Trailblazing mixed-race poet Pauline Johnson celebrated in Paddle Song on Firehall stage

Also known by her Mohawk name Tekahionwake, she is commemorated with a memorial in Vancouver's Stanley Park

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      Actor and musician Cheri Maracle has some things in common with Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake), one of Canada’s most remarkable feminists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

      Johnson was a famous poet of mixed Indigenous and English heritage who performed in theatre productions in many communities. A brilliant orator, Johnson travelled widely, including to Europe, as a single woman. She was published overseas and spoke extensively about her Indigenous ancestry to white audiences.

      When Johnson died at the age of 52 in Vancouver in 1913, mourners gathered for the largest public funeral in the city’s history up to that point. Her ashes were dispersed in Stanley Park, where a memorial was created in her honour in 1922.

      Maracle, whose credits include the TV series Blackfly, Unsettled, and Moccasin Flats, will play Johnson in the one-woman musical Paddle Song at the Firehall Arts Centre this month.

      In a recent phone interview, Maracle described Johnson as a “trailblazer”, “pioneer”, and “innovator”, as well as a “lateral thinker”.

      “Her father was Mohawk, which mine was,” Maracle said. “Her mother was European, which mine is. So there is a lot of similarities.”

      Not only that, but they both spent time on the Six Nations reserve in Ontario, where Johnson was born and where Maracle traces her matriarchal lineage. Her grandmother, Mina Martin, was from Six Nations.

      Pauline Johnson's poetry celebrated Indigenous traditions.
      Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board

      When asked if that gives her an advantage when it comes to portraying Johnson in Paddle Song, Maracle quipped, “I’ve been accused of that.”

      On a more serious note, she said that their shared heritage gives her an intrinsic understanding of some of the choices that Johnson made in her life. Some of those decisions were rooted in Mohawk culture, which Maracle said is matriarchal. According to her, women traditionally chose the chiefs and played a leading role in discussions about the land.

      “The Mohawk are very, very forward people,” Maracle added. “We are very walk-the-talk people. It’s about doing—getting things done.”

      She also described Mohawk people as innovators. And that is on display in her depiction of Johnson in Paddle Song.

      “Mixed blood is a recurring theme in the work,” Maracle said. “She did half of her show in English dress and the other have in Native dress that she created.”

      Like Johnson, Maracle also has a strong connection to B.C., having lived in Bella Bella and Prince Rupert before moving to Vancouver to study theatre at Capilano University. Her first professional performance was at the Firehall as a 19-year-old theatre graduate, and it’s where she will perform her last play before her 50th birthday.

      So it’s like a homecoming for Maracle to be returning to the Firehall, which has been overseen for decades by its artistic producer, Donna Spencer.

      “I’ve done about six shows here, so it’s really nice to reconnect with her,” Maracle said. “I just love her.”

      Video: CHEK-TV broadcast this story about Pauline Johnson on the 100th anniversary of her death.

      Maracle is often asked if she’s related to Sto:Lo poet and writer Lee Maracle. The connection comes through that author’s marriage to one of her cousins.

      But nowadays Maracle jokes that she’s Lee’s daughter, and, according to Maracle, Lee tells people that Maracle is her daughter.

      Maracle also said that Lee’s grandfather knew Pauline Johnson and that Lee’s daughter, theatre artist Columpa Bobb, grew up with Johnson’s poetry.

      “It’s wild for me to be bringing the show here, knowing the relationship Pauline had with Joe Capilano, the Squamish chief, and with other First Nations chiefs,” Maracle said.