Note: The controversial term “redskin” is used in this unedited article from the November 1907 issue of The Mother’s Magazine. Emily Pauline Johnson was of mixed heritage and apparently did not consider the term to be offensive.

THE PRAYERS OF THE PAGAN

By E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake).

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Photo by Toronto Public Library Special Collections

“THANKSGIVING DANCES” are of the utmost importance among the yet remaining pagan members of the great Iroquois nation of red Indians in Canada. The women, and particularly the mothers in the tribe, take a most important part, for in their hands is the religious and moral training of the little pagan redskin, who must be reared not only to be a hunter, a trapper and an expert in his native sports, but also to be a consistent believer in “the Great Spirit, who sits at the border of the happy hunting grounds, smoking forever his pipe of peace, for there is everlasting peace between him and his Indian children.’

The “Thanksgiving Dances” begin very early in the summer, as soon as the strawberries ripen. There is the great “Berry Dance” of the year, occupying three days and nights. Then follows the “Green Corn Dance,” when the Indian corn is ready for food, then again when it is ripe and harvested. Then the Thanksgiving Dance, when the game season opens, and, finally, the general Thanksgiving Dance in the autumn, which is the occasion of more than usual feasting, religious worship, and social intercourse. At each of these dances, which are always held in the Onondaga or Cayuga “Long House” (a long log building used as a place of worship exclusively), entire families congregate for the festivities. The Indian mother arranges her simple log home, washes her little band of children, and dresses them in their gayest apparel, which for the girls consists, most likely, of a short cloth skirt, a shorter calico overskirt and waist, probably ornamented with rarely beautiful old hammered silver brooches that were fashioned decades before the American Revolution, and a gay little bandana handkerchief tied about the small brown face in exact imitation of the mother. Then she places in a basket of her own make, much corn bread and tea–her contribution to the “dance feast,”–and, with father and the older boys leading the way, they arrive at the Long House to dance their thanks and gratitude to the Giver of all good things, with far more sincerity and voluntary praise than may sometimes be seen beneath the roof of a great Christian city church.

The Onondaga mother carries her baby in arms first in to the dance, and afterwards teaches it the first steps, just as the white mother teaches her kneeling child its first little prayers. It is a proud day for the redskin mother when her wee boy or girl can dance in the long, graceful, circling string of worshipers. She watches with delight its sober little face, its unsteady, shuffling feet, its supple arms with their easy shoulder movement. She has taught her child to worship with its feet, not with its tongue–to attend and take part in five great Thanksgiving festivals of three days each within the year.

Who shall say that, with her point of view, the pagan Indian mother has not done as great and noble a thing as she of fairer skin, and more modern civilization?

tekahionwake_ca_1895Emily Pauline Johnson (also known in Mohawk as Tekahionwake –pronounced: dageh-eeon-wageh, literally: ‘double-life’) (10 March 1861 – 7 March 1913), commonly known as E. Pauline Johnson or just Pauline Johnson, was a Canadian writer and performer popular in the late 19th century. Johnson was notable for her poems and performances that celebrated her Aboriginal heritage; her father was a hereditary Mohawk chief of mixed ancestry. She also drew from English influences, as her mother was an English immigrant. One such poem is the frequently anthologized “The Song My Paddle Sings“.

Read the full Wikipedia entry on Emily Pauline Johnson