After a Decadent Fashion: E. Pauline Johnson and the Staging of Indigeneity


  • Tim Clarke


At the peak of her popularity in the 1890s, the Mohawk and Canadian writer Emily Pauline Johnson (or Tekahionwake) was one of the most recognizable literary figures in North America – a reputation earned largely through dramatic recitals of her poetry and prose rather than on the printed page. The daughter of George Henry Martin Johnson, a hereditary chief of the Mohawks of the Six Nations reserve, and Emily Howells, an Englishwoman and relation of American novelist William Dean Howells, she garnered such public acclaim that in 1895 the critic Hector Charlesworth could proclaim without controversy that ‘[f]or the past five years, Miss Pauline Johnson has been the most popular figure in Canadian literature’. This popularity had much to do with Johnson’s performance of her own Indigeneity. A typical recital would begin with Johnson taking the stage in an elaborate buckskin dress; after the intermission, she would return in a Victorian gown. As a woman of mixed Mohawk and English descent with an overwhelmingly white settler audience, Johnson’s access to the literary marketplace was predicated on her ability to navigate a system of stereotypes, myths, and stock images that structured settler conceptions of Indigenous peoples. Thus, on page and stage alike, she felt compelled to enact an autoexoticizing performance of her own Indigeneity – a performance that was self-consciously stereotypical but that also ironized the audiences who consumed and propagated such stereotypes. Critics’ efforts to articulate more fully the agential or recuperative dimensions of these complicated acts of autoexoticism have been among the most fruitful strains in recent Johnson scholarship.