Paddled by Pauline

by Glenn Willmott


Which name should I have written? Pauline? Pauline Johnson? E. Pauline Johnson? Tekahionwake? For reasons that will take some pages to develop, I’ll want to assume right away a more burdensome significance than has been customary from this poet’s ambivalence about her published name. It will appear as a crux. But even to begin to write, I am faced with the problem of what to call her— that is, how to call her into my writing, how properly to appropriate her name, her words, to my own. I must ask the reader’s indulgence that the justification be deferred for this stumbling self-reflexivity which causes me to introduce the problem rhetorically, and causes me to resort to the poet’s own metaphors to do so: for I want the right name, but find instead they modulate and multiply, disperse, float out of reach, just like so many feathers. None seems simply right or wrong, or quite to cancel the others. And it may seem paradoxical, but the very etherealness of the name, the name that refuses to slip self-evidently from the tongue, that remains half-imaginary, comes as an obscure blow, comes with added weight, added body, not free of its invention, still talking, verbose: indiscrete. How then to choose which name to write—how to bestow the proper title? On which so much already depends? And so much already cast into shadow? (And what of the nameless other one, the one in her canoe, to whom so many shadowed words are spoken?) In the title I’ve taken up the personal name, Pauline. Personal, but not intimate—as were her various nicknames.1 I would continue to do so, but I do not wish to evoke that patriarchal practice of condescending to the female writer, to tutoyer her, with her first name, a usage similar in its hierarchical encoding to "poetess." Asking the reader’s patience then, I have written "Pauline" and will continue to refer to her simply as the "poet," to emphasize this lack of (one) proper name, of (one) identity, especially evident in the irreducibility of last names—and in order already to mark this strange language trap, which as a Mohawk woman writer, in an English mother tongue, she has already fallen into, a trap intrinsic to her work as well as its criticism, and to be explored in what follows.


Terry Goldie is right: to learn something about the history and historicity of literary value, go to this poet. As scholars since Shrive have repeatedly shown, the evaluation of her writing and performance art has varied widely. This has been so in such institutions of literary canon formation as British, Canadian, and American reviewers, publishers, schools and universities, and literary elites. But it has also been so in institutions most often excluded from canon formation, such as the cultural apparatus of the poet’s own Six Nations’ community and those of different Native groups across North America, as well as popular forums such as those of the frontier towns in which she performed, or of the children’s literature into which she has been assimilated. Indeed, the value of her work has been so divergently or ambivalently asserted over the past century that it is only today—when as it happens, the historical nature of literary value, especially in canon formation, is itself a trope of critical value—that her work has been canonized.

It is not that her work is suddenly considered as good as that of Roberts, Lampman, Carman, and Scott. The comparison to a normative good is mistaken. Where we speak of literary value, the good has not simply changed, it has multiplied. The good is multiple and relative, a matter of perspective and position within a given social and institutional horizon. Every good is historical, invented, imaginary, ephemeral, and material, nothing but the fluttering flag of one interpretive community seeking to fly above the others. Such a post-Nietzschean sensibility regarding the historical constructions of value by different communities and cultural groups, is the common ground of most recent writings about her work (Ruffo, Shrive, Ruoff, Lyon, Goldie, Hulan, Brant, Leighton, Gerson). The emphasis of these studies has been the relationship of this work to the politically-charged, often antagonistic discourses of the variously historied communities which she knew or encompassed as her audience: the representations, for example, of imperialism, nationalism, Native identity, and maternal feminism. The discourse that has received the least attention in this regard, but one of central importance to the poet herself, is that of modernist aesthetic value, by which I mean to say, her relationship to poetry, and the work of poetry, which is appreciated for its aesthetic novelty, complexity, and subtlety—in sum, its "difficulty"—and which continues to affirm those values in the practice of close reading (a practice I take to be the institutionalization of poetry as transcendental, arguably alienated, reflection and meditation). There is no lack of well-justified interest in her dramatic poems, and in herself as a kind of performance text, considered as more or less ambivalent cultural mediations and interventions. But there is very little close reading, and almost no attention to her lyric poems.

I think this is a shame, because among the important things this poet had to say to quite different audiences in her own period and beyond, was her contribution to modern poetry. The latter I consider profoundly engaging, as did she, even in its restricted sense in her lifetime as the product and practice of a non-Native élite with little interest in Native concerns. I would never wish to argue that this aspect of her work is "more" or "most" important, but I do wish to draw it from the shadows to stand with the others. Why? For me, to demonstrate that she made a substantial, well-crafted contribution to modernism in poetry, at the same time that she made important, well-crafted interventions in popular culture and in literature as a larger institution, will be to subvert the assumption otherwise implied, namely, that Native people can only be reactive or antithetical rather than creative or engaged transvaluers of the dominant values of non-Native writing. The latter has already been recognized, of course, in the case of postmodernist writing. But whereas postmodernist writing is usually defined by its already eccentric and critical reflexivity with regard to these dominant aesthetic values, modernist writing is often defined by a contrary conservatism (Gerson 91-92). A Native writer’s engagement with some version of modernism would seem to tell a different story to us, then, about literary intervention, than would an engagement with postmodernism, which was already institutionalized as a counter-discursive ethic at the time Thomas King and Gerald Vizenor began their work upon it.

This means that while I have to confess, like Goldie, that I will be "one more white outsider saying what Johnson’s Native text is" (383), my emphasis will rather be on the value of this poet’s non-Native text, and of a white outsider—but not an outsider to the audience addressed by her publication—trying to listen for it. My plan will be to read carefully through one of her lyric poems, "Shadow River: Muskoka," as first published for a wide audience in The White Wampum, (London, England: John Lane, 1895), pp. 50-51.2


The title has the bipartite structure of the poet’s own name as she most frequently advertised it: an English proper noun (compound), followed by a transliterated Native word. In print, "Muskoka" is printed in small caps beneath the larger print of "Shadow River," without preposition or other articulated connection. From the context of the other poems, it may be inferred—even by the large proportion of readers for whom Muskoka would signify nothing but the presence of another language, a transliterated presence, a marked absence—that Muskoka is a region. For some, and for most Ontarians, it is familiar as the lakes and woods north of Lake Simcoe where the poet spent several camping and canoeing holidays, and which has been a tourist destination since the late nineteenth century. In any case, the word encountered here must strike the reader. For those familiar with the regional name, it suddenly appears in the middle of a volume filled with other transliterated Native-language names—names that have appeared only in dramatic poems addressed to Native history, political and legendary. In such a context, the Native derivation of the name cannot help but strike us. It is no longer transparent, evaporating before its obvious meaning, its signified, but its very language carries weight, calls attention to its belonging also somewhere else, and to its importation here, its assimilation, from that other, Native world. The signifier is burdened with itself, its body, its history. Its own language cannot be shaken off. Yet we do shake it off, for the word does not mean anything else—Muskoka signifies in English, not in a Native language.3 I will try to clarify this ambiguity a little later on; here I want to note how it echoes, as we begin this poem, the Native situations of those others.

A glance at the page tells us to expect a poem in a closed form, of six identical stanzas. I’ll take one stanza at a time, before discussing the form and its overall effect.

A stream of tender gladness,
Of filmy sun, and opal tinted skies;
Of warm midsummer air that lightly lies
In mystic rings,
Where softly swings
The music of a thousand wings
That almost tones to sadness.

The rhyme scheme, a-b-b-c-c-c-a, is increasingly assertive—moving from what initially sounds like an unrhymed first line, through a rhyming pentameter couplet, into a change of rhythm in three rhyming even-metred lines, concluding with a short line rhyming with the now distant first. The effect is of an increasing sense of order or closure, beginning with what seems an unintegrated or disoriented first statement, moving into stricter and closer harmonies, until finally wrapping around to integrate the whole. The combination of increasing harmony and cyclical return may be likened to a spiralling motion, which begins anew with every stanza. The metrical pattern of 3-5-5-2-2-4-3 foot lines has also a cycling effect, moving from expansion to compression, to expansion to compression again. That the latter cycle is both less expansive and less compressive than the first has to my ear a suggestion of convergence toward parity, a subtle sense of increased regularity, of order. This sense is suggested too, by the distant echo in metre, as in rhyme, between the first and last lines. In short, the images of "mystic rings" and of music that "softly swings," are also suggested acoustically. The cyclical effect is not simply given, however, but constructed out of spirals and waves: it is worked up. We do not feel proportion immediately, but rather the search for proportion, the desire for it, which can uncannily feel—in the middle of the stanza—both too regulated and not regular enough, and which only finds closure, though the first line is now dimly recalled, at the end. (I note with appreciation, that repetitiveness of the form is not aggressive: the rhythm, with the proper punctuation, is nicely varied, and the assertive rhyming is tempered by the changing metre and with enjambments.)

The "stream of tender gladness" is quietly ambiguous. Given the title of the poem (and the canoeing imagery and setting as we proceed) we naturally call up an image of a waterway. But "of tender gladness" has the curious linguistic effect of calling up the abstract sense of "stream" as opposed to the physical one. The stream is both real and metaphorical, both an external actuality and a concept or feeling abstracted from it. Thus the first word, apart from the article, already plays on the ambivalent status of the signifier in language, both referenced to an objective world and signifying a subjective one, the world of metaphor, of the "stream" of something else—an object chased through language. Succeeding images are similarly ambivalent. How can the sun be "filmy"? How can air lie in "rings"? The answer, of course, is that the images are mediated by the "stream." They are already reflections rather than the things themselves. The sun flickers like a film of light on the water. The skies take on a mineral shine. The air conforms to the circles of waves. They are already representations. As such they lose their identity, their untranslatability into each other’s elements: synaesthesia takes over, in which the tangible and the ethereal, the acoustic and the visible, the inanimate and the emotional, translate into each other. The stream, the music, in part releases words from things— or more precisely but paradoxically, since the reflecting stream is itself a thing, things and words are magically merged. The stream becomes the gladness, the sun and skies, the warmth, the music, the motion of the wings, until it reaches the opposite of its starting point, a sadness. "Almost"—because even the contrast must be undone, an imperfect return recalled, echoed rather than repeated. The stream as flow, rhythm, dissolving merger, speaks to us of the incredible power of music to this poem. It is an incantation.

Midway ‘twixt earth and heaven,
A bubble in the pearly air, I seem
To float upon the sapphire floor, a dream
Of clouds of snow,
Above, below,
Drift with my drifting, dim and slow,
As twilight drifts to even.

An "I" is introduced. Also an action: floating, drifting. In a "dream" world of sensory images, the real and the reflection, the high and the low, the physical and the metaphysical—if those connotations of "earth and heaven" also collapse into the drumbeat equivalence of "above, below"—become identical. The drifting is vertiginous, losing those distinctions that make for direction, dimension, measure and polarity. It is not blindness or darkness, but dimness and twilight which effect this vertigo: not concealment, but transition. The problem is not hermeneutic, but linguistic. We see this in what happens to the "I," which we meet at first in the fragment "I seem": already the "I" is caught in the same web of reflection, of appearance, of image, as the "stream" and the other signifiers of this poem.4 The synaesthesis of the first stanza is more vertiginous here. In a contradiction of the elemental separateness of earth, water, and air, the "I" floats both "upon the sapphire floor" and "in the pearly air." The "I" cannot be imagined in either place rightly, or in a combination, but only in some prior place "midway" between everything, even these images of positioning, in the movement itself of seeming. This movement of the "I" through "I seem" has a metaphorical logic, the linguistic activity of a "dream." Indeed, the fragment "a dream" echoes across the couplet with that other fragment, "I seem," as its object. As the verses continue, it is ambiguous whether the "I" continues to be identified (as the grammar would have it) with the "dream," which becomes "clouds," which becomes "snow," which becomes divided into "above" and "below," which then drifts (itself now divided) "with my drifting." To simplify the poem, one is tempted to replace the comma after "floor" with a period—but the ambiguity of a possibly grammatical, possibly run-on statement is productive. We see the "I" itself caught up in a symbolic chain of objects and positions (I=bubble, dream, clouds, snow) without a resting place, even or especially in relation to itself, except in a certain relationship to language: the curious positioning, or insistent being-out-of-position, suggested by representational "drifting" as opposed to another activity.

At this point we recognize the poet’s clearly forged link to that fin-de-siècle cultural formation in which contemporary poets such as Bliss Carman were involved, and which Brian Trehearne has shown to be so important to the subsequent development of Canadian Modernist poetry: aestheticism. In the verses so far, the poet’s dream of herself and her world is a dream of pure and encompassing aestheticization. All that is real, all that is beautiful, all that is touching, is de-realized into the comprehensive being—as becoming—of subjective representations, reflections, signs and images. Hence, in this destabilized world, we nonetheless may paradoxically feel an ideal at work. It is not unconnected with the pull toward order, the pull toward integration and closure which must always begin all over again, felt in the metrical and rhyming cyclical rhythm already remarked. Music, considered as non-representational, exemplified for aestheticists such as Mallarmé, the transcendental ideal of aestheticism, the art and artifice of an imagination raised above, to find value exclusively in aesthetic value and its production, in defiance of the material circumstance and degraded ideology—the naturalized ascription of value and presence— dominating the poet’s everyday world. There is yet an ideal or image, then, which lies in the shadow cast by the disintegration or transgression of ideal distinctions. The poem drifts, but in so drifting paradoxically directs us to a world grasped as a work of art— the work ongoing, the art ephemeral, its signs volatile—and as a grasping at shadows. But in making this equation, of shadow with reflection with sign, I anticipate the imagery of the next stanza:

The little fern-leaf, bending
Upon the brink, its green reflection greets,
And kisses soft the shadow that it meets
With a touch so fine,
The border line
The keenest vision can’t define;
So perfect is the blending.

The physical object and its intangible representation blend to become indistinguishable; there is no reality apart from its representation. They not only blend, they bend, they greet, they touch, they kiss. It is not just the way things are, rather they become so. Somewhere, desire is at work, a desire for that blending, shadowing, indistinction that I already traced in the path of the "I" and its language in the foregoing stanzas.

The far, fir trees that cover
The brownish hills with needles green and gold,
The arching elms o’erhead, vinegrown and old,
Repictured are
Beneath me far,
Where not a ripple moves to mar
Shades underneath, or over.

The fragment, "Repictured are," simply but nicely describes the work of aestheticization—the designation of being not only as a picturing but as a repicturing, as in a world of synaesthetic echoes. The "I" is paradoxically both a middle point and medium in which these echoes meet, but as a distanced other, as "far" from the repicturings as she is "far" from the hills. Distance and the collapse or encompassing of distance is the drive of this stanza. We move away from the close-up focussed on the "little fern-leaf," in order to envelope in the same sensibility the distances of "far" trees and hills, that is to the spatial horizon, and the distances of "old" growth and age, that are temporal. The sense of ancient, even eternal time, is suggested by the final line’s reference to "shades underneath," which cannot help but connote the past lives accumulated in an underworld. This underworld, a shadow figure for an absolute otherness, an absence from life, is blurred with the presence of life itself, in the "over" world, in the most striking de-realization of the poem. Key to this de-realization is the inversion of the hierarchy of signification: depth, what is "beneath me far," is not an identity, a thing-in-itself, a concealed meaning, but a representation, a signifier. The signified is here the obvious, the surface condition. Now a more general time and space are drawn into this inversion and its shadowy or unbounded chain of signification—for memory as well as perception.

Mine is the undertone;
The beauty, strength, and power of the land
Will never stir or bend at my command;
But all the shade
Is marred or made,
If I but dip my paddle blade;
And it is mine alone,

A powerful claim is made in the first line. This world aestheticized, or the world as the work of aestheticization, belongs to the poet. The possession here, the "undertone" is many-layered, connoting: (1) the underworld of representation as shadow of life (and of life as shadow as representation, according to an aestheticist transvaluation) from the previous line, (2) the depth of a submerged colour in painting, showing through the imposed colours, ghostly, the trace of an absence, (3) the dim shade of a colour, (4) the vocal or musical undertone, an utterance beneath normal speech, possibly not heard, or picking up on the "tones" of the first stanza, a musical depth like that in painting, sounding ghostly, shadowy, beneath the clearly present sounds. Set against this possession is the dispossession of "land." The poet has no control, no mastery, and by implication, no ownership. The land will not answer—will not "bend," as in the third stanza—to her desire. In a sense, a spell is broken. The totality realized in the previous stanza gives way to an equally encompassing separation. Not only the land, but the land instilled with aesthetic and creative values, is here alienated from the "I," at the very moment a claim is made. (The claim to possession, in the context of the signifying chain set in motion by the poem, is troubling, impossible; I ask the reader’s patience until I can return to it from a clearer angle.) What stands forth here is the figure of the drifting paddler, whose paddle yet acts without direction. Her pathlessness will be affirmed again and again in the stanza following. But her paddle is not idle. Her aesthetic world—which I have insisted, here, is her signifying world—is "marred or made," so blurrily resonant are creation and destruction, by her paddle’s "dip." Without speaking of the phallic connotation of this figure, it certainly connotes the action of the pen, and the act of writing, which is already self-reflexively signified by the poet’s aestheticizations. The shadows, the stream, the Shadow River, take on the darkness of ink. "I" have poetry, writing, language—but not the land. "I" have representation of the land, but not the land. How is it that the "earth," once suspended in an imaginary echo of "heaven" and mediated by the poet, must now be represented as severed, estranged? The political implications are inevitable: histories of colonization, like shades among the living, like memories among words, swarm into the poem. Power is not only material, but representational. And the empire writes back.

O! pathless world of seeming!
O! pathless life of mine whose deep ideal
Is more my own than ever was the real.
For others Fame
And Love’s red flame,
And yellow gold; I only claim
The shadows and the dreaming.

The claim is repeated, "it is mine alone," in a forceful enjambment across the unmarked space of the page to this, the last stanza’s cry, "O!" of the world of representation, of "seeming." The desire for possession, the claim-making, is compulsive: a third "mine" is heard, her "my own" in the next line, then her final "claim." Again this troubling claim intrudes, and again I put it off, in order to look one last time, through this stanza, at what it is that is being claimed. Here the repetitive effects of the metre and rhyme are intensified. There is the immediate repetition of "O! pathless." The pentameter couplet is increasingly more rhythmic as the poem progresses, as the enjambment of its second line is attenuated with each stanza, until the syntactical closure of the period in the last. This attenuation of enjambment is a significant effect for the whole poem, as it echoes on a larger scale the cycling towards integration, the desire for order felt in each stanza. And a further twist is applied here, where the metre is tightened up by the caesura in the middle of the sixth line, which echoes and extends the rhythm of the previous two lines. What is this "music," this "undertone," this "shadow" world, this "dreaming," this "deep ideal," this "repictured" being and its "I" mediating so many signs, images, senses of things, in a world that is "marred or made" by the dip of her paddle in the stream? What being in her paddle’s art, in a flow of becoming, in a rhythm of language? What is the opposite not only of land, but here too of prestige, love, and wealth—a whole normative world, divided thus into values that can be appropriated to a self, a world to which the normalized self in turn belongs—in a world considered simply to be, rather than to seem? These questions have their answer in the phenomenologically disorienting drift of language described above, a kind of "writing back," which is only intensified, echoing and resounding, in the final stanza. There are three turns of the screw I want to apply to what I have said, to describe this writing— which I will call her shadow writing.

The first turn is to look upon shadow writing as a mode of aestheticism. The modern individual senses her alienation from a world whose values are hypocritical or hollow, whose actions and opportunities lack meaning, and therefore lack reality. Her search for authenticity of action and value is realized in individual creation, in the ideological isolation of an artificial, imaginary and hence unreal, world of pleasure and beauty crafted in despite of life. This unreal world is transcendental yet human, imaginary yet more real than reality, because alone inscribing value. The problem of value, once historicized, thus falls back on itself to value the priority of inscription itself—as Nietzsche would have it, the creative principle which is alone noble. The aestheticist drive to beauty and pleasure, to the pure thrill of the reverie, is everywhere in her shadow writing. Its transgressiveness too: the scene of seduction, of letting go, of abandoning oneself, forgetting oneself, merging with the other, which we see narrativized in those poems addressed to the other in the canoe, the lover with no name.5 And finally its melancholic alienation from life itself: the sense of death or approaching death in talk of shades, underworlds, twilights, and sadness. This poet is no mere imitator, as I hope to have demonstrated, but a compelling and crafty contributor to the aestheticist tradition.

In particular, the poet’s willfully wandering paddle, her invocation of an "I" that is drawn into its current of aesthetic transvaluation, enacts a profound self-reflexivity with respect to the language of aesthetic experience. The "I" of shadow writing is always being written. The "I" is always a shadow behind, within, cast by but other to its own writing—an undertone. Such a shadow being, or self as undertone, corresponds very well with the condition of the subject prior to language, which Julia Kristeva has analyzed in terms of the "semiotic chora," and has studied as a politically meaningful, transgressive activity of poetic language.6 According to Kristeva, language depends upon two modalities, the semiotic and the symbolic. The semiotic modality refers to the workings of all the energies and drives in the body of the subject. Indeed, body, self, and world are not here distinct, but all belong to the less differentiated condition of the "subject," who is shot through with impulses and drives that make up a primal "motility" (25). This semiosis is never anarchic or inchoate, however, because its defining motility is mediated and regulated, in early childhood, by the mother who encompasses and responds to it, as well as by a social-historical world that the mother, in turn, also mediates (27, 47). This regulation results in the "articulation" of a chora for the subject, a world of immediate meanings—of always moving, ephemeral differentiations in voice, gesture, and colour that result from discontinuities between drives and regulation, rather than from signification (28). Later in life, this mediating function (of what Kristeva, borrowing from Jacques Lacan, calls the Other) tries to find its substitute in the promise of language itself, in a symbolic order constituted by the separation of the self in language, from the other and other things in language—the promise never satisfied, driven along a chain of signifiers, to similarly unify or encompass the subject’s world (46ff). Even at this later stage, the drive is semiotic, and subtends the movement of language, necessary to it as such.

The chora in language is its pattern of drives, its motility, its striving. Kristeva represents it as music, as rhythm (26ff). Originally mediated by the body of the mother, with a deconstructive effect upon the supposed-to-be-transcending signs, positions, and ego-ideals of a patriarchal symbolic order, the chora is inevitably feminine. It is a "rhythm within language," "underlying the written" (29), which destroys the authority, the proper functioning of the symbolic in language: the marking and taking of positions, the making and claiming of distinctions, and so the hierarchical positioning of authority and judgement, in the work of any given sign-system. The trick of the chora is to grasp its function as both non-signifying and inevitably meaningful—as a music or rhythm without position or content, yet as an interruption and transgression of symbolic orders which construct the historical subject (28, 48-50). The chora in language decenters the ego of the subject, and opens it to a dialectical involvement with its history—a history felt as a body of powers and regulations. In art, this dialectic itself becomes signified: poetry is the symbolic trace of the chora, a self-reflexive, troubled kind of re-containment in the provisional object of art, without which the transgression would be that of madness (51). The "I" and its symbolic formation is put on trial—yet in symbolic form, which is to say, in a trial for the self (as poet), and for others (as readers) (63).

This poet’s aestheticist impulse, then, cannot be dismissed as contradictory to her political complaint in the poem. The transgressive undoing of distinctions between self, object, and representation, in a drifting, unpositionable body making and marring, creating and destroying its world, bears a dialectical rather than antithetical relationship to the "real" of a modern and colonizing history. This real is only grasped symbolically, as the trio of final abstractions and metonyms prove. "Fame, / And Love’s red flame, / And yellow gold"—these metaphors of the real are for others. "I" claim other metaphors, or rather their shadows: this rhythm beneath all metaphors. The unreality of shadow writing is a trick: if "I" succeed, that is to say, if you understand this, if you follow my meaning, catch my drift, then my unreal will affect your reality, will cast into shadow what is real for you, even what is really you. The trickster "I" is a being of drives, working within and against the rules, unpositionable yet positing culture, making it, marring it, wandering in and out, moving on. Others may command the land, but they cannot master the "land." But what is the land without the "land"? Is it not another shadow? The paddle’s dip seduces, only to level a blow.

Thus we come to the second turn of the screw: not only does this poet participate with subtlety and depth in the art of modern aestheticism, she gives it a twist which re-politicizes its channelling of drives to the unreal. Her writing is (in) the shadow of dispossession. Her claim to possess her own semiotic shadows, to appropriate for the tricky "I," in the place of the other’s real, the rhythm of its dreaming, the river of its ink, is a political act. More precisely, it is protopolitical, since it claims powers constitutive of the political. The appropriation of aestheticism is a political act in shadow writing, because derealization, or aesthetic transcendence, becomes heavy again with its own historical implications and belongings— those articulated in the regulation of a chora, and signified in the law of a symbolic order. We already saw this in the most innocuous of words: Muskoka. What this word refers to, from the subject perspective of Shadow River, is both less concretely real, and more political, than we might ever have suspected.

Yet the paradigm of claiming and possessing, to which appropriating and belonging also belong, is as troubling here as it was above. Is it not reactionary to make such a counter-claim, to seem to parcel out who gets what? To want not only to appropriate a language, but insistently to claim it as "mine" and "mine alone"? It must be admitted that this claim plays against the chora even as it plays along with it. It separates the "I" from what is claimed, and from the claims of others. So it is a position, and it signifies to us. In fact, this is what Kristeva says poetry does, as distinct from madness. The political value of the chora is not to be found in an ideal opposition to normative culture (which is madness), but in a symbolization of the subjectivity which both exceeds normative culture and is always shadowed by it. Poetry thus enacts a recontainment of the political forces and possibilities of a chora in the very work of expressing them. The claim to possess shadow writing, as a politicized aesthetic, is a claim to an object whose position, value, and limits are already marked out by a reigning symbolic order—and its marketplace.7 We may well question the ambivalence of this drive to possession. Does it undermine this poet’s transgressive critique of others’ possession, and her dispossession, of the "real"?

A last twist, then, is to describe this contradictory claim, this insistence upon appropriating against appropriation, what in any case seems unappropriable. An example of this condition is conveniently found in an essay by Jacques Derrida, in which he echoes Kristeva’s notion of the chora and precisely in the context of an individual in a colonial situation whose normative language is that of an other, the language of the colonizer. I will suggest that this situation is exemplary for this poet’s writing in "Shadow River: Muskoka." No doubt I am on a borderline, here, of the non-Native modernist context I wished primarily to adumbrate. Yet it is a borderline, since Derrida argues that his situation is both particular and exemplary of a situation universal to language itself, which the suffering and violence of colonizing history only brings "into relief" (24). Derrida is an Algerian Jew whose mother tongue is French. Having no alternative language to identify himself in or with, such as Arabic, Berber, or for obvious reasons, Hebrew or Yiddish, he considers himself monolingual. Yet as a Jew who has felt the precariousness of his belonging to France (the French citizenship of Algerian Jews had been intermittent in his own and his family’s experience), he also experiences this monolingualism as a "monolingualism of the other." It is "my element," he says, yet "it will never be mine" (2).

Such an experience could not have failed to affect this poet, whose mother tongue was English, who inhabited English as her everyday language, yet who remained acutely aware of its coming from elsewhere, that it was not naturally her own, that it was a gift or an imposition—indeed, if one may judge by her mother, a rather strict regulation—that she would have to make it her own. She also learned Native languages. She is known to have recited in Mohawk, and to have spoken a few words of Chinook. She must have learned some Iroquois from her father, George Johnson (Teyonnhehkewea), who was fluent in English and several Iroquois languages, and held the powerful post of Six Nations interpreter for the Canadian government. Moreover, George’s father, John "Smoke" Johnson (Sakayengwaraton), was a powerful orator and storyteller, nicknamed the "Mohawk Warbler" for the music and poetry of his style. A favourite of the poet when very young, he "had a vast knowledge of Mohawk history and ceremony and was the only one left on the reserve who could read the wampum belts" (Keller 28). The father and particularly the grandfather must surely have imparted to her a knowledge and feeling for Mohawk language—verbal, symbolic, and ritual (Van Steen 7, 11).8 However, Smoke Johnson was an occasional presence, and George Johnson zealously pursued duties outside the home. The poet spent the vast majority of her days in the pastoral enclosure of Chiefswood, alone with her English books, or with her mother, siblings, and servant help, at a lonely remove (both because of her cultural assimilation into English language and bourgeois culture, and because of the physical location of the family home across the river from the Reserve) from other Native children. Her mother, whom she describes as the centre of her childhood formation—even as a mediator of her father’s values and culture—did not speak Mohawk ("My Mother" 69, 74, 84). So that although she may have become fluent in Mohawk (Brant 14), this poet was surely monolingual in the Derridean sense of an everyday language. She identified strongly with Native languages and culture, and she knew and felt these as belonging to her Native identity, but for historical and family reasons, her mother tongue was English.9 Assimilated enough to have felt denied her "own" language (and so prefiguring the "dark days" of residential schooling that for others lay ahead), she was yet unassimilated enough to feel that English was other to her, somehow alien to her sense of belonging.10 Hence her anxiety (and ours) about her "own" name: justifiably estranged from the name "Emily Pauline Johnson" as an English name, she desires and claims to possess "Tekahionwake" as her own—yet without being able to make that claim in Mohawk itself, as a name given to her by that symbolic order. While Tekahionwake is no doubt as true as, perhaps more true than, her English name, it was acquired by an act of individual choice mediated by English naming conventions (see Keller 47). It takes the place of an absent name, of the denial or dispossession of an original name; it is a "phantasm" or shadow of a name that is not there, the shadow of belonging to a language as a language of one’s own.

Derrida describes this troubling situation, of the self caught in a "monolinguism of the other," as a kind of "alienation without alienation" (25) that will always seek to possess an original language where there is no other original language. The alienation can be expressed in terms of a displacement of self, a "disorder of identity" (17), a "madness" in the law of language itself (10), that is comparable to the semiosis described by Kristeva, which is prior to and antagonistic to the formation of the self and its language, but upon whose drives such self-formation and meaning-making nevertheless depend.11 Describing his own writing of this deconstructive element, Derrida has recourse to the regulation of the chora:

If I have always trembled before what I could say, it was fundamentally [au fond] because of the tone, and not the substance [non du fond]. And what, obscurely, I seek to impart as if in spite of myself, to give or lend to others as well as to myself, to myself as well as to the other, is perhaps a tone. Everything is summoned from an intonation.
     And even earlier still, in what gives its tone to the tone, a rhythm. I think that all in all, it is upon rhythm that I stake everything.         (48)

The statement is an echo of Derrida’s abiding interest in deconstruction appreciated as a rhythm, as a recognition of the body of writing, of a chora.12

The assimilated writer, Derrida suggests, will be more attuned to the otherness of language as an intensification of an inevitable alienation within language, and will be more agonized by it. The phantasms of stable self, other, property, identity—all phantasms of belonging and appropriation—are phallogocentric compensations for this alienation (though in historical effects, powerful and oppressive ones; Derrida cites the example of nationalism). But it is the peculiar agony of the assimilated writer never to feel at one with such phantasms, to have a precisely excessive desire, and an excessive writing as such. In this writing, which lacks any stable identity for the self, the assimilated writer is "thrown into absolute translation, a translation without a pole of reference, without an originary language" (61). She may tend to "the madness of hypermnesia, a supplement of loyalty, a surfeit, or even excrescence of memory, to commit oneself…to traces—traces of writing, language, experience—which carry anamnesis beyond the mere reconstruction of a given heritage, beyond an available past" (60). Does this not suggest this poet’s relationship—limitless, accumulative—not only to her Mohawk and Loyalist Canadian languages and pasts, but to those of the many other Native and non-Native communities she strove to represent and perform, to translate from one audience to another, in a ceaseless appropriation and de-propriation in her travels? All is translated in and out of a drifting, unpositionable "I."13 All is made her own, at the price of all propriety, all identity, being unmade, in the "absolute translation" or rhythm of shadow writing.

Hence the poet’s claims to shadow writing are not inconsistent with the deconstructive critique of a symbolic order of identity, property, and power in which—as Native and as woman—she has been assimilated as a subordinated other. The chora in writing acts against differentiations of identity, property, and belonging, because it inscribes a transgressive "zone outside the law" of the symbolic order (65) which allows us to recognize "de-propriation" (Derrida 65, 64). But it can never escape re-appropriation, or re-containment in a phantasm of mastery, of possession. Hence the doubleness of the paddle’s dip, as it determines for us, the readers of this poetry, our decisive drifting. The politics of shadow writing is both in its deconstruction of the phantasmic, naturalized positioning and identity of the colonizing other, and in its own formation of more circumstantially weighted, non-transparent, always-already spoken or written positions in response.

Both of these politics are articulated, I would like to reiterate, in the discourse discussed above, of a politicized aestheticism. I am still talking about what "Shadow River: Muskoka" means as a non-Native text, which is to say, to an implied reader versed in modern English poetry, but not necessarily in the poet’s modern Native traditions. If I have convincingly suggested the aesthetic merit and critical interest of her work for the former, then I will have done what I set out to do. This was merely to correct what I saw as an unfortunate tendency in recent criticism implicitly or explicitly to divide the merit and politics of the lyric poems from those of the dramatic ones, to divide the "feather" from the "flint," rather than to take seriously how, in her Foreword to her collected poems, the poet herself divided but, in the sudden fold of shadow writing, blended them again:

This collection of verse I have named "Flint and Feather" because of the association of ideas. Flint suggests the Red man’s weapons of war; it is the arrow tip, the heart-quality of mine own people; let it therefore apply to those poems that touch upon Indian life and love. The lyrical verse herein is as a

"Skyward floating feather,
Sailing on summer air."

And yet that feather may be the eagle plume that crests the head of a warrior chief; so both flint and feather bear the hall-mark of my Mohawk blood.

The power of the flint is recognized. I hope to have at least begun a conversation about the power of the plume, the feather. And I would hope that other lyric poems of love or reverie, such as "The Flight of the Crows," "The Idlers," "Thistle-down," and "Fire-flowers," which I cannot attend to here, might thus draw closer attention. The latter, for example, offers a nicely compressed allegory of (ephemeral but regenerative) aesthetic power in the wake of lost lands, which complements the verses studied herein and relates them to the poet’s repeated love poem motif of estrangement realized as desire for a lost other.


It requires no special knowledge or experience of the poet’s Native tradition, by which I mean a body of Six Nations history, language, and ritual, to appreciate the subtle tricks, both aesthetic and political, of her poetry of "shadows" and "dreaming." On the other hand, hers is also a Native text, and is also legible from the perspective of her Native traditions, without requiring special knowledge or experience of non-Native literary modernism. I cannot speak authoritatively from this perspective, but I can indicate suggestive parallels between what I have argued about the poet’s shadow writing here, and what other Native writers have said about the situations of Native writing.

Foremost is the ambivalence of concepts such as "land," "possession," "power" and "self." Land is not a material resource external to the self and mind, but a world continuous with the body and its subjectivity and others, as Brant explains: "From Pauline Johnson to Margaret Sam-Cromarty, Native women write about the land, the land, the land. This land that brought us into existence, this land that houses the bones of our ancestors, this land that was stolen, this land that withers without our love and care. This land that calls us in our dreams and visions, this land that bleeds and cries, this land that runs through our bodies" (14). Only in non-Native writing is this understood as an act of apostrophe; in Native writing, the land so addressed is always already assumed to embody spiritual and signifying processes. The division of the world in individual and collective "property" and social powers or "command" is correspondingly different in Native tradition where—especially in this poet’s particular culture—such division is more custodial and collectivist. What is "mine" and "mine alone" has different implications—perhaps of an individual responsibility in contrast to a colonizing appropriation—where as Brant says, "our words come from the very place of all life, the spirits who swirl around us, teaching us, cajoling us, chastising us, loving us" (10). From this perspective, writing and representation are living, constitutive aspects of the world; not "mere" shadows, but shadows with power.

Many writers, especially Native writers, have spoken of the exemplary situation of the mixed-blood writer, whose double belonging, but also double alienation, results in a writing or a characterization which is a continual self-creation, born out of a continual writing-as-translation between symbolic orders and identities—a writing that is often political for its transgression of non-Native concepts of language and identity (see esp. Damm, Rose; also Brant 20-21, 115-16, St. Clair 46, Seiler 62-63, Donovan 18-19, 25-26, Ruoff 249, 253). The situation of this mixed-blood writer corresponds to the drifting "I" in shadow writing, who appropriates language in order to deconstruct its very phantasms of appropriation, who claims the "claim" itself as a drive rather than an identity, a drift rather than a path, as a making rather than a commanding, as a powerful trick of language.

The understanding of the "I" as a creative flux, an often tricky identity situated in the body of the world and its languages, is explored from a deconstructive perspective by Gerald Vizenor, and from a social-interactionist perspective by Andrew Wiget, as characteristic of Native oral and literary tradition. Of this "I" in Native writing, Vizenor says: "written autobiographies are the traces of coincidences, the casual reasons, the burdens of everlasting translation, the unsure scenes in dreams, visions, memories with bears, birds, and the différance in other names" ("Ghost Dance" 226).14 Despite Vizenor’s critique of Wiget’s more social-scientific approach to Native literature, Wiget similarly emphasizes the creative flux not only of a text but of a language that is in process and intersubjective. Wiget argues that "code-switching" models of multicultural discourse are not adequate to Native texts, because such models treat cultural codes (various Native and non-Native symbolic orders) as "determinate realities, available whole as resources to the author," rather than seeing them as partial and in flux, partly marred and made by the individual artist (258-9). This is a crucial corrective to the kind of reified "discourse" theory devolved from Michel Foucault, which has led critics like George Lyon to insist on an essentialism of Native and non-Native discourses: "Johnson could not create new figures for the semiosis, new images of her people, the Mohawk, in part possibly because she did not know them as well as might be wished, possibly because she was not truly part of the nation at all, but ultimately because the figures are already inscribed" (156).15 From the "ultimate" causality asserted here (with its logically related need to stabilize the poet’s identity and belonging outside the Native world that is not permitted to overlap with her non-Native inscription) it is evident that the concept of "discourse," however historicized its content, is taken to be a mystical absolute for the subject, her fate—apparently beyond tampering with. But this perspective agrees neither with my own reading of shadow writing above, nor with most Native descriptions, as with Vizenor and Wiget, of language as a creative and collective project. "Missionaries and anthropologists were the first to misconstrue tribal stories," says Vizenor; "they were not trained to hear stories as creative literature and translated many stories as mere cultural representations" ("Ghost Dance" 224). It will not help our understanding of Native writing, to bring the same training to non-Native culture, and to square the two "discourses" off. The shadow "I" has a more powerful history.

In that history, as in Native traditions, words are not opposed to action. There is no such thing as "mere" words, as opposed to actions that "speak louder." Rather, all language is bound to a circuitry of signifying processes such as wampum, myth, orature, song, dance, and gesture. This is a holistic body of language and action, or language and history-making, which Paula Gunn Allen calls the "sacred hoop": a cycling and recycling of meaningful activities that are not autonomous each from each, but are integrated as in the structure of ceremony (55-56, 62). It is from this perspective that we can appreciate why this poet’s writing is so important, and carries such political value, to so many Native artists and scholars in North America. She is not only a "word warrior" (Allen 51) because there is a claim to power in her "feathers" and "flint." She is a "warrior" (Brant 35, 53) because she has embodied a situation of translation, which as the driven drifting of what Derrida called "absolute translation," refuses the transparency and authority of assimilation. She articulates her situation’s shadows, rhythms, and powers, and in so doing has had actual consequences. This poet, writing her "I," has empowered writers like Dawendine (see Ruffo) and Beth Brant (37), to fight with words, or to fight words, in their own situations. Her writing has entered and helped create a modern Native tradition, whose powers are inseparable from the changing—since the end of the residential schools and their enforced assimilation, changing gradually for the better—history of modern Native life. The place of art and language in this history is central, not reflective or marginal, as we have seen in the recent Canadian court ruling admitting oral history as evidence in the adjudication of land claims. This poet is part of that larger history. Her language has also affected the way non-Natives have seen their history. In an archetypal moment, Betty Keller tells us that when the poet gave her public reading in 1892 (that would launch her into celebrity), and recited her 1885 poem about the Riel Rebellion, "A Cry from an Indian Wife," with its dramatization of contradictory sympathies for both Métis and British-Canadian sides, she was told by a veteran soldier of the conflict: "When I heard you recite that poem, I never felt so ashamed in my life of the part I took in it" (60). The poem does not tell the soldier that his violence was wrong, but that from another perspective, it was not right. The ethical contradiction is deconstructed into an antinomy, the operation of two codes or laws neither of which is more real, or less ideal—and so more originally fixed or proper—than the other (see Flint and Feather 17-19). This listener knew the threat, indissoluble from the pleasure, of being paddled by the poet.

A final word must be given to what will have been implicit throughout: the power and insistence in this poet’s verses of a regulative music, of strong rhyming and metrical rhythms. In these rhythms we may not only recognize the "undertone" of a chora, but from a Native perspective, that of the drumbeat or power of rhythm that Allen says drives and regulates all Native texts in the holistic processes of ceremony. In this pre-symbolic regulation conditioned by repetitive sound and gesture, the individual consciousness is "diffused," displaced from itself (63-64). For Brant, Native poetry is distinguished by its return "to the lyrical singing of the drum, the turtle rattle (12), just as Native memory and history is recalled by a drumbeat (35-36). This is part, too, of a sexual body, whose powers of seduction should from this perspective not be read simply as (again, reified and alienated) displacements of political energy (Lyon 151, and examples in Leighton 152). Rather, as suggested by Brant’s commitment to the sexual, sensual politics of "physical prayers" (55-66) and by Lee Maracle’s to the "passionate energy" of the "flesh" undivided from the "spirit" (8), and from a non-Native perspective, by Gerson’s historicizing answer to the lyric seductions of the poet’s canoe (97, 100-101)—the poet’s invitation to her paddle, to her shadow river, should be felt as a seduction to the rhythm of another chora, one regulated by a Native world and its dispossessions. She seduces us to a situation, an aesthetic experience, a writing, that will challenge the history of non-Native as well as Native ways of feeling and thinking—all that may be marred or made.




  1. On her various nicknames and signatures, see Van Steen 10, and for further noms de plume, Johnston 41. [back]

  2. I am indebted to Carole Gerson for directing me to the first periodical publication of the poem in Saturday Night, 20 July 1889 (6), which compresses the title to read "Shadow River (Muskoka)" and is slightly differently punctuated. My interest in the White Wampum publication of the poem is in its address, corresponding to the poet’s own aspirations, to an international English literary audience. This decision is intended to highlight the context of an internationally instituted literary modernism, without detracting from the equally interesting and different audiences constituted by the initial journal publication in Ontario or subsequent book publications in Canada. [back]

  3. Muskoka is an English corruption of the Ojibwa names of "Yellowhead and his son William Yellowhead (1769-1864), also known as Mesqua Ukie and Musquakie, who were chiefs of the Chippewa around Lakes Simcoe and Huron," who signed important land-surrender contracts in 1815 and 1817 (Rayburn 234). The names derive from mesqua (red) and ahkees (ground), which may have a local, geological reference. See also Moore 34-5. [back]

  4. Here and throughout, I use "fragment" to refer to the grammatical "fragment" of a statement isolated visually and rhythmically by its versification. [back]

  5. See "The Idlers," "Re-Voyage," "Wave-Won," "Thistle-Down," in Flint and Feather; "Unguessed," "Fortune’s Favors," "In the Shadows: My Version," in Sheila Johnston. [back]

  6. Any attempt to explain the chora is hampered by the fact that, as John Lechte says, "it is not, strictly speaking, representable" (128). Lechte offers a helpful commentary on the concept (5-6, 128ff). [back]

  7. I refer to the marketplace to suggest, though unable to expand upon it here, that the dialectical process of expression and containment of semiosis in the poetic text is consistent with that dialectic studied by Fredric Jameson (206-280), of the simultaneous expression and containment of utopian possibilities in the (reified) specialized activities of modernity, such as modernist writing. [back]

  8. Hence the poet names her first book of verse "wampum," and in its dedication identifies Native with non-Native writing, in an extended comparison of "belt" to "book." This conceit is far from a primitivist cliché, since emphatically to recognize Native culture as a writing culture is to contradict the deeply-rooted Romantic ascription of uncivilized simplicity to the oral tradition. It may be noted that the likelihood of only Smoke Johnson being able to read wampum is questionable (see, for example, the photograph of six Six Nations Chiefs, Johnston 53). [back]

  9. Veronica Strong-Boag and Carole Gerson’s Paddling Her Own Canoe: The Times and Texts of E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake), clarifies this point (175), with persuasive textual evidence. [back]

  10. "Oh, why have your people forced on me the name of Pauline Johnson?" [Ernest Thompson Seton reports the poet saying, in his Introduction to her Shagganappi]. "Was not my Indian name good enough? Do you think you help us by bidding us forget our blood? by teaching us to cast off all memory of our high ideals and our glorious past? My pen and my life I devote to the memory of my own people. Forget that I was Pauline Johnson, but remember always that I was Tekahionwake…" (9). [back]

  11. This paradox which belongs to deconstruction, of undoing the metaphysical positions of a given discourse, while failing to escape complicity in the symbolization of new positions similarly susceptible to critique, is usefully summarized in general terms by Norris (48). [back]

  12. For Derrida’s critical reworking of Plato’s notion of chora (parallel to Kristeva 25-26), see Positions 106n39. For his understanding of the related, deconstructive notion of writing as rhythm, which recurs in his texts, see for example Positions 75, where he alludes to "Democrites’ ‘rhythmos’—both writing and rhythm," as an "important term…in a system that Plato doubtless wished to reduce to silence by ‘ontologizing’ it." Rhythmos is given fuller treatment as such in Dissemination, where in the double aspect of "written character and cadence," it characterizes the relationship between language and the blank page, as the "law of spacing" [cf. regulation] which binds the symbolic order to a prior, pre-symbolic situation (178). He is closest to Kristeva when he finds in Mallarmé the deconstructive instance of a "crisis in verse" which is a rhythm, a music, that ceaselessly breaks generic limitations, and in turn, a "crisis in rythmos broken by Being" (279). A deconstructive rhythm is also ascribed to Niet-zsche’s writing in Spurs (101), where Derrida also provides a useful discussion of property, propriety, and appropriation, in a more general philosophical context (109-119). [back]

  13. We can see a continuity, then, between the conflicted voice of this poem and that of the more directly political dramatic poem, "A Cry from an Indian Wife," discussed by Gerson (100). [back]

  14. I do not wish to claim an identity between the shadow writing I here ascribe to this poet, and the "shadow writing" that, by interesting coincidence, belongs to Vizenor’s rhetoric (see for example, "Envoy to Haiku" 25-32 and "Shadows" 80-89 in Shadow Distance)—though the resonance is no doubt meaningful. [back]

  15. It is not possible to do justice to Lyon’s essay here, which is as impressive for its historicizing work as it is for its sustained attention to this poet’s lyric verse. His glances at "Shadow River: Muskoka" (149, 153-4) suggestively criticize its drive toward an aestheticist withdrawal from life and power in the implication of a passive nature, but do so with the equally phantasmic (ironically Victorian?) implication of true nature as a violent wilderness which it is mystifying to present as "safe." What Lyon calls "an almost Prufrockian retreat from power" is not a "cheap response to the difficulties and complications of human society," but the response of one dispossessed of that power’s coin, ready to make a claim that devalues the currency itself. My reading ultimately depends not on what nature (or, at one antithetical remove, a panopticon of "nature") really is, but how one talks and is empowered to talk about claiming it. This then is to extend Gerson’s reading, and to contribute to her narrative of this poet’s "decline and rise" in our literary history (91), while wishing to complicate what I see as her too-simplified plotting of "modernism" as the other, in this poet’s work and reception. For example, it is true that a modernist elitism which opposes art to commodity, and an elite institution to popular culture, harmed her literary reception (Gerson 92, 95-96). But she evidently believed in this elitist distinction, and positioned herself as just such a modernist (see her letters to O’Brien). It is from this specifically aestheticist positioning, I suggest, that her shadow writing challenges the property system of non-Native culture, and by extension its commodity ethics. [back]


Works Cited


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Brant, Beth. Writing as Witness: Essay and Talk. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1994.

Damm, Kateri. "Says Who: Colonialism, Identity and Defining Indigenous Literature." 9-26 in Jeannette Armstrong, coll., Looking at the Words of Our People: First Nations Analysis of Literature. Penticton BC: Theytus, 1993.

Derrida, Jacques. Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1979.

——. Dissemination. Barbara Johnson, trans. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1981.

——. Positions. Alan Bass, trans. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1982.

——. Monolinguism of the Other; or, the Prosthesis of Origin. Patrick Mensah, trans. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.

Donovan, Kathleen M. Feminist Readings of Native American Literature. Tucson: U Arizona, 1998.

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Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP,

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——. Letters to H. O’Brien (1984-1903). Lorne Pierce Papers 2001b, box 39, file 1. Queen’s University Archives.

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——. "My Mother." 22-85 in The Moccasin Maker. Toronto: Ryerson, 1913.

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——. Shadow Distance: a Gerald Vizenor Reader. Hanover and London: UP of New England, 1994.

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