Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), also known as Tekahionwake, (translation: 'double-life'), was Canada's first female poet and performer. Her father was a Mohawk chief on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, and her mother was a wealthy English immigrant. She drew upon her mixed ancestry, stories told by her paternal grandfather and her exposure to a wide range of English literature during her upbringing, to inform her writing.
She began to travel across Canada, the United States and England, giving dramatic recitals of her poems and anecdotes of her life. As she became more famous, she gathered together various materials in order to create a 'costume', a buckskin dress, which she wore for the first half of her performances when she recited her poems reflecting her aboriginal heritage. After the intermission, she'd appear on stage dressed in an elegant evening gown to perform her writings that reflected an English style and perspective. Both women in this painting are Pauline Johnson, wearing the two different costumes of her performances.
Johnson died in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her ashes were buried in Stanley Park on what would have been her 52nd birthday. In 1922 a cairn was erected at the burial site, with an inscription reading in part, "in memory of one whose life and writings were an uplift and a blessing to our nation".
THE SONG MY PADDLE SINGS
by Pauline Johnson
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. Blow, blow! I have wooed you so, But never a favour you bestow. You rock your cradle the hills between, But scorn to notice my white lateen.
I stow the sail, unship the mast: I wooed you long but my wooing's past; My paddle will lull you into rest. O! drowsy wind of the drowsy west, Sleep, sleep, By your mountain steep, Or down where the prairie grasses sweep! Now fold in slumber your laggard wings, For soft is the song my paddle sings.
August is laughing across the sky, Laughing while paddle, canoe and I, Drift, drift, Where the hills uplift On either side of the current swift.
The river rolls in its rocky bed; My paddle is plying its way ahead; Dip, dip, While the waters flip In foam as over their breast we slip.
And oh, the river runs swifter now; The eddies circle about my bow. Swirl, swirl! How the ripples curl In many a dangerous pool awhirl!
And forward far the rapids roar, Fretting their margin for evermore. Dash, dash, With a mighty crash, They seethe, and boil, and bound, and splash.
Be strong, O paddle! be brave, canoe! The reckless waves you must plunge into. Reel, reel. On your trembling keel, But never a fear my craft will feel.
We've raced the rapid, we're far ahead! The river slips through its silent bed. Sway, sway, As the bubbles spray And fall in tinkling tunes away.
And up on the hills against the sky, A fir tree rocking its lullaby, Swings, swings, Its emerald wings, Swelling the song that my paddle sings.