Carolinian Forest Tract Lasting Legacy of Chief Johnson

 on May 30, 2024

The Grand River Territory of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is the largest intact mainland Carolinian ecosystem in Canada. I recall the wise words of a revered Cayuga Longhouse elder of the Confederacy Norm Jacobs explaining its worth several years ago to the Hamilton City Council.

Jacobs understood how the Haudenosaunee’s care for the land is in stark contrast with is so unlike the pattern of surrounding municipalities. This is why he urged that the Haudenosaunee should be paid for the pollution absorbing work of their forests by the federal and provincial governments. The only comparable stretch of intact Carolinian habitat can be found on the Walpole Island Indian Reservation. That the Grand River Territory is such a good model of environmental stewardship is to a remarkable extent the work of the prophetic Anglican holy person, George Henry Martin Johnson. (Onwanonsyhon) He was a condoled Mohawk Wolf Clan Chief of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an ancient form of government founded by the Peacemaker. Johnson’s brave conservation work triggered three assassination attempts. His caring for Mother Earth is largely forgotten; he is famous today largely as the father of the great Canadian poet Pauline Johnson.

Largely forgotten too are two short stories by Pauline Johnson which helped to publicize and explain her father’s forest protection work. One of these stories “My Mother”, was dedicated to her mother, Emily. She tended to her father’s wounds triggered by his patrols protecting forests. Emily Johnson’s blood-stained clothes are preserved in the Woodland Cultural Center.

One Anglican priest with George Johnson was in conflict with was the Reverend Robert Ashton. In 1870 he changed the Mohawk Institute into the infamous template for Indian Residential Schools based on his earlier experience with delinquent reformatories in England.

The imposition of harsh discipline in the Mohawk Institute followed a decision of the Canadian government in 1857, to strip native people with band membership of political rights. This was fought by native chiefs across what was then called the Province of Canada, led by George Johnson, and his father, John Smoke Johnson.

An Anglican lay person and anthropologist, Horatio Hale, from the parish of St. Paul’s, Clinton, greatly aided Johnson’s forest conservation work. He recorded in his “Iroquois Book of Rites” how Johnson adapted the Hai, Hai, a ritual song chanted at the raising up of Chiefs, into a warning call of the horrific dangers of spreading deserts.

Through his Condolence, a warning was given that although the Haudenosaunee Chiefs had inherited the titles awarded by the Peacemaker, they lacked “their mighty intellects; and in the flourishing region which they left, nothing but a desert remains.”

Chief George Johnson, seated centre, with anthropologist Horatio Hale on the left,
and fellow chiefs of the Mohawk nation Source: Courtesy of Wikimedia Common

In addition to protecting the forests of the Six Nations, Chief Johnson played a crucial role in restoring forests throughout southern Ontario threatened by desertification. He played an important role in changing the Ontario Fruit Growers Association, (OFGA) into Canada’s first environmental protection groups.

Members of the OFGA made pilgrimages to his home Chiefswood to view Johnson’s reforestation experiments with Black Walnuts and various hickories. They were stunned at the contrast between the “sterile appearance” of lands outside the reservation’s boundaries, and the magnificent “lovely native park” around Chiefswood. They were awed how, “There are tens of thousands of farms in Ontario that would be very much improved in real value by planting the various kinds of nut-bearing trees we have recommended.”

Johnson and his band of Mohawk Forest wardens were the stars of a critical meeting of the OFGA held in Hamilton in 1879. Edmund Zavitz, who later played a critical role in reversing desertification through reforestation recalled how the event, attended by his grandfather, Edmund Prout, played a major role in reversing negative attitudes towards forests. Here Johnson and his brave band of Mohawk Forest Wardens “were heartily cheered upon taking their seats” on the OFGA board. The meeting urged the reforestation of the Niagara Escarpment in Hamilton, eventually carried out by Zavitz in the 1920s.

Johnson died on February 19, 1884, a date that should be celebrated in the Calendar of Holy Persons of the Anglican Church of Canada. Commemoration of his life through the calendar would be a way to encourage ecological restoration and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

June is National Indigenous History Month in Canada, an opportunity to learn and honour the stories, achievements and resilience of First Nations, Inuit and Métis, who have lived on this land since time immemorial and whose presence continues to impact the evolving Canada.

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