Manataka American Indian Council








Tekahionwake: A Voice from Two Worlds

          By Linda VanBibber




The time is 1891.  The woman on stage is an anomaly for the times.  She calls herself Tekahionwake, Two Lives, after her grandfather.  And she has two lives – the life of a Mohawk woman and the life of an English lady.  Everything about her reflects her position of one between the worlds.  She reads her poetry the way she lives it and the way she writes it – with passion.  She is costumed in native dress for the first half of her recital; then returns to stage in an English gown for the last half.


Emily Pauline Johnson was born in 1860, the daughter of a Mohawk Native-Canadian chief and English mother.  Much of Canadian society was shocked that a ‘white’ woman would marry a Native man.



For historical context, 1861 was the year Abraham Lincoln became President of the United States.  Pauline’s mother, Emily, was born in Ohio.  Emily’s father, although an abolitionist and sympathizer with the ‘poor Indians’ showed his true colors when he learned of his daughter’s marriage to George Johnson, a Native who would later become a Mohawk Chief of the Iroquois Six Nations Confederacy.  Pauline’s paternal grandmother did not approve of the marriage either, not wanting a non-Native in her family, although she did learn to accept and love Emily. 


Pauline was raised in both worlds.  Living on the reservation, she learned Mohawk ways.  And her grandfather, whose name she later adopted, told her Mohawk stories in the native language, which she understood, but later expressed regret that she never learned to speak.   But she also learned the ways of an English lady, primarily from her mother.  Due to health problems, she had very little formal education, but was well read, especially in the English poets whose styles are reflected in her own work.


Pauline was the first Native to write about the ways of Native people in a manner that the white society could understand.  Her poems and stories relate the legends of Native Canadians, but they also echo the violence and pain of cultures clashing.    Much of her work reflects her personal struggle to maintain both her Indian and her English heritages.  Yet she states unequivocally, that:


"I am an Indian, and my aim, my joy and my pride is to sing the glories of my own people. Ours was the race that gave the world its measure of heroism, its standard of physical prowess. Ours was the race that taught the world that avarice veiled by any other name is crime, and ours was the faith that taught men to live without greed and to die without fear."  (Quotation attributed to Pauline Johnson by Ernest Thompson Seton)



            Pauline Johnson’s best-known poem, “The Song My Paddle Sings”, reflects her joy in the natural pleasures of life lived the Native way:


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.


            Also known for her stories, based both on tradition as well as personal experience, she has preserved many of the stories and legends associated with her Native ancestry. Yet Pauline also loved and respected her English ancestry as well.  Moccasin Maker a collection of her stories, “is particularly stunning for the honor and respect it pays to the birth cultures of the author,” according to one literary review.  The title story, Moccasin Maker, is the story of Pauline’s English mother, Emily.  Pauline also toured England and at one point in her life had considered living there where she spoke as an advocate for women’s rights.  Although few historians have addressed the role of women in Mohawk or Iroquois society, some have pointed out that  


“ . . .every possession of the man except his horse & his rifle belong to the woman after marriage; she takes care of their Money and Gives it to her husband as she thinks his necessities require it . . .The truth is that Women are treated in a much more respectful manner than in England & that they possess a very superior power; this is to be attributed in a very great measure to their system of Education.”  The women, in addition to their political power and control of allocation from the communal stores, acted as communicators of culture between generations. It was they who educated the young[1].


Coming from such a tradition, it is easy to imagine that English society, where women were not allowed to own property or vote, would have seemed incredibly unenlightened to Pauline. It is, as one critic has pointed out,  “a far cry from a wigwam to Westminster . . . and London looks a strange place to the Red Indian whose eyes still see the myriad forest trees . . . and whose feet still feel the clinging moccasin even among the scores of clicking heels that hurry along the thoroughfares of this camping-ground of the paleface.”  Yet this unique woman, Two Lives, was equally of both worlds.  Yet not without the inevitable problems that come to one who dares to differ from the dominating culture.


Pauline was known as well for her quick wit and ability to use it to silence critics and hecklers, whether in a drawing room or on stage.  Being a ‘half-breed’ at the time, hecklers were common, yet she handled them with wit and grace.  And criticism was no less felt in social settings.  A story which illustrates her poise and wit concerns a casual conversation with an English woman traveling aboard the same ship.  Pauline answered questions concerning her lifestyle and when the woman commented that “funny, I can scarcely tell that you are an Indian”, she returned, “Funny, I could scarcely tell that you are a lady.”


In a style uniquely her own, Pauline lived a free, unconventional life as she worked and wrote for peace and understanding, following a tradition.  Daughter of a Mohawk chief, she would have known well the stories of the  Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse), one of the world’s oldest democracies.  Her Mohawk heritage would have instructed her in these stories of the Peacemaker, Hiawatha and Jikonsaseh, the Peace Woman.   She would have heard of and been influenced by the stories of the Peacemaker’s travels.   And so she traveled, taking her poems and stories from coast to coast across the North American continent, in both Canda and the United States, carrying a message of unity to her audiences.   “Miss Johnson swept into . . . remote communities like a vigorous and refreshing wind . . .” (Marcus Van Steen in Pauline Johnson Her Life and Work).


            While “The Song My Paddles Sings” is the most well-known of Pauline Johnson’s poems, celebrating the joys of life and nature, the following illustrates her ability to place the plight of her Native relatives squarely in the English heart and mind, and is one of my personal favorites.




Hard by the Indian lodges, where the bush
Breaks in a clearing, through ill-fashioned fields,
She comes to labour, when the first still hush
Of autumn follows large and recent yields.

Age in her fingers, hunger in her face,
Her shoulders stooped with weight of work and years,
But rich in tawny colouring of her race,
She comes a-field to strip the purple ears.

And all her thoughts are with the days gone by,
Ere might's injustice banished from their lands
Her people, that to-day unheeded lie,
Like the dead husks that rustle through her hands.


If you are interested in learning more about the life of E. Pauline Johnson or reading her poetry and stories, McMaster University in Canada has archived her works, which are available at: The Pauline Johnson Archive at McMaster University:


Also available are recordings of “The Song My Paddle Sings” at


~Linda VanBibber 




When Manataka challenged me to write an article on Pauline Johnson, I did the first thing all authors do – search the Internet!  One of the things that struck me as I conducted my research was the chain of Iroquois women that have promoted peace and unity.  I see Pauline as a link in that chain and I see Marcine Quenzer as a link in that chain.  And when I came across the following address that was delivered at a meeting of the United Nations to conclude a presentation made by the Haudenosaunee, still a sovereign nation, I was awed and humbled by it’s simplicity and dignity. It invites each of us to also become a link in a chain that preserves the ways of the past as hope for the future.  






Presentation to the United Nations July 18, 1995

by Carol Jacobs, Cayuga Bear Clan Mother


Mr. Ambassador, Chief Shenandoah, Distinguished Guests, Chiefs, Clanmothers, panel: It is my duty to help bring to and end the Haudenosaunee presentation. Chief Harvey Longboat of the Cayuga Bear Clan will be doing the actual closing.


You have heard how we began our meeting today, bringing our minds together in thanks for every part of the natural world. You have heard how we are grateful that each part of the world continues to fulfill the responsibilities that have been set for it by our Creator. It is how we begin every meeting, and how we end every meeting, and how we will end this day.


Most of our ceremonies are about giving thanks, at the right time and in the right way. They are what was given to us, what makes us who we are. They enable me to speak to you about life itself.


We draw no line between what is political and what is spiritual. Our leaders are also our spiritual leaders. Maintaining our ceremonies is an important part of the work of the chiefs and clan mothers. This is right: there is nothing more important than preserving life, recording life, and that is what the ceremonies do.


We are told that when this land was being created, our Creator was challenged to a bet by his brother. The subject of their game was: would there be life? And in one throw, supported by all the living forces of the natural world, our Creator won this bet. He won it all for us. He won it for all of us. We commemorate this each year in part of our Midwinter ceremonies.


This is not just a quaint legend. It is a reminder that, as scientists now agree, life on earth is the result of chance, as well as of intent. Life on earth is a fragile matter. That magnificent gamble could have gone the other way: life could just as easily not have been at all.


That is a reason for constantly giving thanks. We know very well how close life still is to not being. The reminders are all around us.

Among us, it is women who are responsible for fostering life. In our traditions, it is women who carry the seeds, both of our own future generations and of the plant life. It is women who plant and tend the gardens, and women who bear and raise the children. It is my right and duty, as a woman and a mother and a grandmother, to speak to you about these things, to bring our minds together on them.


In our ceremonies and dances, we move counter-clockwise. That is, in this part of the world, earth-wise. In our dances, the women's feet never leave the ground, never leave Mother Earth. This is intentional: we constantly remind ourselves of our connection to the earth, for it is from the earth that life comes.


Our prophecies tell us that life on earth is in danger of coming to an end. Our instructions tell us that we are to maintain our ceremonies, however few of us there are, and to maintain the spirit of those ceremonies, and the care of the natural world.

In making any law, our chiefs must always consider three things: the effect of their decision on peace; the effect on the natural world; and the effect on seven generations in the future. We believe that all lawmakers should be required to think this way, that all constitutions should contain these rules.


We call the future generations "the coming faces". We are told that we can see the faces of our children to come in the rain that is falling, and that we must tread lightly on the earth, for we are walking on the faces of our children yet to come. That attitude, too, we want to have you learn and share.


To us, it does not matter whether it can be scientifically proved that life as we know it is in danger. If the possibility exists, we must live every day as if it were true -- for we cannot afford, any of us, to ignore that possibility. We must learn to live with that shadow, and always to strive toward the light.


We are not a numerous people today. We believe that people who are close to the earth do not allow their numbers to become greater than the land can bear.


We are not an industrialized people today. We do not carry economic power. Our people and lands are like a scattering of islands within a sea of our neighbours, the richest nations in the world.


And yet I tell you that we are a powerful people. We are the carriers of knowledge and ideas that the world needs today. We know how to live with this land: we have done so for thousands of years and have not suffered many of the changes of the Industrial Revolution, though we are being buffeted by the waves of its collapse.


Our families are beyond the small, isolated nuclear families that are so convenient to big industry and big government and so damaging to communities.


Our clans and names give people identity, not facelessness.

Our governments still follow natural law.

Our governments also face challenges---physical, political, legal and moral. We recognize that those challenges come from within our communities as well as from the peoples around us.


We know that we, as communities and as a people, are facing an environmental crisis. We know that we do not have the resources to be able to resolve that crisis by ourselves. That is why we are here, seeking partners.


But we also know that all the world faces the same crisis; that every people and every living thing shares the same challenges. And we are here to offer our partnership, our knowledge and our ideas.


It is time to move beyond "calls to action" and well-meaning agendas. The forces that are injuring our Mother the Earth are not waiting to create subcommittees, to set dates for meetings, to set budgets.


Today we have met, we have taken one another's hands, and we have begun to make commitments. As we leave, the words of thanksgiving will echo in our ears, reminding us that not only our own future generations, but every living thing, relies on us to fulfill our responsibilities as they fulfill theirs.


We need no greater challenge than that




[1] Johansen, Bruce E. , Forgotten Founders, Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois and the Rational for the American Revolution, 1982.


 |   HOME   |   INDEX   |   EMAIL   |   NEXT PAGE  |