Pauline Johnson's "Calgary of the Plains"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the eyes of Writers

Pauline Johnson's costume was an integral part of her "Indian princess" stage persona. Her outfit remained largely the same over the course of her career. Johnson willed the costume to the Museum of Vancouver.  (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Pauline Johnson's costume was an integral part of her "Indian princess" stage persona. Her outfit remained largely the same over the course of her career. Johnson willed the costume to the Museum of Vancouver.  (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The acclaimed Mohawk poet-performer, Pauline Johnson visited Calgary early in her stage career. In July 1894, during her first cross-Canada tour, she played two shows in the city. Calgary audiences were treated to her two-act recital: in the first, Johnson appeared in an elaborate buckskin costume; in the second, she stepped onto the stage in an evening gown. As Johnson traveled across the “velvet browness” of the prairies she was moved by the Western landscape and by its cities. She would return to Calgary several times before she retired from the stage, finding Western audiences more welcoming that those back home in Ontario. On a least one of her visits to Calgary, she stayed at the Alberta Hotel where she likely reconnected with Bob Edwards, the notorious Eye Opener editor she met while performing in High River in 1902. She experienced “the steam-pipe breath of the Chinook wind,” and connected with members of the Blackfoot nation when her train broke down at Gleichen. Not long before she died, she wrote, “I have always loved Calgary, and how it is loving and loyal to me.” It is unclear when Johnson penned this Calgary poem, but she chose to include it in her final volume of poetry, Flint and Feather.

 

Not of the seething cities with their swarming human hives,

Their fetid airs, their reeking streets, their dwarfed and poisoned lives,

Not of the buried yesterdays, but of the days to be,

The glory and the gateway of the yellow West is she.

 

The Northern Lights dance down her plains with soft and silvery feet,

The sunrise gilds her prairies when the dawn and daylight meet;

Along her level lands the fitful southern breezes sweep,

And beyond her western windows the sublime old mountains sleep.

 

The Redman haunts her portals, and the Paleface treads her streets,

The Indian’s stealthy footstep with the course of commerce meets,

And hunters whisper vaguely of the half forgotten tales

Of phantom herds of bison lurking on her midnight trails.

 

Not hers the lore of olden lands, their laurels and their bays;

But what are these, compared to one of all her perfect days?

For naught can buy the jewel that upon her forehead lies –

The cloudless sapphire Heaven of her territorial skies.

 

E. Pauline Johnson, “Calgary of the Plains,” Flint and Feather: The Complete Poems of E. Pauline Johnson (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1912)