Pauline Johnson

Pauline Johnson

Pauline Johnson was ill in 1912 with breast cancer, a patient at the Bute Street Hospital. Her illness was noted in newspapers all across Canada, because she was our most famous poet. The country had never seen (or heard) anyone like her before—her father was a Mohawk chief—and she was an immediate star. “To attract crowds,” says a web site devoted to her, “she recited the first half of her program in a ball gown. For the second half she recited her ‘Indian’ poems in a costume which she made herself from buckskin, Mohawk metal work, rabbit pelts, a hunting knife, her grandfather's Huron scalp and another scalp which she bought from someone in the American mid-west.”

In 1909, after 17 years of touring, she retired and came to live in Vancouver.

By 1912 she was in the hospital—and in financial difficulty—when the Governor General, the Duke of Connaught, came to visit. He wanted to reminisce about the day in 1869 when he had been made an honorary chief of the Six Nations at its Ontario reserve. (She had been at that ceremony.) The prospective visit disturbed her, because her dressing gown was shabby and she couldn't afford a better one. Friends chipped in to buy her a new one.

Few read her poetry today, but Johnson's retelling of local Indian legends has lasted and her image is an enduring icon. She died at age 51 on March 7, 1913—97 years ago.

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