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Written by Timothy Sexton
Although Johnson was not a full-blooded member of the Mohawk or any other indigenous tribe, she presented herself in traditional Mohawk garb and adopted the name Tekahionwake to use on her very successful tours of public recitations of her poetry. Very popular in her own time, these choices would come under scrutiny following her death in the wake of a newfound appreciation for the rights and artistry of representatives of indigenous culture. This scrutiny may be unfair, however, as Johnson was raised on the stories of her father whose status as a Mohawk chief and translator for missionaries arriving in Canada is beyond scrutiny. The oral tradition preserved by Johnson’s father was passed to her through conventional means and it was Johnson herself who adapted these stories into poetic form. The cultural and historical heritage of the indigenous tribes who had settled in Canada is preserved and intact through highly rhythmic verse meant to be performed in public readings as much as it was intended to be read from books.
Johnson was fortunate enough to write in the period before experimentation took over the world of poetry. Her poems take full advantage of the conventions of the time that preferred rhyming patterns, a familiar metrical construction and rhythm. This traditional style of poetry was suited equally well for narrative-based tales as for lyrical expressions of love. The songs of romance vary in structure from her native narratives primarily through length; both of individual lines within stanzas and the overall length of the poems themselves. Unfortunately for her legacy, the very same qualities which had made her so popular during her lifetime would doom her among 20th century critics who view her style less as stylish examples of popular conventions than more evidence that she has both originality and credibility problems.
Johnson always belongs firmly within the 19th century school of poetry due to her intense awareness of and focus on the natural world. The majesty of Canadian geography comes through loud and clear in poems featuring titles like “The Happy Hunting Grounds,” “At Sunset,” “Shadow River” and “The Flight of the Crows.” Johnson uses vivid imagery to bring to life all the wonder that is the Great White North from its topography to its animals to its abundance of natural wonders..
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