Emily Pauline Johnson, who also published under her paternal grandfather’s Mohawk name Tekahionwake (“double wampum”), was born on March 10, 1861, on the Six Nations Reserve, Canada West. She was the fourth and youngest child born to George Henry Martin Johnson (Onwanonsyshon), a Mohawk who was both a hereditary and elected chief of the Six Nations. Johnson’s father was fluent in six Indigenous languages, which allowed him to work as a translator. Johnson’s mother, Emily Susanna Howells, was an English-born Canadian from Bristol. Johnson’s father died in 1884. While growing up, Johnson did not have much of a formal education. She had a governess for two years during her girlhood, in addition to three years at a day school for Indigenous children, and two years at a public school in Brantford, Ontario. She read a great deal of poetry, however, starting in early childhood, including works by Lord Byron, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and William Shakespeare.
Soon after her father’s death, Johnson began writing, partly as a means of financial support. She also began to perform her work. During those performances, she frequently satirized white stereotypes about Indigenous peoples. She traveled across Canada, journeyed to England three times, and occasionally performed in the United States, particularly as part of a Chautauqua circuit of public performances and lectures that took place in 1907 and took Johnson throughout the Midwest.
Johnson published 165 poems during her lifetime. She initially published her poetry in both American and Canadian periodicals, including the Globe, a Toronto-based newspaper, and Gems of Poetry, a New York-based literary magazine in which she published five poems between 1883–85. Johnson released three collections of poetry: Flint and Feather (The Musson Book Co., Ltd., 1912), her collected works; Canadian Born (George N. Morang Publishing Company, 1903); and The White Wampum, published in 1895 in Boston, London, and Toronto by Lamson, Wolffe and Company, John Lane, and the Copp Clark Company, respectively.
Johnson also worked as a journalist and published four articles in the London Daily Express from April to November 1906. She published three volumes of stories and journalism, including The Moccasin Maker (The Ryerson Press, 1913); The Shagganappi (The Ryerson Press, 1913); and Legends of Vancouver (McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1911). Johnson often wrote about the concerns of the Mohawk people but sometimes also voiced the concerns of other Indigenous communities in North America, especially those from western Canada. Johnson criticized the tendency among some white Canadian writers to homogenize Indigenous peoples and routinely condemned Canada’s inhumanity toward First Peoples. Despite these sentiments, she was also a Canadian nationalist and expressed favor for British imperialism.
Johnson died of breast cancer on March 7, 1913, in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is buried in Stanley Park in Vancouver, near the Lost Lagoon that was the inspiration for one of her poems.