Indigenous·Opinion

Why Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson should be on Canadian money

Should Mohawk poetess E. Pauline Johnson appear on one of our dollar bills in 2018? I answer with both an emphatic yes and a casual, sure why not. But perhaps more importantly we need to ask, would Pauline herself want to appear on our paper money?

'Pauline became the voice of Indigenous realities,' says B.C. poet Janet Rogers

A mock image of a Pauline Johnson banknote. She is one of the five final candidates for the Bank of Canada race to choose the next Canadian woman to be on banknotes. (womenonbanknotes.ca)
Should Mohawk poetess E. Pauline Johnson appear on one of our dollar bills in 2018? 

I answer with both an emphatic yes and a casual, sure why not. But perhaps more importantly we need to ask, would Pauline herself want to appear on our paper money? 

For any and all Pauline enthusiasts and anyone who is able to cobble together an idea of her personality through biographical research, that answer would be "she'd be thrilled."
 

She'd be thrilled because through her hard work travelling across a young Canada 19 times as a means to earn a living through sharing her impassioned theatrical poetic recitations about lands within Canada and profiles of Indigenous peoples over 100 years ago, Pauline enjoyed her celebrity and saw it as her reward for all the trials of the road. 

Yeah, she'd be thrilled to be on our money. 

It makes sense that a biracial, half-Mohawk half-English figure in our history should grace our money and act as an ambassador in global trade as she did in her life. 

A voice of Indigenous realities 

Pauline became the voice of Indigenous realities, smoothed over with her sense of romance. Her poems were the bridge where many settler nations entered our world, the real world of their new lands. She influenced and shaped Canadian culture as no other woman had done and certainly no other Indigenous woman had done up to that point.

It is said that when she left us, leaving this world three days before her 52nd birthday from breast cancer in 1913, Vancouver hosted the largest funeral procession ever had, through it's downtown streets. This Mohawk woman was celebrated and revered. 

Duncan Campbell Scott, the tyrant head of Indian Affairs, dubbed E. Pauline Johnson  the First Woman of Canada, as a nod to her poetic achievements.

But my personal reasons for advocating her likeness to grace our bills is a more superficial one. She was a stunning woman. She instinctively knew how to play to the camera as evidenced in her iconic profile image with bear claw necklace and fringed leather tunic and skirt. She had an attractive presence. And isn't it time we host a bit of glamour on our money? 
Pauline E. Johnson was a rivetting performer, travelling Europe and North America to recite her own poetry. (Library and Archives Canada)

For years we've suffered with the likenesses of codgy old men passing our hands and Queen Elizabeth who without her diamonds and crowns is just plain Liz.

No disrespect, but Pauline was a star. A title not awarded her through inheritance or voted into the public sphere through politics but a star made from her own sweat and tears. She's earned this. And she deserved it. 

And when we think about it, money, commerce is the basis of the original relationship between Indigenous and settler nations. It's how we both survived with one another. Now those tables have turned for the worse.

Indigenous peoples can never find equal footing with the rest of the country until we acquire our lands back. Until we represent more than the current 0.2 per cent of land ownership in this country, we won't be able to tuck in at the trade table. With E. Pauline Johnson on our dollar bills, she can be the impetus for this conversation to begin, or continue, depending how you look at it. 

I know when I travel to other countries, and see the people looking back at me on their money, it sparks questions: who are they, why are they on this money?

As well as providing an education to visitors and new comers to Canada about our Mistress of nationalistic poetry, we'll be laying a foundation to a whole new generation in this country about this artist woman.

And isn't learning more about the Indigenous history in this country part of our collective healing as outlined in the TRC's Calls to Action? 

Pauline broke trail across this country for women, for native women and for women to make their own way as artists on their own terms. She wasn't just writing poems, she wrote the book and shaped identity where we all appear in every stanza and every verse. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet Rogers is a Mohawk/Tuscarora writer from Six Nations in Ontario. She has been living on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish people (Victoria) since 1994. Janet hosts Native Waves Radio on CFUV FM and has a regular radio column, Tribal Clefs, on CBC Radio One. She has produced two award-winning radio documentaries, including Bring Your Drum: 50 Years of Indigenous Protest Music.

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