Thursday, August 30, 2012

American Myth -- Hiawatha

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the Big-Sea shining water...

"The Song of Hiawatha" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1855

The Tahquamenon River at Whitefish Bay

As long as we're visiting 'Hiawatha' territory...

Wadsworth wrote Hiawatha back in a time when the publication of an epic poem penned by an author of note carried a cultural import akin to the release of the latest Star Wars film. Everybody who was everybody paid attention and most others couldn't escape noticing.

Upon initial release, critical opinion on the work was mixed. An anonymous reviewer for the New York Times, after savagely complaining about Longfellow's effort to romanticize the traditions of the ...justly eliminated race... of Indians went on to conclude: Grotesque, absurd and savage as the groundwork is, Mr. Longfellow has woven over it a profuse wealth of his own poetic elegancies...but Hiawatha...will never add to Longfellow's reputation as a poet.

It's truly epic, exactly how wrong this cultural/poetry critic turned out to be.

In fact, if Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is today remembered at all, it's as author of "The Song of Hiawatha". It's because this poem went on to exert a profound, lasting impact on American culture that -- as another poet famously once wrote -- there's the rub.

Other artists picked up on the Longfellow work, crafting famous paintings, songs, orchestral works and even parodies based upon it. "Hiawatha" as a name lives on scattered throughout the UP -- including that given to the nearby Hiawatha National Forest.

Following its publication, Hiawatha became and remained required reading in American schools for better than 100 years. It embodied for generations a presumptive notion of Native Peoples that continues to burden both cultures even today.

What's true is this:

Though ostensibly drawn from authentic Ojibwa narrative, Longfellow never visited the shores of Gitche Gumee. He cribbed near to everything contained in Hiawatha from the writings of Henry R. Schoolcraft and so much from the Finnish 'Kalevala' that contemporaries accused him of plagiarism.

Henry Schoolcraft rarely transcribed an American Indian story he didn't think could be improved, so he altered them freely to suit his literary tastes. Longfellow picked from amongst Schoolcraft's stories to mix and match as he saw fit, combining legends, fact, historical figures and select aspects of mythology in order to create his Hiawatha.

Much of the Longfellow poem is based on the important Ojibwa narrative of the deity Nanabozho.

Now, the Ojibwa didn't used to have a written language. Even today, on one Ojibwa website there're thirty different ways to spell this name, along with nine additional alternate names for this same figure in the complex Ojibwa narrative. And you can understand why, while writing under the constraints of trochaic pentameter, Longfellow'd choose to change the name of his hero to an easier fit and, not incidentally, a name that tripped more easily off white folk's ears.

All the same, Nanabozho was known throughout the Superior Basin while the historical Hiawatha was (as Grace Lee Nute put it) ...a minor Iroquois substitute. In other words, not even Ojibwa. As if that made any difference to Longfellow. Or to Schoolcraft. Or to the combined teachings of a Century's worth of American students, for that matter.

The Tahquamenon River, where Longfellow had Hiawatha build a canoe

What's true is that, for all the influence Longfellow's poem had and continues to have on white folk's perceptions of Native Peoples, it's strictly an invention in the Romantic Tradition designed to exploit the notion of the Noble Savage.

Hiawatha has little to nothing to do with the authentic narrative of the Ojibwa People, save that since its publication the thing has served as an abject barrier to understanding between two rich & complex cultures that, while living on the same landscape, often prefer to ignore the merits of the other at expense of clinging to inventions of convenience.

Why make the point of this now, except for its lasting resonance and the fact that our travels brought us through Hiawatha territory?

Well, to the Ojibwa Nanabozho is real. Down the road a piece, he'll become part of our shared narrative, so a primer was definitely in order.

And because then we'll make a visit to where he lives.


  1. Great piece, Frank. And love the falls image. When are you going back to catch the same view with the autumn foliage!!! BTW, if you want a more authentic view of Ojibwe traditions, read Frances Densmore's ethnography,"Chippewa Customs."

    maia cavelli

  2. Thanks Maia. I'll not be going back, at least not during this project. But there'll be plenty other fine places to visit, during high autumn. And thanks for the recommendation. I'll keep an eye out for the title.