Hamilton, Ontario

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Born in March: A Poetic Emily

By Emily-Jane Hills Orford

Emily Jane Hills Orford ghost stories Most people know her as Pauline Johnson, the Mohawk, Tekanionwake (double wampum, a woman of mixed heritage: Mohawk and European), who stirred up world-wide passion for the First Nations people and their sacred lands, through her powerful use of words and her equally powerful oratory skills. Her poetry spoke of the land and its people and her ability to share her poetry and her stories was the inherited talent of a good First Nations storyteller.

For me, I felt a special bond, one that broadened as I grew up and matured in my own writing life. I admired the woman, but I loved her poetry, especially “The Song My Paddle Sings”:

. . . And up on the hills against the sky,
A fir tree rocking its lullaby,
Swings, swings,
Its emerald wings,
Swelling the song that my paddle sings.

Combining my passion for music and canoeing (which I often enjoyed with my brother), I felt a strong connection to this poem. It may have also had something to do with the fact that I had to memorize the entire poem and recite it in front of my Grade 5 class. It’s amazing how those verses we memorized as children (something not done enough any more), keep popping up in our thoughts all through our lives. This poem was one of those special memory poems.

When I was in my late teens, Mom suggested we visit Pauline Johnson’s birthplace, Chiefswood, near the Grand River. Mom was planning to take her students on a field trip to see the poet’s birthplace and learn more about her life, but she wanted to see the place first and talk to some of the elders.

“You do realize, Emily,” she said casually as we drove off the 401 onto the 403 to make our way to Brantford and beyond to the Six Nations Reserve on the Grand River. “Pauline Johnson’s first name is Emily.” I gasped. “Really? I wondered why she sometimes signs her work with E. Pauline Johnson. But why didn’t she use her first name?” “It was her mother’s name, Emily Susanna Howell. Perhaps as a child it was easier to identify between the two Emily’s, mother and daughter.” “Hmm!” I pondered Mom’s suggestion. “She was born in March, wasn’t she?” “Yes, she was,” Mom agreed. “A spring baby just like you.” “And an Emily, too.” I gave it some more thought. “There are a lot of authors, poets, and creative people who claim March as their birth month. It’s something I share with the great creative minds like Emily Pauline Johnson.”

keep reading Mom and I chuckled. We had arrived at Chiefswood, the childhood home of Emily Pauline Johnson, the poet born in March who became a great orator in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the woman who spoke out for her people, for her gender and for the beautiful world in which we live, the world we should protect and preserve at all cost.

Emily-Jane Hills Orford has published several books, creative nonfiction stories mostly about her family. Growing up in Toronto, then Hamilton and finally London, Emily-Jane has lots of family stories to warm the heart. In her most recent novels, “Mrs. Murray’s Ghost” and “Mrs. Murray’s Hidden Treasure”, the author returns to her roots and the fond memories and dreams, growing up in a haunted old Victorian mansion in London. For more information about the author, check out her webpage at: http://emilyjanebooks.ca