Sometimes, as Dr. Seuss tells us, the questions are complicated and the answers are simple. Other times, I think the questions are complicated, the answers are complicated, and life is complicated. I would say this is the case with E. Pauline Johnson, as you might expect it to be given her status as a mixed race female living and working as a writer and performance artist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The daughter of a Mohawk Chief and a British mother, Johnson became famous for dramatic performances of her poetry that she recited for the first half in full 'Indian' costume, before transforming herself for the second half of the reading into a ''proper English lady' (Sugars and Moss). Blatantly oscillating between two starkly contrasting personas, Johnson is certainly a figure that contains multitudes. To me, her writing, particularly the story 'As It Was in the Beginning' that we'll look at here, exudes gender and racial politics, colonial history confronted with protest, and appropriation mixed with subversion. Her work is poetic, thought-provoking, nuanced, and, as all great writing is, unquestionably complicated.
WHAT'S THE CONTEXT:
At the time that E. Pauline Johnson began her career as a writer and performing artist, North American society was already strongly steeped in a colonial tradition that had produced, as various critics such as Daniel Francis have named it, the figure of the 'Imaginary Indian'. How can an 'Indian' be imaginary, you might ask? Well, essentially it's imaginary because it's a social construct fabricated by white people. As Francis argues in his book, The Imaginary Indian, 'The Indian is the invention of the European'. Francis isn't some warped Holocaust denier: he fully recognizes the existence of countless aboriginal tribes and peoples. What he's saying is that the image of the 'Indian' as mainstream society has seen it is an invention of white Europeans who have imposed numerous stereotypes and characteristics on native peoples that are false, untruthful, and, thus, imaginary.Francis argues that associations with nature that deem Natives to be 'wild, savage, brutal, unpredictable', and the stereotypes of being 'childlike', 'vanishing', 'noble', and 'stoic' are the prominent characteristics that make up the 'Imaginary Indian'.
Critic Mark Dockstator similarly concludes in his essay 'Aboriginal Representations of History and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples' that 'the Western perception of Aboriginal peoples as "Imaginary Indians" was based on a foundation developed since contact from the assumptions that Indians were (1) a single homogeneous group; (2) a vanishing race; and (3) a mixture of simultaneous contrasts.'
Overall, there has been a failure to recognize the diverse groups and tribes that made up Native peoples as a whole; a belief that they are a disappearing race; and a tendency to define them in contradictory terms like 'Noble Savages'. Although it has more recently been questioned and criticized, the colonial tradition in Johnson's day strongly emphasized homogeneity, hegemony, and essentialism, and ultimately disregarded the variety and individuality of Native peoples.
Johnson was by no means naive or unaware of these stereotypes regarding Native peoples in the late nineteenth century when she began her writing and performance career. In fact, she was acutely conscious of the stereotypical representations of Native females in literature, as is evident from her essay, "A Strong Race Opinion: On the Indian Girl in Modern Fiction' where Johnson makes clear her frustrations with Canadian authors who have only produced 'but one Indian girl' in all their writings. Unlike the American heroine who is 'vari-coloured as to personality and action', the 'Indian' girl is 'permitted no such spontaneity' and neither is she allowed 'an originality, a singularity that is not definitely 'Indian'.
But wait a second, how is it that Johnson is condemning Canadian authors for not letting their native female characters have an identity apart from being 'Indian' in her writing at the same time as she, in real life, is dressing up as an 'Indian' to read her poetry and thus, appropriating herself as the stereotypical, exotic, 'Indian' girl? Because this is certainly what she did. As Carole Gerson and Veronica Strong-Boag detail in their biography of Johnson, Paddling Her Own Canoe: The Times and Texts of E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake), Johnson 'knew how to play to settler audiences' expectations of stage Indians by adorning herself with an eclectic combination of tokens of nature that connote the noble savage, and Indigenous cultural artefacts that suggest the primitive warrior'. Essentially, Johnson was performing the part of the 'Mohawk princess'.
In a way, Johnson was using the public's fascination with Natives to gain fame and recognition for her work. She also did work to manipulate this idea of the essential 'Indian' by transforming herself into a 'civilized White lady in evening dress' for the second part of her performances. Doing so destabilized the notion of race as all-encompassing, since Johnson showed her ability to easily move between two identities. But at the same time, you can't deny that she was, at least partially, conforming to common stereotypes, which is exactly what she condemns in 'A Strong Race Opinion'.
Johnson wasn't naive about the limitations of society, and she seemed to believe she had to take part in this 'Indian' charade in order to gain notoriety for her work, and have a voice at all. As Francis describes, Johnson to a friend 'confided that "the public will not listen to lyrics, will not appreciae real poetry, will in fact not have me as an entertainer if I give them nothing but rhythm, cadence, beauty, thought." Plaintively she continued, "I could do so much better if they would only let me.'"
The text that I want to look at here, in particular, is a short story called 'As It Was in the Beginning', which offers the same complex, yet at times confusing, messages as her real-life performances. As I mentioned above, Johnson was acutely aware of the stereotypes facing Native peoples. In her writing, it caused her to adopt a strategy of incorporating such stereotypes into her texts so she could manipulate them from within.
In 'As It Was in the Beginning', Johnson depicts the story of a young Native girl who is taken from her tribe and family by a white minister to a school where she is educated in English and subjected to Christianity. The female protagonist's real name is never revealed, she is only called by her white name, 'Esther', and throughout the text, although she narrates it, she rarely has the opportunity to speak out loud amongst others.
Johnson has Esther possess all the stereotypes one would expect of an 'Indian' girl: she is 'never dignified by being permitted to own a surname, her father is a 'chief', and she is 'desperately in love with the young white hero' who of course, 'never marries her!' She is taken from her home, forced to assimilate into a white, European culture, named only by patriarchal white men, and unable to have a truly unique identity distinct from the Native female character that Johnson complained was always found in fiction.
The female protagonist is taken in order to become 'a noble woman and return perhaps to bring her people to the Christ', however Father Paul denies his nephew Laurence the opportunity to marry Esther, telling him that she 'comes of uncertain blood ... half-breed, you know, my boy, half breed'. He continues to stereotype her as an 'animal', 'wild', yet another savage who you 'can't trust'. While he has 'tried to separate her from evil pagan influences ... you never can tell what lurks in a caged animal that has once been wild'. In a way, Father Paul can be seen as representing white culture as a whole, as he demonstrates how they discriminated against the Native communities, marginalized them, took their children away from them in order to 'rehabilitate' them, yet never allowed them to become true members of their society either.
While throughout the text Johnson emphasizes Esther's silence and subjection, what's particularly interesting is the way she chooses to conclude the story. I have to tell you what happens to discuss it so stop reading here if you don't want to know.
Let's take a second and return to Johnson's non-fiction piece 'A Strong Race Opinion'. There, Johnson describes how the 'Indian' girl in fiction is always 'possessed with a suicidal mania. Her unhappy, self-sacrificing life becomes such a burden to herself and the author that this is the only means by which they can extricate themselves from a lamentable tangle'. So knowing what we know, and the way Johnson has incorporated all these Native stereotypes into her text, you might think Esther is going to die an unhappy death.
But wrong! Rather than have Esther commit suicide, Johnson has her majorly acquire some agency and kill Laurence: the nephew of Father Paul who has refused to disobey his Uncle and marry Esther, although he loves her. Esther's heart and soul tell her to 'Kill him, kill him ... It will break Father Paul's heart and blight his life. He has killed the best of you, of your womanhood; kill his best, his pride, his hope'. And so she does. Johnson shows Esther with a 'small flint arrowhead dipped in the venom of some strange snake', and the story concludes with Esther being 'suspected' in Laurence's death.
What I think is so fascinating about this is that it can be read in two ways, and I'm not exactly sure how it should be read, and I'm also not sure what Johnson thought she was doing here. In one way, it completely subverts the narrative of the passive, silent, Native girl with a lack of agency. She kills a patriarchal male figure, and in doing so, takes control of her own destiny.
In the other way, Esther simultaneously fulfills the stereotype of the Native as wild, uncivilized, and savage. Father Paul says she's one you 'can't trust', and in the end, she can't be trusted. If you look closely, Johnson also has Father Paul earlier call her a 'snake'. By having her kill Laurence with snake venom, Johnson effectively turns Esther into the snake she was accused of being previously.
So what are we left with? There's a level of subversion going on, but it's problematic in itself because by having Esther take action she only fulfills yet another stereotype.
WHY IT MATTERS NOW:
I said it above and I'll say it again: E. Pauline Johnson is complicated, and so is her writing. But this is exactly why I think she's so important. Living as a mixed race, part Native, part European, female in the late 1800s, while also pursuing a career as a writer and poet was not easy. She was living in a society where women and Natives were marginalized, stereotyped, and discriminated against, and I think her work honestly reflects the challenges that come to someone in her position.
She wanted to have a voice, to have her work heard and spread across the country. So to do so she conformed to expectations in certain ways: she performed the role of the exotic 'Indian', she incorporated stereotypes into her stories. But at the same time, she always did it with a twist. She undermined the notion that being 'Indian' had to be the defining characteristic of one's identity by showing it was a costume she could put on and take off. She had her female character Esther refuse to stay silent and submissive, and instead prove herself to be a survivor with agency. Johnson was unable to truly escape from the demands of her audience, but rather than not speak at all, she chose to appropriate the very stereotypes she criticized in order to subvert and manipulate them in subtle ways. In doing so, she gained a platform for her writing, and thus a voice.
Perhaps the way she went about things wasn't always clean cut and perfect, but I think that's the reality of living as a marginalized figure. It has to be messy. If it's not, you're just going with the flow, and accepting the way things are. If it's complicated, it probably means you, and others, are a part of the complicating. Or at least, something, or someone, is complicating the established norm in whatever way they can.
And that's a good thing.
E. Pauline Johnson's texts 'A Strong Race Opinion: On the Indian Girl in Modern Fiction' and 'As It Was in the Beginning' were looked at here from Canadian Literature in English: Texts and Contexts
Mark Dockstator, 'Aboriginal Representations of History and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples' in Walking a Tightrope: Aboriginal People and Their Representations
Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture
Carole Gerson and Veronica Strong-Boag, Paddling Her Own Canoe: The Times and Texts of E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake)