Collector wants to bring home Six Nations poet


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Jim Gibson is on a mission to bring Pauline Johnson home.

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The Six Nations of the Grand River poet toured the world captivating audiences with her flair for the dramatic arts to become one of North America’s most notable performers of the late 19and century.

But, as Gibson, who lives in Toronto, noted, “unless you’re studying Canadian literature at the university level, the name E. Pauline Johnson would be unfamiliar to you.” Johnson is most widely known in Brantford and Six Nations, but many are still unaware of her contributions to Indigenous and Canadian oral and written culture.

Prior to his frequent visits to Vancouver – where Johnson spent the last years of his life and where there is a monument in Stanley Park commemorating his work and legacy, Gibson said he had no intimate knowledge of the ‘writer. But, attracted by her works and her “remarkable history as a single Native woman during this period (1890 to 1913),” he decided to narrow down his huge collection of Pacific Northwest Native books “to just one person – Pauline”.

He was in Brantford on Monday to install an exhibit called Bringing Tekahionwake Home – the poet was also known by this Mohawk name meaning double wampum – at the main branch of the Brantford Public Library.

The exhibit includes copies of first editions (1927 and 1930) of Johnson, Flint and Feather’s collection of poetry, historic photographs, a copy of a story called The Legend of the Squamish Twins or The Call of Kinship written by Johnson for The Mother’s Magazine in 1910, and a copy of Lullaby of The Iroquois, written in 1915.

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A copy of Legends of Vancouver, published the year Johnson died, is also on display. The book has a suede cover with a hand painted image of a native chief in full headdress.

Gibson, who previously donated three first-edition books written by Johnson to the library and to Chiefswood — his family home, now a national historic site and Six Nations museum — donated several more volumes Monday to the Brantford Library and the Six Nations Public Library. , where he also installed an exhibition.

“I donate them to select organizations and institutions,” Gibson said of the historical books. “I think the Brantford Public Library will do a good job with archival storage.”

Johnson was born in 1861 in Chiefswood, located along the banks of the Grand. Gibson said she “challenged the role of women at the time”, supporting herself and her mother financially, after her father’s death, through writing and performing.

“She traveled the world reciting her work on stages from Canada to England,” he said. “Pauline has broken down barriers across Canada for women in literature and, in particular, Indigenous women, to make their way as artists on their own terms.

Johnson, whose poetry has been published in Canada, the United States and Britain, was part of a generation of widely read writers who began to define Canadian literature.

Along with Johnson-related books and artifacts, Gibson has included the work of other Indigenous women authors in her exhibit. Among them is a collection of poetry by Six Nations writer Janet Rogers, who visited the Brantford library on Monday.

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“I became aware of Pauline as I deepened my own journey as a writer,” Rogers said. “There are shocking parallels between us. She gave what were then called “theatrical recitations”. Giving spoken word performances is how I first got noticed. We were both single and childless. (Like Johnson) poetry has been this passport for me to go around the world.

“Even if you’re not a writer or a native, (Johnson) is an important part of local history.

Beth Brant, a Mohawk writer who died in 2015, called Johnson “a spiritual grandmother to those of us who are First Nations women writers.”

“Writing at the turn of the century and the early 1900s, this Mohawk woman had seen ugly changes brought to her people,” Brant said. “It saddens me that so many Indigenous children do not learn his stories and poems.”

Gibson said he hopes, with the help of his efforts to raise Johnson’s profile, maybe now they will.

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