Reviews

White Wampum

Stephen Osborne

When Pauline Johnson (perhaps better known today by her Mohawk name, Tekahionwake) died a hundred and five years ago, her funeral cortège was the largest in the history of Vancouver; her mourners included the clan of Mary Capilano and members of the IODE. Her remains lie in Stanley Park in a shady grove. She made her living as a poet and performing artist and was a contemporary of the so-called Confederation poets Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman and D.C. Scott, but critics and anthologizers have rarely included her in that category, perhaps because her performances were often lowbrow events in frontier towns across the US and Canada, although she did highbrow when she could for the better pay, in the big cities including New York and London. (She was also, of course, of “mixed heritage.”) When her funds ran low, she wrote fiction and criticism, often most eloquently on First Nations topics for which she has been not so well remembered, until now, with the appearance of Tekahionwake: E. Pauline Johnson’s Writings on Native North America, edited by Margery Fee and Dory Nason (Broadview). A fine example of her at her best can be found in an essay called “A Strong Race Opinion: On the Indian Girl in Modern Fiction” that appeared in the Toronto Sunday Globe in 1892, in which she observes that “the term Indian signifies about as much as the term European, but I cannot recall ever having read a story where the heroine was described as European.” The dozens if not hundreds of “Indian girls” found in novels and stories are “essentially all the same person… There is only one of her and her name is Winona or Ramona or Wanda and she has no surname, although her father is always a chief, and although she is wholesome, beautiful and passionate, she is inevitably fated for self-destruction.”

Tekahionwake’s resistance to the Residential Schools and the harmful influence of the Church on First Nations cultures are expressed in stories and poems that, although published in leading magazines and newspapers, have been ignored for decades. Their revival in this volume is a refreshing reminder that the battle against lies and stereotypes has been sustained and has deep roots. This volume also contains reviews and commentary written while Tekahionwake was alive, making it even more useful for those who wish to explore the literary world of the Confederation Poets from a “non-orthodox” point of view. Her poetry was well received in her day, even ecstatically so. The well-known critic Hector Charlesworth, reviewing White Wampum, her first book of verse, in Canadian Magazine in 1895, praised her work unreservedly: “…never is there a touch of that wretched obscurantism so prevalent in the efforts of Mr. Bliss Carman and some of his imitators. Health and sanity, and earnestness pulse through every line she writes…”

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.


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