Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Song Her Paddle Sang

The Song Her Paddle Sang

For nearly two decades Emily Pauline Johnson, known by her stage name as Tekahionwake, thrilled audiences at the turn of the century across Canada and Europe with her recitals. Born half native Mohawk and Caucasian in Brantford Ontario. Although more white than native, by Canadian law she was classed as a native.
Her father was head chief of the six nations tribes and her mother of pure English bloodlines. Their marriage shocked Canadian society, at the time in the late 1800’s. Pauline went on to continue that wave of awe during her stage performances with many of her plays and poetry stood up for native beliefs, unheard of in her time.
            Her health, precarious as a child, led to her early death in Vancouver where she died of breast cancer at an early middle age in 1913. Pauline grew up devouring poetry and read most of Shakespeare, Longfellow and Byron, among others. One night her lucky break occurred when she was part of a Canadian authors reading night. She recited a poem about the plight of the Indian’s side of the North-west rebellion, titled ‘A cry From An Indian Wife’. The assembled crowd went nuts and she was the only one to be given an encore. From there Pauline Johnson went on publish several books of poetry and tour Europe and North America for nearly two decades.

All her poems, recitals and comedy sketches she wrote and produced at a time when the country was still in its infancy and women were not known, for the most part, to take control of their own lives. While not really classed as a feminist, she was proud of her native heritage.
Most of the time she toured the country in rickety horse drawn buggies, slept at flea bitten hotels, or worse in sheds. Although on one trip to the log mile houses of BC she was treated so well Pauline was quoted as saying ‘slept like a baby, laughed like a child and ate like a lumberjack’. In many towns where the populations were less than the cows surrounding it, word would spread like wild fire and soon people would be packing into the place. She also attracted the attention of many famous people, presidents, prime ministers and dined with royalty while in London.
She eventually befriended Joseph Capilano, the Squamish chief, at the time, which lead to the publishing of the book ‘Legends of Vancouver’, detailing many of Vancouver area oral stories.
The streets of Vancouver were lined with hundreds of people for her funeral procession. A memorial built to honor her in Stanley Park now sits now mainly forgotten under a stand of trees next to the Teahouse Restaurant.

For those who love poetry, I’ve condensed below her most famous poem, ‘The Song My Paddle Sings’.

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 water 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.

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