National Treasure #27: Pauline Johnson

Considered Mohawk by British law (because her father was a Mohawk hereditary clan chief), but excluded from the matrilineally defined Mohawk tribal clans (because her mother wasn’t Mohawk), Pauline Johnson was a mixed-race Canadian who made a living at the turn of the last century primarily as a performer, reciting her own poetry with its mix of Aboriginal and English influences.

I don’t know if her works are taught much in Canadian schools today – well, other than in the four that are named after her – but she’s had some impressive honours:

  • Being listed as a Person of National Historic Significance in 1945
  • Having a stamp issued on the centennial of her birth in 1961 – the first woman (other than the Queen), the first author, and the first  Aboriginal person to be so honoured in Canada
  • Having Donald Sutherland read her work at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver

Know by the thread of music woven through
This fragile web of cadences I spin,
That I have only caught these songs since you
Voiced them upon your haunting violin.


This is one of a series on Canadian national treasures – my sesquicentennial project. They reflect people (living and dead), places and things that I think are worth celebrating about our country, and are done in no order of precedence.



  1. Tom Watson

    Janice, my wife, has the middle name Pauline. Named after Pauline Johnson. She was one of her mother’s favorite poets so when her daughter was born she used Pauline as a second name.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Tom – Interesting. My (scant) reading suggested that she was popular in her performing days, then fell off in literary esteem, and now has had a comeback of sorts. I think we studied (if such it may be called) some of her work in school. Or maybe I just found her poetry on my mother’s shelves.

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