Chiefswood: Ontario’s House of “Royalty”
It’s a delicious spring day and the Silcox National Historic Site bus is on the road. We’re heading to Brantford—the First Nation Reserve of Oshweken to be exact. Our destination is Chiefswood, the ancestral home of poet and performer E. Pauline Johnson.
As we approach the Site on the banks of the slow-moving Grand River, snippets of Pauline’s best-known poem “The Songs my Paddle Sings,” are called up from the depths of my six-decade-long memory.
West wind, blow from your prairie nest,
Blow from the mountains, blow from the west
The sail is idle, the sailor too;
O wind of the west, we wait for you!
Now you remember her from your own school days, don’t you—this half First Nation princess; half proper Victoria lady. And your memories aren’t that favourable are they? Like me, you were forced to study her poetry in high school and we found it sickly sentimental and flowery. Too bad the English teachers of the 1960’s didn’t tell us about the woman herself.
“Pauline Johnson was before her time,” I remark to my chauffeur. “She lived generations before social media, but still Pauline knew how to get attention. She was mysterious; she was beautiful; she had talent; she had chutzpa; but more than all this, Pauline Johnson knew how to court the media,” I add.
My driver,who doubles as navigator, dog-handler and purser agrees whole-heartedly.
We’re both hoping to get more insights into her larger-than-life character before we leave Chiefswood for home.
Born in 1861, Emily Pauline Johnson was the child of a mixed marriage. Her English mother, Emily Howells had married Mohawk George Henry Martin Johnson. Four children including Pauline were eventually born.
Now George Johnson was no ordinary mortal. Descended from the great Hiawatha, he was known in diplomatic as circles as Teyonhehkon, (some sources name him Onwanonsyshon) the esteemed Chief of the Mohawk Confederacy. As such, he was afforded the respect that few of First Nation blood achieved.
As the children of “royalty,” Pauline and her siblings were educated at home in the English tradition. Her diary entries detail her growing infatuation with the romantic poets– Keats, Byron and Shelley. She began to write poetry herself and in her teens, her verse was published in the literary journal Gems of Poetry.
Much to her parents’ chagrin, by her early 20’s, Pauline had begun giving recitations of her poems. But no run-of-the-mill Victorian poetry readings were these. The first part of the evening’s entertainment would see the night’s attraction reading poems in her persona as the finely-bred English lady, Pauline Johnson.
Audiences politely applauded but remained restrained. They were waiting anxiously for the main act!
After a quick wardrobe change–out of hooped skirt and demure long sleeves into buckskin, beads and feathers, the main event returned as Indian princess Tekahionwake. Her verse reflected her altered persona. Birch-bark canoes and brave warriors had replaced flowers and singing birds. Crowds cheered and begged for more.
Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake was soon in demand across Canada, the United States and Great Britain. She became a veritable celebrity and enjoyed the status that this gave her. This included rubbing shoulders with the literary and artistic crowds of the day.
Two of these luminaries were artists Carl Ahrens and Homer Watson. The artistic trio had also been drawn together as spiritualists who met regularly at séances (usually at the Watson Kitchener-area home) hoping to seek contact with those who had moved on to the afterlife.
One spiritual tall-tale tells of Johnson and Ahrens on an evening canoe outing paddling down the Grand River. Suddenly they are ambushed by a war canoe carrying a vengeful Iroquois hunting party. Only Tekahionwake’s skilled canoeing skills save them from losing their scalps to the vengeful foe.
Sadly Pauline Johnson’s life was to be a brief one. In 1913, she died of breast cancer in Vancouver where she had relocated in the early 1900’s. she was only 52.
Time has not been a friend to Pauline Johnson, poet. The writer of 13 books of verse, she is now rarely studied in school. Her name is more associated with overwrought emotion and Victorian angst than outstanding verse. Critics have also dismissed her performance legacy, calling her nothing more than a savvy “entertainer;” one whose fame was based more on “showmanship” than literary talent.
Still, some with broader perspectives, treat Pauline Johnson with more respect. She’s lauded as the woman who opened the door for succeeding female Canadian writers and performers.
In 1992, Chiefswood was designated a National Historic Site. Set on a hill overlooking the Grand River, the property is well worth a visit. If only to see the photographs displayed of the Mohawk Princess in buckskin, feathers and beads.