Celebrating Indigenous Literature at the Six Nations of the Grand River (by Heather Phipps)

Be strong, O paddle! be brave, canoe!
The reckless waves you must plunge into.
Reel, reel,
On your trembling keel,
But never a fear my craft will feel

– E. Pauline Johnson, The Song My Paddle Sings

Indigenous writers and storytellers in Canada have greatly contributed to the literary arts. Scholars, artists and community members came together in the Inaugural Gathering of the Indigenous Literary Studies Association (ILSA) at the Six Nations of Grand River on October 1-3rd, 2015. The Six Nations of the Grand River Territory is home to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) —including Mohawk, Oneida, Onandaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. Throughout the ILSA gathering, various genres of creative literary arts were discussed including storytelling, poetry, hip-hop, dance, creative fiction and film. Presentations and conversations took place at the Six Nations Polytechnic, with large windows overlooking the forest and meadows. In the warmth of this vibrant space and community, we reflected on the intersections of literary arts with social and geographical spaces, communities, history, nature, and language.

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As part of the Indigenous Literary Studies gathering, we visited the birthplace and childhood home of Emily Pauline Johnson. Chiefswood National Historic Site honours Emily Pauline Johnson’s contribution to indigenous literary arts. Walking through the rooms of Chiefswood provides a glimpse into her life, history and creativity. Born in 1861, Emily Pauline was the daughter of a Mohawk chief and an English mother. She embraced both worlds and developed a love of writing, expressing her voice and identity in her poetry. Notably, she travelled across Canada, the United States and England with her lively and dramatic poetry performances. Her works were published in poetry collections, first in England and later in North America. A canoe paddle and writing desk displayed in her bedroom of the Chiefswood home represent her passion both for the outdoors and for writing. As the house is located along the Grand River, one can imagine how she drew inspiration for her poems, including The Song My Paddle Sings, from this beautiful natural environment surrounded by forest and plants.

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At the closing evening of the Indigenous Literary Studies gathering at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, actress Cherry Maracle performed the role of Pauline Johnson in the play “The Paddle Song”. This theatrical performance depicts the life of Emily Pauline Johnson, from her childhood growing up in The Six Nations of the Grand River to her adult life as a performing artist and poet who travelled the world, and eventually settled in Vancouver, BC. The play depicts both the joys and challenges of her life as a woman writer. Emily Pauline Johnson’s powerful voice and written words have touched generations; her stories continue to resonate today. Following her performance, Maracle noted in a discussion with the audience how she hopes that the play will inspire people to learn more about Emily Pauline Johnson’s life and work. Furthermore, there is a need for a diversity of voices of contemporary Indigenous writers and artists to be heard, as Maracle strongly emphasized to the audience: ‘We have to write our own stories!’

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Johnson, Emily Pauline, The Song My Paddle Sings. http://www.canadianptry.ca/confederation/johnson/white_wampum/the_song_my_paddle_sings.htm

A Celebration of Women Writers
http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/garvin/poets/johnson.html

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