Chiefswood: Ontario’s House of “Royalty”

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

 

You Say: “Only Three Women?” Surely that’s Wrong!

Here’s a quiz, so put on your thinking caps. Name 5 Canadian women whose achievements rank them as heroes and trailblazers, worthy of national recognition. It shouldn’t be hard. Canada’s women are a luminous group.

Painter Emily Carr? Laura Secord, the War of 1812-14  saviour? Agnes Macphail, first woman elected to Canada’s Parliament?  Suffragette Nellie McClung or Emily Stowe, Canada’s first female medical doctor? In recent times Canada’s first female astronaut Roberta Bondar? Michaelle Jean, former Governor General? Some might nominate writers Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood.

Now that wasn’t hard, was it? 

But it seems that Parks Canada, the government bureaucracy that oversees Canada’s National Historic Sites is firmly behind the barn door when it comes to honouring our female achievers.  They number only 3 in Ontario: Mohawk poetess Pauline Johnson; domestic crusader Adelaide Hoodless and Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Tag along with me as I hop-scotch around Ontario to visit the Sites that pay tribute to these trailblazers. You’ll learn a lot. imgresimages

Pauline Johnson and Chiefswood

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!

“The Song my Paddle Sings” by Pauline Johnson

On a crisp Ontario winter day, your intrepid explorers are seen heading towards Brantford and Chiefswood, the childhood home of Canadian poetess Pauline Johnson.

Now you remember Pauline. You were introduced to her in a high school English class. An intriguing figure–a Canadian Indian princess who wrote poetry and gave “recitations.”

But much more lay behind the surface of Pauline than her striking good looks and romantic verse.

For here was a single woman, of First Nation blood, without fortune, making her way in a man’s world.  And doing it with style and a hefty dose of chutzpah!

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Born in 1861, Emily Pauline Johnson was the child of a mixed marriage. Her English mother had married Mohawk Chief of the Confederacy Council, George Henry Martin Johnson.  Chief Johnson was aboriginal “royalty,” having descended from the legendary Hiawatha.

Pauline was educated at home in the English tradition. As a young woman, she devoured the poetry of the Romantic poets: Keats, Byron and Shelley. She wrote poetry too and published her first work in the journal Gems of Poetry while still in her teens.

Much to her parents’ chagrin,  the theatre called Pauline, and she began appearing in amateur productions. In time she made her mark in the literary world, giving literary recitations of her own verse.

But this was a young woman savvy beyond her years. She took to giving her recitations as Tekahionwake, her Mohawk name. Decked out in buckskin and feathers and reciting her “Indian” poetry, she had crowds on their feet. 

Soon Pauline was in demand across Canada, the United States and Great Britain. She was a celebrity and enjoyed the status that this gave her.  Sadly, ill health curtailed Pauline Johnson’s career and she retired to Vancouver in 1909.  She died of breast cancer in that city in 1913.

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Pauline Johnson is regarded by some as the woman who opened the door for female writers in Canada. Other critics have dismissed her reputation as one based more on “showmanship.”

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 full regalia.

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Adelaide Hoodless and her Homestead 

We’re remaining in Brant County to meet our second Ontario woman who has been honoured with a National Historic Site. She’s Adelaide Hoodless, celebrated around the world as the founder of the Women’s Institute movement.

What most do not know about the indomitable “Addie” is that she was also the driving force behind the founding of the MacDonald Institute at the University of Guelph, the YWCA, and The Victorian Order of Nurses (VON).

She too was responsible for Domestic Science (Home Economics) finding its way into Ontario school curriculum, 

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Adelaide Hunter, born in 1858 was one of 12 children. Four months before Addie’s birth, her father passed away, leaving her mother to raise the large Hunter brood and tend to the family farm.

With minimal secondary education, Addie escaped poverty by marrying businessman John Hoodless of Hamilton.  And she moved up in the world. Were it not for a family tragedy, Addie Hoodless may have spent her days at tea parties and church socials.

The couple’s youngest child, John died at 14 months of what was known in those days as “the summer complaint.” It was so-named as the warm months seemed to bring more deaths to infants. We recognize it today as the outcome of babies drinking unpasteurized milk that had not been stored at a safe, cool temperature.

Adelaide was horrified when she learned the cause her baby’s death. She blamed her own ignorance of proper food storage, and vowed to save other mothers from a similar tragedy.

Over the coming years, Addie became a tireless crusader for better education for women. She urged them to “demand a knowledge of their own body,” and to “seek a knowledge of their social environment.”

At a meeting of the Farmer’s Institute of Ontario where she’d been invited to speak, Addie urged farm women to educate themselves. Out of her talk, evolved the Women’s Institute. From one chapter, it grew to 500, in Canada within 10 years.  

Adelaide also worked tirelessly to include the teaching of Domestic Science (Home Economics) in every school in Canada. She then took her message to the university level, convincing wealthy businessman Sir William MacDonald to put up money to assist in her cause.  

The MacDonald Institute at the University of Guelph opened its doors to students in 1903. It offered courses in Nature Study, Manual Training, Domestic Science and Domestic Art.

Fittingly when death came to Adelaide Hoodless, in 1910, it was while she was delivering one of her impassioned speeches to women.

Her family home, the Adelaide Hunter Hoodless Homestead was designated as a National Historic Site in 1995 and is  open to the public. The space also serves as the Headquarters of the Women’s Institute of Canada.

Today there are Women’s Institute chapters in over 70 countries, with more than 9 million members.

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Lucy Maud Montgomery and the Leaskdale Manse

“I cannot remember the time when I was not writing, or when I did not mean to be an author.” Lucy Maud Montgomery

 Art surely imitates life in the case of Lucy Maud Montgomery.  Born in 1874, in Prince Edward Island, Maud became a virtual orphan when her mother Clara died of tuberculosis less than 2 years after her birth.

Distraught, Maud’s father John Montgomery gave custody of his daughter to his in-laws, and moved to western Canada. Maud was raised by grandparents whose rules were rigid, whose love was restrained.

Not surprisingly she retreated into the world of books. They  eased her profound loneliness.

By Maud’s teens she’d begun writing poetry and imagined herself a writer. But practicality won out. After high school, she achieved her teacher’s certification. Evenings were when joy visited young Maud.  She routinely took pen to hand and wrote well into the night, primarily short stories and poems.  

Maud’s life changed dramatically with the publication of her full-length book, Anne of Green Gables. Its success allowed her to leave teaching, an occupation she had not enjoyed.  

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Maud arrived in Ontario in 1911 as a preacher’s wife. She’d married Ewan MacDonald, a Presbyterian clergyman who’d been posted to the little hamlet of Leaskdale, in York County, Ontario.  The little village was understandably “agog” with the arrival of such  celebrity!

It wasn’t long before trouble was brewing in the MacDonald home. Ewan was given to “religious melancholia” (depression) which at times incapacitated him. The birth of the couple’s two sons, Chester and Stuart did little to ease Maud’s concerns about her increasingly distraught spouse.

Only Maud’s writing brought her fulfillment. Lucy Maud Montgomery completed half of her writing output, feet up, notebook and pen in hand on the sofa in the manse parlour.

To the delight of Maud scholars, she was also a faithful journal- writer, filling 10 volumes of her thoughts, fears and observations.  These diaries reveal that Maud also suffered from periodic bouts of depression.

Maud and Ewan retired to Toronto in 1935. That year she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and was decorated by King George.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s final years remained heart-wrenching ones, as both she and Ewan continued to struggle with mental illness. On April 24, 1942, she passed away, at age 67.

In recent years, her family have indicated that death came (voluntarily) from an overdose  of sleeping “draught.”

The Lucy Maud Montgomery National Historic Site, her former Leaskdale home welcomes over 5000 visitors each year. The church where Ewan preached is also on their agenda. Visitors are sure to sit in the pew that was occupied by the preacher’s wife every Sunday for over 15 years.

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Fascinating, capable Canadian women  who transformed the society in which they lived and worked.

But only 3 National Historic Sites in Ontario to honour them? This is surely wrong.