What does the War of 1812 in Niagara have to do with a Canadian writer, who was nominated in 2016 to have her photograph on newly commissioned Canadian money?
E. Pauline Johnson (1861 – 1913) (Tekahionwake) was a gifted poet, born on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario to a Mohawk chieftain father and a British mother. Her father was a gifted linguist and a talented, inspirational leader. Her mother was an educated Quaker with famous literary relatives. And her grandfather, John Johnson (1792 – 1886) was a famous elocutionist who spent many hours educating and inspiring his granddaughter.
While her father, George Johnson was alive, Pauline enjoyed a life of relative privilege in the beautiful Chiefswood House he had built on the reserve for his wife, Emily. Their mixed race marriage was disapproved by both sides of their family, but their love persisted and the marriage flourished. Emily was home schooled, attended the Mohawk Institute and traveled to Brantford Collegiate for a high school education.
After the death of her father, Emily and her mother moved off the reserve and rented an apartment in town. Times were tough. She was single, considered ‘native’ by the townsfolk, and she had to somehow make a living. She remembered the stories grandfather - John Johnson had told her and she began to write poetry. Her poems became popular and were published in the Globe, The Week, Saturday Night, numerous other papers and magazines on both sides of the border.
Grandfather had taught Pauline how to memorize and recite lengthy pieces, and she began giving dramatic public recitations. She made herself a pale buckskin skirt and bodice, decorated with fringe, beading and silver pieces and she wore a necklace of bear claws. She was considered an exotic curiosity by the crowds that heard her speak across Canada, the United States and in London, England.
Her poetry captured the beauty of nature, the legends of her ancestors, the challenges of racism and the need for reconciliation and justice for her people. The conclusion of her performance was delivered in formal Victorian finery. She lived in both worlds – native and white. Her chosen Mohawk name, Tekahionwake, means double wampum – or ‘double life’. Her grandfather’s other name was Sakeyengwaraton – meaning Smoke.
In the War of 1812, along with other members of the Six Nations, Smoke Johnson fought with General Brock at the Battle of Queenston Heights. Legend says Brock’s last words to his faithful followers was ‘Surgite’ (Press/Fight on). The outnumbered natives held the Heights for hours until reinforcements arrived. Smoke was part of the troop that crossed the Niagara River on December 30, 1813 to avenge the earlier American burning of Newark. The legend says that Pauline’s grandfather, Smoke Johnson lit the torch that started the fire to burn down Buffalo.
After years of struggling with finances and poor health, Pauline Johnson retired to Vancouver. When she learned that she was terminally ill with breast cancer, she wrote a farewell poem inspired by Tennyson, entitled, “And He Said, ‘Fight on.’” But Smoke’s experience with General Brock at Queenston Heights inspired her courage, throughout her unique, challenging and creative life.
“And He Said, ‘Fight On’”
E. Pauline Johnson
Time and its ally, Dark Disarmament,
Have compassed me about,
Have massed their armies, and on battle bent
My forces put to rout;
But though I fight alone, and fall, and die,
Talk terms of Peace? Not I.
They war upon my fortress, and their guns
Are shattering its walls;
My army plays the cowards’ part, and runs,
Pierced by a thousand balls;
They call for my surrender. I reply,
“Give quarter now? Not I.”
They’ve shot my flag to ribbons, but in rents
It floats above the height;
Their ensign shall not crown my battlements
While I can stand and fight.
I fling defiance at them as I cry,
“Capitulate? Not I.”
Sharon Frayne is a writer and artist. She is a member of the Canadian Author's Association, the Niagara Writer's Circle and the Pumphouse Art Gallery. She looks for the universal experience and the mystery in everyday things.