Toronto Star - Sept 15 2002

Elegant savage

Pauline Johnson's dramatic persona may have turned vaudevillian near the end, but the Mohawk poet-performer's courage is beyond doubt

Joan Givner

Johnson's mail-order costume included bears' teeth

and a scalp

EVERY biographical subject presents her biographer with a different set of problems, and Pauline Johnson, the so-called Mohawk Princess, presents more daunting challenges than most. Her life was riven with ambiguities and contradictions, and the ebb and flow of her posthumous reputation testifies to her complexity.

After her death, Johnson passed into popular Canadian mythology as a storybook heroine, and into literary history as a "dreadful" poet. Robertson Davies called her "elocutionist-fodder," and Desmond Pacey dismissed her as "cheap, vulgar and almost incredibly bad."

Subsequently she was rehabilitated- her personal courage recognized, her status as a poet favourably reassessed. In 1982, Margaret Atwood declared her to be a poet of some sophistication, "despite her habit of dressing up in costumes and chanting in public." More recent academic critics have seen dressing up and chanting as essential to her purpose of disturbing and talking back to a dominant culture that demeaned both aboriginal people and women.

Johnson was born in 1861 to a Mohawk chief and an Englishwoman whose family had immigrated to the United States when she was a child. She grew up in "Chiefswood," a mansion on the Six Nations reserve, near Brantford, where she was instilled with pride in her dual heritage.

It wasn't until she was 30, after a decade of hard work and regular publication, that she achieved recognition. She did so eventually because her native background gave her an edge in the literary marketplace, and because she combined her literary skill with a talent for acting. Like many 19th century women artists, she found that performing was a more acceptable and less freakish occupation than wielding the pen. Her recitals of her own poetry brought her a popular following and some highly influential patrons, including Sir Wilfred Laurier.

The costumes she wore for her performances indicate both her anomalous status and the dual nature of her appeal. For the first half of the program, she appeared in a synthetic "Indian dress" of moccasins and a buckskin top and skirt. This was inspired by her childhood love of Longfellow's "Hiawatha," assembled from the Hudson's Bay company by mail order and supplemented by such artefacts as bears' teeth, eagle feathers and a scalp. In stark contrast, she appeared for the second half of her programs in elegant evening dresses.

For most of her life, out of financial necessity as well as from personal inclination, she kept up a rigorous schedule of performances in all the big cities and remote corners of Canada. She made three trips to England, becoming a sensation in drawing rooms and theatres, and through articles she wrote for The Daily Express. Although some ridiculed her "Pocohontas act," many readers relished the stories in which she referred to Buckingham Palace as "the tepee of the Great White Father" and St. Paul's Cathedral as "the place where the paleface worships the Great Spirit."

Biographer Gray notes that, in spite of the affected idiom, Johnson's articles always scored serious points. They asserted the equality of Indian spirituality and Christianity, and pointed out that Iroquois women had a political power that English women were denied.

Johnson's defiance of convention as an unmarried woman who supported herself by performing came at great personal cost. She endured the disapproval of her mother, who thought the theatre vulgar, even though she depended on her daughter's earnings for financial support. At least one suitor, probably under pressure from his family, backed out of their engagement to be married.

As she grew older, the grueling schedule harmed both Johnson's physical stamina and the quality of her literary work. When she teamed up with partners trained in vaudeville, her performances deteriorated into music hall turns, with skits and broad humour. Yet she kept up her appearances until four years before her death. She spent those last years in Vancouver, where she died of breast cancer at the age of 52.

In the past 50 years, the lives of 19th century women artists have been exhaustively documented; they have been examined through the lens of feminist criticism, post-modern and post-colonial theory, and identity politics. This research has produced a highly sophisticated understanding of the difficulties faced by those whose gender was a liability often compounded by other handicaps such as poverty, lack of education, sexual orientation and racial minority status.

The result is that the contemporary biographer faces the task of sifting through a vast amount of scholarship, and the greater problem of how to use it. If she ignores it, she appears naïve; if she weaves it into her narrative, she reduces the popular appeal of her story.

Another difficulty is the current sensitivity about who has the right to speak for women and minorities; a British-born, Oxford-educated biographer is bound to be uncomfortably aware of the charge of colonization and appropriation. This awareness, in turn, leads to inhibitions that blunt the critical faculties, and restrict the free play of humour and irony.

Gray negotiates these difficulties by keeping her narrative relatively unencumbered by scholarly apparatus. She dispenses with the usual introduction that would explain her theoretical approach and her use of such terminology as "Indian" and "poetess." She also dispenses with footnotes in favour of brief lists of the general sources used in each chapter.

At the same time, Gray avoids popularizing her subject by emphasizing the sensational aspects of Johnson's life. She treats her subject's sexual life with consummate tact, venturing no opinion on whether the stage partners with whom she travelled were her lovers. She notes only that certain poems suggest a sexual relationship with one of her managers and one of her young admirers. She resists psychological explanations for Johnson's habit of gravitating to men younger than herself.

Gray skips lightly over such mysteries as the record's missing three months that might or might not have concealed a Johnson pregnancy; the contents of her mother's last letter that Johnson could never bring herself to open; the identity of person who sent a wreath to her funeral with the note "to his dearest, from her dearest." Some of these intriguing mysteries are relegated to the afterword. The result of such tact is a sense that something is being withheld, and that a dimension of Johnson's character is missing.

What Gray offers instead is a gracefully told story that sets Johnson firmly in the context of her time and place, and stresses her specificity as a Canadian and aboriginal figure. Perhaps this biographer's greatest skill is her ability to create a richly textured historical and social background, with a wealth of fascinating details.

A prime example of this detail is the information on canoes that accompanies her account of Johnson's love of the sport, and partly explains the popularity of her signature poem, "The Song My Paddle Sings." Here Gray provides a veritable dissertation on the canoe craze that swept across the U.S., Britain and Canada. She describes various kinds of native canoes, the commercialization of the sport, the development and packaging of canoes for export from Canada, the rise of canoe clubs, the appeal of the sport to royalty- all, in fact, that one could ever want to know about canoes.

Since this biography follows Gray's much acclaimed Sisters In The Wilderness: The Lives Of Susanna Moodie And Catharine Parr Trail, comparison with the earlier work is inevitable. My own sense is that the life of Pauline Johnson is somewhat less successful, not because of any falling off on the part of the author, but because of the much greater challenges presented by this particular subject.