- A Unity of Varied Particulars: Land, Language, Politics, and History in Finding Common Ground
We are living in a culture that wants us to think in the now and in the material world.… Our imagination allows us to go to places that may not be real, but are probably necessary for our humanity. I hope that I’m getting in contact with some of that.
Daniel David Moses, Delaware, from Six Nations of the Grand River(quoted in National Arts Centre 2006, 57)
This theme issue of the Journal of Canadian Studies grew out of the first Grand River Forum, held at Wilfrid Laurier University Brantford in October 2010. For this and other reasons soon to become clear, the reader is encouraged to take E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake (1861–1913), as this volume’s poet laureate or presiding spirit. Tekahionwake means “double-life” in Mohawk. She was a travelling minstrel, troubadour, or wandering poet who would wear Indigenous dress in her performance’s first half, and an English drawing-room gown after intermission; the hiatus allowed her to change identities, yet paradoxically she remained the same person, thus troubling her audience’s sense of White and Mohawk as opposite identities.
Born into a traditionally elite family on the Grand River at Six Nations, Johnson died far away in Vancouver. Chiefswood, the house in which she grew up, had two front doors, one facing the Grand, the region’s lifeline and thoroughfare for millennia, and the other the Brantford-to-Caledonia road, a newer route that was increasingly well-used. Her grandfather’s family had moved with other Iroquois east from what is now upstate New York after the American Revolutionary Wars; as Native peoples, the Johnsons were relative newcomers to the Grand River region. As Christians who saw negotiation and accommodation with Anglo-Canadian society a necessary if entangled path, they were also outsiders of questionable loyalty to traditionalists among the Six Nations. Johnson learned the art of oratory from her paternal grandfather Sakayengwaraton, Chief John “Smoke” Johnson, a gifted speaker who told the old cycles of songs [End Page 5] and stories in their original language. She had a “natural” stage presence that was also a product of long-standing Mohawk oratorical conventions. She could understand this language as a child, and promoted her Native identity as an adult, even as she would come to spend little time with Mohawk people and would never return to Brantford after her mother’s death.
Johnson’s father, George Henry Martin Johnson, was a Mohawk chief fluent in several Indigenous and European languages; his mother, Helen Martin, held the powerful inherited position of clan mother of the Wolf Clan, and was half-European by biological descent.1 Johnson’s English-born mother, Emily Howells, had joined her sister Eliza, wife of an Anglican missionary at Six Nations, where George Johnson was translating for the church and living in the parson-age. Their marriage sparked a scandal that left both families displeased. Johnson, with a Mohawk father, was considered Native by the Crown, while the principally matrilineal Mohawk society did not extend all hereditary rights and title to those born of an English mother. Her mother taught her the English poets and English drawing-room manners. Browning, Scott, Byron, Tennyson, and Keats were among her favourites, as was Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha; the latter provided one model for Johnson’s pan-Indigenous stage dress, which included several Haudenosaunee wampum belts once maintained and interpreted by her grandfather, and to which she would occasionally refer onstage. When her father died, still suffering the effects of a severe beating from six White liquor traders who shot him and left him for dead (Gray 2002, 80), the family was forced to sell Chiefswood and Johnson, her sister, and her mother moved to Brantford in 1884.
Johnson knew all about roughing it in Canada’s backwoods and was said to have crossed the Rockies 19 times. She travelled to England as a recitalist and to arrange publication of her work; she performed in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, the Atlantic provinces, and across the Prairies. She learned to...