tepees, all their British
Bent on bullets and bloodshed, bent on bringing
down their game;
But they searched in vain for the Cattle Thief: that
lion had left his lair,
And they cursed like a troop of demons – for the women
alone were there.
“The sneaking Indian coward,” they hissed; “he
hides while yet he can;
He’ll come in the night for cattle, but he’s scared
to face a man.”
“Never!” and up from the cotton woods rang the
voice of Eagle Chief;
And right out into the open stepped, unarmed, the
Was that the game they had coveted? Scarce fifty
years had rolled
Over that fleshless, hungry frame, starved to the
bone and old;
Over that wrinkled, tawny skin, unfed by the
warmth of blood.
Over those hungry, hollow eyes that glared for the
sight of food.
He turned, like a hunted lion: “I know not fear,”
And the words outleapt from his shrunken lips in
the language of the Cree.
“I’ll fight you, white-skins, one by one, till I
kill you all,” he said;
But the threat was scarcely uttered, ere a dozen
balls of lead
Whizzed through the air about him like a shower
of metal rain,
And the gaunt old Indian Cattle Thief dropped
dead on the open plain.
And that band of cursing settlers gave one
And rushed like a pack of demons on the body that
writhed and fell.
“Cut the fiend up into inches, throw his carcass
on the plain;
Let the wolves eat the cursed Indian, he’d have
treated us the same.”
A dozen hands responded, a dozen knives gleamed
But the first stroke was arrested by a woman’s
strange, wild cry.
And out into the open, with a courage past
She dashed, and spread her blanket o’er the corpse
of the Cattle Thief;
And the words outleapt from her shrunken lips in
the language of the Cree,
“If you mean to touch that body, you must cut
your way through me.”
And that band of cursing settlers dropped
backward one by one,
For they knew that an Indian woman roused, was
a woman to let alone.
And then she raved in a frenzy that they scarcely
Raved of the wrongs she had suffered since her
“Stand back, stand back, you white-skins, touch
that dead man to your shame;
You have stolen my father’s spirit, but his body I
You have killed him, but you shall not dare to
touch him now he’s dead.
You have cursed, and called him a Cattle Thief,
though you robbed him first of bread –
Robbed him and robbed my people – look there, at
that shrunken face,
Starved with a hollow hunger, we owe to you and
What have you left to us of land, what have you
left of game,
What have you brought but evil, and curses since
How have you paid us for our game? how paid us
for our land?
By a book, to save our souls from the sins you
brought in your other hand.
Go back with your new religion, we never have
Your robbing an Indian’s body, and mocking his
soul with food.
Go back with your new religion, and find – if find
you can –
The honest man you have ever made from out a
You say your cattle are not ours, your meat is not
When you pay for the land you live in, we’ll pay
for the meat we eat.
Give back our land and our country, give back our
herds of game;
Give back the furs and the forests that were ours
before you came;
Give back the peace and the plenty. Then come
with your new belief,
And blame, if you dare, the hunger that drove him to
be a thief.”
. . .
“A Cry from an Indian Wife” (1885)
My forest brave, my Red-skin love, farewell;
We may not meet to-morrow; who can tell
What mighty ills befall our little band,
Or what you’ll suffer from the white man’s hand?
Here is your knife! I thought ’twas sheathed for aye.
No roaming bison calls for it to-day;
No hide of prairie cattle will it maim;
The plains are bare, it seeks a nobler game:
‘Twill drink the life-blood of a soldier host.
Go; rise and strike, no matter what the cost.
Yet stay. Revolt not at the Union Jack,
Nor raise Thy hand against this stripling pack
Of white-faced warriors, marching West to quell
Our fallen tribe that rises to rebel.
They all are young and beautiful and good;
Curse to the war that drinks their harmless blood.
Curse to the fate that brought them from the East
To be our chiefs – to make our nation least
That breathes the air of this vast continent.
Still their new rule and council is well meant.
They but forget we Indians owned the land
From ocean unto ocean; that they stand
Upon a soil that centuries agone
Was our sole kingdom and our right alone.
They never think how they would feel to-day,
If some great nation came from far away,
Wresting their country from their hapless braves,
Giving what they gave us – but wars and graves.
Then go and strike for liberty and life,
And bring back honour to your Indian wife.
Your wife? Ah, what of that, who cares for me?
Who pities my poor love and agony?
What white-robed priest prays for your safety here,
As prayer is said for every volunteer
That swells the ranks that Canada sends out?
Who prays for vict’ry for the Indian scout?
Who prays for our poor nation lying low?
None – therefore take your tomahawk and go.
My heart may break and burn into its core,
But I am strong to bid you go to war.
Yet stay, my heart is not the only one
That grieves the loss of husband and of son;
Think of the mothers o’er the inland seas;
Think of the pale-faced maiden on her knees;
One pleads her God to guard some sweet-faced child
That marches on toward the North-West wild.
The other prays to shield her love from harm,
To strengthen his young, proud uplifted arm.
Ah, how her white face quivers thus to think,
Your tomahawk his life’s best blood will drink.
She never thinks of my wild aching breast,
Nor prays for your dark face and eagle crest
Endangered by a thousand rifle balls,
My heart the target if my warrior falls.
O! coward self I hesitate no more;
Go forth, and win the glories of the war.
Go forth, nor bend to greed of white men’s hands,
By right, by birth we Indians own these lands,
Though starved, crushed, plundered, lies our nation low…
Perhaps the white man’s God has willed it so.
Editor’s note: “the war” referred to in Johnson’s poem is The NorthWest Rebellion (or NorthWest Resistance) of 1885, led by Louis Riel.
. . .
Like a grey shadow lurking in the light,
He ventures forth along the edge of night;
With silent foot he scouts the coulie’s rim
And scents the carrion awaiting him.
His savage eyeballs lurid with a flare
Seen but in unfed beasts which leave their lair
To wrangle with their fellows for a meal
Of bones ill-covered. Sets he forth to steal,
To search and snarl and forage hungrily;
A worthless prairie vagabond is he.
Luckless the settler’s heifer which astray
Falls to his fangs and violence a prey;
Useless her blatant calling when his teeth
Are fast upon her quivering flank–beneath
His fell voracity she falls and dies
With inarticulate and piteous cries,
Unheard, unheeded in the barren waste,
To be devoured with savage greed and haste.
Up the horizon once again he prowls
And far across its desolation howls;
Sneaking and satisfied his lair he gains
And leaves her bones to bleach upon the plains.
. . .
“The Indian Corn Planter”
He needs must leave the trapping and the chase,
For mating game his arrows ne’er despoil,
And from the hunter’s heaven turn his face,
To wring some promise from the dormant soil.
He needs must leave the lodge that wintered him,
The enervating fires, the blanket bed–
The women’s dulcet voices, for the grim
Realities of labouring for bread.
So goes he forth beneath the planter’s moon
With sack of seed that pledges large increase,
His simple pagan faith knows night and noon,
Heat, cold, seedtime and harvest shall not cease.
And yielding to his needs, this honest sod,
Brown as the hand that tills it, moist with rain,
Teeming with ripe fulfilment, true as God,
With fostering richness, mothers every grain.
. . .
Emily Pauline Johnson (1861 – 1913) took on the Mohawk-language name Tekahionwake (meaning “double life”) around the time, as a young adult, she became aware of her ability not only as a woman who was writing poetry but also as a performer. Words such as transgressive and performativity – belovéd of academics in the 21st century – were words she mightn’t have known yet she “enacted” their meanings – and without the cadre of professionals to chatter about “who she really was”. And who was she – really? Well, she was complex – in some ways uncategorizable. A young woman who helped to support her widowed mother (her father, Brantford Six Nations Chief George Henry Martin Johnson (Onwanonsyshon) died in 1884) via the publication of her sentimental-exotic yet oddly-truthful poems; whose attachment to her father’s Native-ness was deeply felt during the onset of the Erasure Period chapter in First-Nations history in that New Nation – Canada. Pauline Johnson was mixed-race – Mohawk father of chieftain lineage, mother (Emily Susana Howells), a kind of English “rose” in a young British-colonial country. Enamoured of The Song of Hiawatha, and of Wacousta – Pauline was yet entranced by and deeply listened to the Native oral histories of John Smoke Johnson, her paternal grandfather. This was Pauline Johnson.
From about 1892 until 1909, Johnson, aided by impresario Frank Yeigh, toured as “The Mohawk Princess”, orating passionate poem-recitals while decked out in a mish-mashed Native costume which presented to Late-Victorian and Edwardian-era audiences a glamorous spectacle of Indian-ness. In the July/August 2012 issue of the Canadian magazine The Walrus, Emily Landau writes: “…and although her (Johnson’s) branding played into the stereotypes, her stories broke (the audiences) down.” Poems such as “The Indian Thief” and “A Cry from an Indian Wife” (both featured here) gave Native women a voice – using Victorian melodrama to present brief morality tales where what the Native woman says is right. Landau remarks that Johnson performed with “a mix of poise and campy histrionics. In a trademark flourish, she (would) shed the buckskin during intermission, returning in a staid silk evening gown and pumps, eliciting gasps from spectators as they marveled at the transformation. The two modes of dress served as an external manifestation of Johnson’s own dual identity: her (other) name, Tekahionwake, meant “double life” in Mohawk.”
Landau continues: “In an 1892 essay entitled “A Strong Race Opinion: On the Indian Girl in Modern Fiction,” Johnson called out white writers for their generic, latently racist depictions of Native femininity. Without fail, she says, the Indian girl, always named Winona or some such, has no tribal specificity, merely serving as a self-sacrificing, mentally unhinged outlet for the white hero’s magnanimity. Johnson entreated writers to give their “Indian girl” characters the same dignity and distinction as they did their white characters. “Let the Indian girl in fiction develop from the ‘dog-like,’ ‘fawn-like,’ ‘deer-footed,’ ‘fire-eyed,’ ‘crouching,’ ‘submissive’ book heroine into something of the quiet, sweet womanly woman if she is wild, or the everyday, natural, laughing girl she is if cultivated and educated; let her be natural,” she wrote, “even if the author is not competent to give her tribal characteristics.”
In her own act, Johnson drew from the dominant white theatrical modes. Melodrama, the most popular form in the late nineteenth century, was characterized by an excess of spectacle, histrionic gestures, and amplified emotions. With her over-the-top theatrics, she was a hit with crowds hungry for sentiment. One of her most popular stories, “A Red Girl’s Reasoning,” tells of a young half-Indian woman who leaves her husband after he refuses to recognize the legitimacy of her nation’s rituals; another heroine, the half-Cree Esther of “As It Was in the Beginning,” kills her faithless white lover.”
Johnson stopped touring in 1909. She had developed breast cancer, and worsening health led to early retirement. Settling in Vancouver, she still wrote – adapting stories as told to her by her friend, Squamish Chief Joseph Capilano. Johnson died in 1913; a monument – and her ashes – are in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
And – we quote Landau again: “…Enterprising as she was, Johnson was also an idealist. Her proud biracial identity, within which her Aboriginal and European selves peacefully coexisted, constituted an anomaly in an era when race was considered a fixed trait. The unified persona she presented onstage, nurtured in her childhood and reflected in her writings, represented more than just an amplified, campy theatrical ruse: it was a vision of what she imagined for Canada. Surveying Canada’s beaming multiculturalism today, flawed as it may be, Johnson seems like quite an oracle.”
We wish to thank editor Emily Landau of Toronto Life for her critical analysis of the career of Pauline Johnson.
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