Pauline Johnson / “Tekahionwake”: “Let her be natural”

ZP_E. Pauline Johnson gathered together her complete poems, though others have since been discovered, for publication in 1912, the year before her death.  In her Author's Forward to Flint and Feather she writes:  This collection of verse I have named Flint and Feather because of the association of ideas.  Flint suggests the Red man's weapons of war, it is the arrow tip, the heart-quality of mine own people, let it therefore apply to those poems that touch upon Indian life and love. The lyrical verse herein is as a Skyward floating feather, Sailing on summer air.  And yet that feather may be the eagle plume that crests the head of a warrior chief;  so both flint and feather bear the hall-mark of my Mohawk blood._Book jacket shown here is from a 1930s edition of Flint and Feather.

ZP_E. Pauline Johnson gathered together her complete poems, though others have since been discovered, for publication in 1912, the year before her death. In her Author’s Forward to Flint and Feather she writes: This collection of verse I have named Flint and Feather because of the association of ideas. Flint suggests the Red man’s weapons of war, it is the arrow tip, the heart-quality of mine own people, let it therefore apply to those poems that touch upon Indian life and love. The lyrical verse herein is as a Skyward floating feather, Sailing on summer air. And yet that feather may be the eagle plume that crests the head of a warrior chief; so both flint and feather bear the hall-mark of my Mohawk blood._Book jacket shown here is from a 1930s edition of Flint and Feather.

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

encampment lay,

Where the cotton woods fringed the river, miles and

miles away.

Mistake him? Never! Mistake him? the famous

Eagle Chief!

That terror to all the settlers, that desperate Cattle

Thief –

That monstrous, fearless Indian, who lorded it over

the plain,

Who thieved and raided, and scouted, who rode like

a hurricane!

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

blood aflame,

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

Cattle Thief.

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,”

said he;

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

triumphant yell,

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

earliest babyhood:

“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

only claim.

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

your race.

What have you left to us of land, what have you

left of game,

What have you brought but evil, and curses since

you came?

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

starving man.

You say your cattle are not ours, your meat is not

our meat;

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.”

.     .     .

ZP_Studio photographic portrait of Pauline Johnson, 1902

ZP_Studio photographic portrait of Pauline Johnson, 1902

“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.


.     .     .


“The Wolf”


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.

.     .     .     .     .

Pauline Johnson: “I do not feel the thorns so much today…”


Pauline Johnson (“Tekahionwake”)

(Ontario Mohawk poet, 1861-1913)

“Brier: Good Friday”



Because, dear Christ, your tender, wounded arm

Bends back the brier that edges life’s long way,

That no hurt comes to heart, to soul no harm,

I do not feel the thorns so much today.


Because I never knew your care to tire,

Your hand to weary guiding me aright,

Because you walk before and crush the brier,

It does not pierce my feet so much tonight.


Because so often you have hearkened to

My selfish prayers, I ask but one thing now,

That these harsh hands of mine add not unto

The crown of thorns upon your bleeding brow.