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One of Canada’s best beloved vagabonds



Flint & Feather: The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake

Harper Flamingo Canada, 2002

320 pages, $32.95 Hardcover

Reviewed by Pina Belperio

Award-winning Canadian biographer Charlotte Gray, explores the rich diversity of Canadian history and women’s lives in her third novel – Flint and Feather: The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake . This enchanting biography animates the colourful life of turn of the century Mohawk poet and recitalist Pauline Johnston.

Gray’s writing brings an insightful new look into the extraordinary life of this famous and exotic poet and actor, and helps decipher the myths surrounding one of Canada’s often-misunderstood historical figures. Born the daughter of a Mohawk Native chief and a well to do English mother in 1861 near the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Pauline Johnson accepted her dual heritage and identity from early on. Her parents’ successful marriage was living proof that Aboriginal and European settlers could live together in style and harmony.

At an early age, Pauline discovered her passion for writing and performing for audiences. As a woman of mixed-blood with no formal classical education, Pauline struggled for acceptance within the intellectual circles of her times, consisting primarily of Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott, better known as the Confederation Poets. Despite the odds, Pauline rose above the accepted social conventions and carved her own path as a performer and writer. Her writings captured the feelings and emotions of post-Confederation Canada and its inhabitants.

Her illustrious 20-year career led to performances in London, England, parts of New England and nearly all of Canada. Pauline crossed the length of Canada 19 times and the Atlantic three times; a phenomenal feat if one considers that she only started travelling at the ripened age of 30. Her native poems and recitals proved instrumental in developing her national identity and helped to portray a distinct view of Canada’s indigenous people to the outside world. Her vaudevillian performances won over audiences as diverse as immigrant farmers in Winnipeg, influential Ottawa politicians like Wilfrid Laurier, and King Edward VII who attended the recital halls of the day.

Despite her mother’s strong disapproval, Pauline continued to perform on stage and saw it as a way to pay homage to her father’s Mohawk heritage. She relied on her polished manners and good looks to cushion a message about the deteriorating treatment of Canada’s native people, which most audiences did not want to hear, and she politely challenged stereotypes wherever she went.

Whenever Pauline performed on stage, she gained almost "diva-like" qualities. In the words of Gray, "she straddled two worlds, first by appearing as an Indian maiden and then as a Mayfair Lady." Pauline’s theatrical recitals combined elements from two different fantasies – when she wore her buckskin dress, beads and Tomahawk she portrayed an earthy and wild "Mohawk Princess." She could then turn around and give the appearance of an ethereal, demure creature in her tightly laced corsets and dazzling evening gowns, mesmerizing most of the men in the audience.

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