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Friday, 13 June 2014

In Wake of Tekahionwake by Jim Larwill

In Wake of Tekahionwake

          by Jim Larwill


Part 1:  Fire-Flowers and the Imperialist Frame.

                                  “Below all nations is extinction.”

                                                         (Wilber Walnut)   

Writers from the center are renovated.

Writers from the margins are deleted.


Every hundred years writers from the center of power are renovated to fit the changing context of the world.  This is because after a hundred years writers from the center do not fit the shifting context of the world so the center renovates them in order to keep the hierarchy of their imperial corporate canon in place. After a hundred years writers from the margins in a similar way to writers from the center also do not fit the changing context of the world, however in contrast, they are not renovated into the new context of the times we live in, they are deleted.  The reason given for their deletion is they are out of date.  Writers from the center will continue to be a timeless program worth updating. Writers from the margins will continue to be little more than spam from the past.

It is just the way the world is: get over it.


A hundred years ago Canadians were reading and being influenced by the writings and performances of Pauline Johnson who was giving us a view from our margins and of ourselves at the same time Rudyard Kipling was informing the political ideology of our elites with his imperialist view from the center.  Pauline Johnson was a voice of a newly born Canada and her appeal from both pen and platform was that all who were Canadian, no matter what their birth, would be equals.  However the fact that she is largely forgotten today perhaps proves her hopes and dreams for this New Canada were misguided and that even in her short lifetime events were quickly unfolding which would mark this dominion as a land of false promises.  Her positive influences are forgotten. Even if in 1945 she was declared a person of national historical significance, too often today any fault she may or may not have had is quickly made paramount.  She may be used as a topic for an Opera, but even this can work to identify her as an obscure figure from the past with little day-to-day connection with popular Canadian culture, even if at one time she was one of the most important icons for all Canadians and a symbol of hope for a New Canada.  Rudyard Kipling certainly wasn’t in the forefront of the Canadian cultural phenomena of shifting everyday Canadians towards the recreational pursuit of canoe camping with numerous articles and poems celebrating the activity of kneeling upon the waters and sleeping under canvas reconnecting to nature.  Today canoe camping is accepted as an obvious trait of national identity as if it has always been here and came from nowhere.  Pauline Johnson’s role in this aspect of national identity is unacknowledged and she is too often dismissed as a contemptible Mohawk half-breed professional Indian, an apple with a polished thin red skin on the outside and an all white sickly sweet pulp on the inside who should have no lasting impression upon us.  Delete.  Delete.  Delete.

In contrast, Canadians are still to this day being touched, influenced and informed by the renovated writings and stories of Rudyard Kipling as they continue to be refurbished and reintroduced through various forms of media reproduction.  In his lifetime Kipling even intervened in the Canadian Election of 1911 and is credited for swaying the results away from the Liberals in favor of the Conservatives.  Today the direct influence of his writing continues through regular new movies and TV series, and this influence seeps into public life.  For example, “The Ballad of East and West” by Kipling with its west is west and east is east meeting of manly men certainly informed the relatively recent Canadian decision to send troops to Afghanistan. The Canadian Government seemed to think the adventure into Afghanistan would play out following a plot similar to Kipling’s ballad.  We would send our sons and daughters to track down the bandit.  The Rebel Chieftain as always impressed with western bravery would then quickly entreat their sons and daughters to “eat the White Queen’s meat” and join a military force protecting western values.   Who knows maybe the Canadian Government thought this folly would eventually increase sales for Canadian pork as it worked to balance trade with heroin?   Certainly if you are from “The East” and are dealing with “The West” and you read Kipling’s poem you might worry that you are dealing with a bunch of idiots who will fool themselves into believing their own imperialist propaganda as they expect you to eat the meat of their white Queens.  These sarcastic statements are mostly intended to be a slam against the ideological influences of an invisible Rudyard Kipling mind set and not those who made great sacrifices in hopes of a better future world.  Of course a People liberating themselves from oppression is a good thing.  However, the rule of the planet by global corporations is perhaps more than questionable and history often repeats itself.

Canadians in the Boer War died fighting rebels.

Nelson Mandela freed his people.

Defeating a rebel defeats a rebel; freeing people frees people: and context gives meaning. 

Random terms… a flag.


A contemporary poem of Pauline Johnson’s which contains many of the same elements as “The Ballad of East and West” such as the exchange of horses, references to wolves and dogs, and a friendship established with a character from the margins is her first person narrative poem “Wolverine.”  It seems to be an obvious re-write from the point of view of what happens when the margin meets the center as compared to Kipling’s ballad where western culture meets the oriental other.  Indeed “Wolverine” is partly a poem about who names things and who gets to tell the story when white power is involved and you are silenced.  Labeling is one of the themes of Johnson’s poem.   When the first person narrator is saved from wolves by his Indian benefactor, as he is given the horse to escape on, his now horseless savior states  'Take Indyan's horse, I run like deer, wolf can't catch Wolverine'  and the narrator gives him the nickname Wolverine.  We never know the real name of the central character of this tale and even the identity of the narrator is left up to possible interpretation.  We know the narrator is a trapper.  He speaks in broken English.  He is an old timer of some kind who had worked for the Hudson’s Bay company when “The squatters' shacks, for whites was scarce as furs when things is green, /An' only reds an' 'Hudson's' men was all the folk I seen.”  Is Johnson’s narrator like the author of this poem also of mixed race?  Is the narrative voice here Métis, who were sometimes referred to as the children of the Hudson Bay Company?  Is this poem a subtle comment on the hanging of Riel and Cree leaders which had happened a decade earlier?  It is not unlikely given one of her first poems to be published in 1885 was “A Cry From An Indian Wife” based upon the battle of Cut Knife Creek, a Cree victory where Col. Otter attacked a group of neutral Cree forcing them into defending their women and children, then upon winning the battle showed restraint by taking only defensive action when Poundmaker held his warriors back from obliterating the retreating Canadian troops. 

Pauline Johnson claimed to be double wampum.  Is Pauline Johnson’s voice a dialogic heteroglossia?  It can be argued Pauline Johnson was a naive puppet of imperial ideology.   But did this author realize some flint hard elements in her writing were best kept subversive and that the surface messages to her White heterosexual audience needed to be soft, feathery, and very vanilla?   Indeed feathers guide the aim of the shaft but are also connected to the arrow’s point.  For when an arrow finds its mark, flint becomes hidden, leaving visible only the feathers sticking out from the end of the shaft.  Pauline Johnson did go by two names and the Mohawk name she went by Tekahionwake literally means double-life, according to Wikipedia.  Furthermore in her signature poem “Ojistoh” she gives the lesson that when you are a Mohawk woman taken captive it is best to tell your captors:

Forget we now that thou and I are foes.
I like thee well, and wish to clasp thee close;
I like the courage of thine eye and brow;
I like thee better than my Mohawk now.


Then as you hug your captors you slip the knife out of their belt and knife them in the back.

One hand caressed his cheek, the other drew
The weapon softly--"I love you, love you,"
I whispered, "love you as my life."
And--buried in his back his scalping knife.


Is “Wolverine” a poem where Pauline Johnson refuses to swear the “East is East, and West is West,” Kipling oath “On the hilt and the haft of the Khyber knife” but instead makes a different point?  In “Ojistoh” is the “White Star” woman of this poem also speaking to the knife?  Is she in fact speaking the truth when she says “I love you, love you, love you as my life” because she is speaking it to the knife and it is only her enemy’s arrogance that assumes the statement is to him? How does one speak one’s own truth in the presence of an overwhelming captive power?

If Pauline Johnson was a professional Indian as referred to by some, Rudyard Kipling was more than certainly a professional Imperialist.  The irony is Pauline Johnson has been in many ways deleted from the Canadian psyche because of her inevitable link to Kipling, given her writing could only be produced within the context of her own times where Kipling and his ilk were major contexts she was writing into and unfortunately on the surface in superficial ways it makes her look similar to him.  However, Kipling remains and is renovated for all the wrong reasons, as Pauline Johnson is not renovated and is deleted mostly because she just happened to live during the same epoch of history as the one who should be deleted.  Rudyard Kipling is from the center.  Pauline Johnson is from the margins.  Rudyard Kipling has his major contradictions with our modern context forgiven.  He is renovated and reintroduced.  In contrast, all that is seen of Pauline Johnson is her transgression of writing in the context of her times and her view from the margins is deleted.  What was it like writing from the margins when White Man Burden authors such as Rudyard Kipling were receiving the Nobel Prize and those like yourself who were standing up in resistance and speaking against power were being hung for treason?  Today many writers from the margins write in the post-modern style as a way of having their message sell in the mainstream where White Man’s Guilt is more the fashion.  A hundred years from now when post-modernism is an anachronism these marginal writers will be deleted for being post-modern.  In contrast post-modern writers from the center will be repackaged and upgraded.

It is just the way the world is: get over it.

I believe Pauline Johnson was aware she was writing within a frame that was being provided for her.  Indeed her poem “Your Mirror Frame” is all about being placed into the context of the male frame along with others.   “I'll have my little laughs at them” she claims as she hopes to be the best of them.  This may be a poem about a man tucking photographs of women into the frame of his mirror as was the fashion of the times for lovers. This man is obviously a player; but the image presented is also a wonderful metaphor for this writer’s relationship to her readers.  All the center really wants to see is their own reflection and pictures of the other become ornaments decorating the margins of their frame.  I believe the dialogic tension in Pauline Johnson’s writing creates polyphony, it proliferates many possible novel readings to this very day.  Rudyard Kipling’s monologic dribble is epic tripe.  Pauline Johnson is brilliant.  Rudyard Kipling is imperialist.

Many marginalized groups in British North America saw the founding of Canada in 1867 as the birth of a new confederation of possibility where the history of an imperial family compact would be replaced by a democratic future in a new country where power would be a hopeful song finding harmony among many voices.   Certainly this was a vision Riel fought for.  November 16, 1885, this song was silenced with the hanging of Riel and it became clear marginalized groups would continue to be treated as conquered races and power would be centralized by those with economic supremacy.  The expanding of Canada into the west would not turn it into a homeland for all our founding nations sharing it with those already living there; the west would be a colony ruled by central Canadian money.  Canada became manifest destiny north, destined to become the manifest destiny branch plant we are today, where land is not sacred space we act out a harmony of life with, it is simply a site to plunder from afar for the benefit of capital before “the economy” moves on to the next pit.

The Manitoba Schools Act worked to repress the religious and language rights of Riels in favor of white English speaking Protestants; it meant the population boom in Quebec would move south into the United States where as industrial workers they were more welcome.  These hard working Habitant farmers with a long history of living side by side with native cultures with roots going back to the Voyagers, did not move to join and swell French speaking settlements already existing in the Canadian west.  It was clear the west was an extension of English Canadian capital and manufacturing interests and was only for those who would assimilate readily with these interests.  Outside of this frame others would remain as isolated controllable fragments.  Indigenous peoples were brutally suppressed.  Habitant farmers did not move to the West in any significant numbers after Confederation, instead the elite Priesthood with a long history of helping the conquering English subjugate an occupied population were sent to set up residential schools. What they did so well for the English in Quebec with the Habitant in Church and school, they could now do in the West in residential schools that were little more than re-education genocide prisons for indigenous children. Or as the trapper in “Wolverine” puts it with his ironic statement on civilizing influences: “We’ve got em sharpened up a bit, and now they’ll take a fee.”  The purpose of civilizing is to destroy tradition, disconnect children from the land, separate people from nature, and to chain all to the imaginary concept of Capital.

To begin with government settlement preference in the West was given to the plucky Englishman, until it quickly became clear these urban settlers were totally unsuited for the task.  Policy shifted towards Galician “stalwart peasants in sheep skinned coats” from Europe as Federal Minister of Interior and Superintendent General of Indian Affairs Sir Clifford Sifton put it.  These people had no long fur trade history or 300 years of economic ties with the indigenous residents.  When indigenous people live next door to neighbours who speak with them and trade with them you end up with Pauline Johnsons and Riels whose natural inclination will always be to try and find a way to bridge the gap between their parents.  Capitalist Power isolates children from their roots, uses fear to keep groups isolated, alienates the individual from the landscape, and subjugates collective experience into a corporation of consumption. 

In Pauline Johnson’s poem “Wolverine,” the villains are clearly an example of recent arrival plucky Englishmen also put into brackets by Johnson and referred to as (the Whites) and further evidence of her narrator’s identity is given when he states: “So I went over to their camp to see an English skin.”  This suggests this speaker has actually never even seen an Englishmen before, and this encounter would be his first meeting with an individual from the center.  Indeed referring to them as an “English skin” is an interesting counter to the term “Red skin.”  Is this Tekahionwake turning a term applied to her and reversing this power of naming back on those who name?  Furthermore this poem is about the writing of history and who gets to tell the story.  The story the plucky Englishmen tell is:

"They said, 'They'd had an awful scare from Injuns,' an' they swore
That savages had come around the very night before
A-brandishing their tomahawks an' painted up for war.


It is a story similar to the one told of Riel and the North-West by eastern newspapers.  In this poem it turns out the so-called war tribe attacking the English was a single Indian who was being a good neighbour innocently walking up to their camp after he had found some packages which had fallen off from the poorly loaded packs of these obvious greenhorns.

The Indian is shot dead.

The plucky English show no remorse for their mistake.

“It was only some old Injun dog that lay there stark an' stiff.'”

It wasn’t as if they had killed a white man; it wasn’t as if they had killed a man.


When the narrator turns up later he manages to get the real story out of these valiant ones from the center who claimed to have survived an attack by hordes of rampaging savages. He says of the English   'You are the meanest dogs that ever yet I seen,'

The poem ends when the narrator turns over the body and finds he is looking into the face of Wolverine.

This is not a poem a Rudyard Kipling would ever write.  This is a poem written for a white audience by a Mohawk at a time when native leaders were being hung.  It is a poem which stands against Kipling’s East is East, West is West myth and presents a cynical yet realistic view of what really happens when power meets the margins.  "Yes, sir, it's quite a story, though you won't believe it's true,” the narrator states at the very beginning of his story.  Even in the middle of the poem the narrator admonishes his audience for their preconceived ideas of native peoples.  The speaker of this poem tells this tale with the knowledge it may not be heard by those it is told to.  If Pauline Johnson failed in her attempts to change the white view of indigenous people I believe it is due to the fact that writers from the center are renovated and writers from the margins are deleted.  On one level she knew she was a writer tucked into the corners of a much larger frame.  Her face was not in that mirror.  Her face was reflected in Wolverine: a name that just happens to rhyme with Pauline.  And maybe, just maybe, if your views on Riel and your understanding of the history of the North-West are not a tale a Rudyard Kipling would tell, maybe, just maybe you partly owe that perspective to a voice from the past now silenced.  And maybe Wolverine is a dream of Canada that has been shot dead in its tracks many, many years ago.  Maybe this mirror is the face we need to look deeply into as we sing our death song to the land as it is raped, pillaged, plundered, left behind on the trail of capital as a murdered corpse.

If one views Pauline Johnson through the focus of the British literary spyglass she is a simple Caliban in the employ of the ever wise Prospero.

Sitting in the grandstand of American pop culture Pauline Johnson is a mere sideshow oddity disappearing into the past. 

But the world is not just the British and American center anymore: Get over it!


China does not embrace the poetry of Rudyard Kipling.  China will read Tekahionwake.  China will see how closely her writing relates to Lu Xun.  And in a changing world if old treaties have been broken, new treaties can be made.  If Canada does not respect land claims, China will. 

Tekahionwake is a poet central to the literature of a New Canada still waiting to be born.   For the poetry of Tekahionwake is the poetry of resistance and rebirth.  The poetry of Tekahionwake is the poetry of new life that comes in the wake following the relentless blaze of unbridled cultural power and its liturgy of capital that destroys all in its path. Tekahionwake is a wild flower who will not be tamed.  She is new life one day growing beyond generations of scar and pain.   She raises her regal and righteous head up high once again after the desolation.  Tekahionwake is the double life of survival and the seeds of a traditional transcendence reborn.  Her poems are flowers of fire-weed.  Her poems are a hand on the hilt of her captor’s knife.  Her poems are the ones my mother told me to read.


And only where the forest fires have sped,
Scorching relentlessly the cool north lands,
A sweet wild flower lifts its purple head,
And, like some gentle spirit sorrow-fed,
It hides the scars with almost human hands.

And only to the heart that knows of grief,
Of desolating fire, of human pain,
There comes some purifying sweet belief,
Some fellow-feeling beautiful, if brief.
And life revives, and blossoms once again.


Pauline Johnson Monument

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