For the summer months, we are thrilled to present a series of blog posts by Collections Intern Rebeka Beganova. Rebeka (she/her) is a post-secondary student with a passion for research, literature, and history. Having completed an Associate of Arts Degree at Okanagan College, she is glad to be joining the MAV team during her last summer in Vernon before heading off to UBC Vancouver. There is no better way to say goodbye to her hometown than to explore its local history!
In April of 1899, a shining star passed through Vernon that turned many curious heads. Emily Pauline Johnson, Indigenous poet and reciter, came to town for a week of performance and thrilling sensation. Her appearances quickly became the center of local attention. Johnson was indeed already a figure of well-known talent. Her stay in Vernon earned her a spotlight in the papers and praise from an audience self-reportedly “not the easiest persons in the world to please.” Her likeableness stemmed – for this city’s folk – from her eloquence, captivation, humour, and humility. In one sitting, she could put her audience in stitches, then minutes later mesmerize them with heart-stopping lyrics.
Her popularity may be surprising to us now, knowing what we do about the social dynamics in 1899. We may wonder what it was like for Johnson, as an Indigenous woman, to stand alone before an overwhelmingly white audience holding, at best, thinly-veiled racist attitudes. Reports about Johnson bear the mark of white bias; her style is described as “full of unforeseen audacities” and at the same time, “a lofty strain of the purest patriotism.” Especially compared to Johnson’s own self-image, these interpretations call into question whether the audience, who so adored E. Pauline Johnson, really understood her messages at all.
Johnson was half Indigenous and half English. Her father, G.H.M. Johnson, was Chief of the Mohawk Tribe, part of the Iroquois Six Nations. Her mother, Emily S. Howell, hailed from Bristol. Much of Pauline Johnson’s writing centered around her Indigenous background and emphasized the relationship – the violence and disrespect – spearheaded by white settlers toward her people. She went by her Mohawk name, Tekahionwake, just as her father had his: Onwanonsyshon.
Her pride in her Indigenous identity further muddles Vernon’s reaction to her performances. It is hard to imagine the population of 1899 welcoming with open arms a public figure that challenged so many of their social, political, and religious convictions. Much of her poetry was not subtle, either. “A Cry from an Indian Wife,” for example, concludes with the lines: “By right, by birth we Indians own these lands, / Though starved, crushed, plundered, lies our nation low. / Perhaps the white man’s God has willed it so.” Her meaning is unmistakable.
Message not received
The prolific poet passed away in Vancouver in 1913 after battling cancer. News of her death reached Vernon to much despair and grief. An article was published in the Vernon News detailing her passing, an article that spanned two entire page-long columns. The account included a short description of her early life as well as her accomplishments as an artist. It was undeniably a heart-felt tribute.
It is left for us to ponder, then, the paradox of E. Pauline Johnson’s impact and the simultaneous persistence of unchecked anti-Indigenous racism in Vernon. Her words pierced so deeply, yet her message was somehow lost in translation – ignored, as is very likely the case. Johnson’s denunciation of colonialism must be remembered now, even if it was not then. The introduction to her book, The Shagganappi, quotes of her: “Never let anyone call me a white woman. There are those who think they pay me a compliment in saying that I am just like a white woman. My aim, my joy, my pride is to sing the glories of my own people.”
To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!
Rebeka Beganova, Collections Intern