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The Song of Hiawatha,” The Children’s Own Longfellow, 1908 (Photo credit: Gutenberg #9080)


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (27 February 1807 – 24 March 1882), could create characters that would seem real to his readers. For Acadians who were deported (see Deportation of the Acadians), Longfellow’s fictional Évangéline, the heroine of an epic poem he published in 1847, is real. She spent years seeking Gabriel, her fiancé. When she found him, he was one of the dying she was attending to as a Sister of Mercy. Longfellow gave Acadians a heroic past that elevated them. Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha would not return their homes to North-American Indians, but it would mythicize them by giving them the obligatory glorious past in the person of Hiawatha, a Noble Savage.

The plight of Amerindians was greater than that of Acadians. The Removal Act of 1830 and the Cherokee Removal Act of 1838 deprived a large number of North America’s aboriginals of a territory that had been theirs since time immemorial.

The history of this Cherokee removal of 1838, as gleaned by the author from the lips of actors in the tragedy, may well exceed in weight of grief and pathos any other passage in American history. Even the much-sung exile of the Acadians falls far behind it in its sum of death and misery. (James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokees EBook #45634, p. 130.)

Henry Schoolcraft by Beal Brothers, 1855 (Photo credit: Wikipedia

Henry Schoolcraft by the Beal Brothers, 1855 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sources: Henry Rowe Schoolcraft

  • The growth of folkloristics and ethnology
  • The Jesuit Relations
  • Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (28 March 1793 – 10 December 1864)
  • The Brothers Grimm
  • Other sources
  • Manabozho

However, at that time in history, disciplines such as folkloristics and ethnology were emerging. As we have seen in earlier posts, the Brothers Grimm were folklorists.[1] The two brothers scoured German-language lands collecting folklore in the hope that tales would yield a unifying identity to scattered German-speaking Europeans.

As for Longfellow, his Song of Hiawatha would use Amerindian tales told to the rhythm of the trochaic meter of the Finnish Kalevala (see Trochaic tetrameter, Wikipedia), but he could not return to Amerindians the territory that was taken from them. Amerindians had been dispossessed and relocated. He could however ennoble America’s crushed aboriginals. To a large extent, Hiawatha is yet another chapter in the history of the Noble Savage which, according to Stith Thompson, finds its beginning in the Jesuit Relations, the yearly report Jesuit missionaries to New France sent to their superiors in France.[2]

The Jesuits (Thompson: 297-298) recorded the tales told by the Amerindians and, by the same token, were witnesses to what I will call ‘natural virtue,’ virtue that was not related to Catholicism and Christianity. One of our colleagues, Françoise Duhamel, wrote a comment associating the Noble Savage to Romanticism. French Romantic author François René, vicomte de Chateaubriand wrote Atala (1801), René (1802), Les Natchez (1790s) Voyage en Amérique (1826), thus invigorating the concept of the Noble Savage. Chateaubriand travelled to the United States in 1791. As an aristocrat, he was forced to leave France during the French Revolution. He was an émigré.

The Song of Hiawatha did elevate Amerindians. However, Native Americans also became a subject matter in emerging disciplines such as folkloristics and ethnology. In this regard, Longfellow’s main source would be Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an Indian agent for the American government and an ethnologist. In 1846, eight years after the Cherokee Removal Act, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft “was commissioned for a major study, known as Indian Tribes of the United States, which was published in six volumes from 1851 to 1857.” (See Henry Schoolcraft, Wikipedia.) Britannica refers to two volumes.[3]

Henry Schoolcraft had been married to Jane Johnston (1800 – 1842), the “mixed race daughter of a prominent Scotch-Irish fur trader and Ojibwa mother, who was the daughter of a war chief.” (See Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Wikipedia). She had taught her husband Ojibwa. Jane Johnston is the first American Indian writer.

Longfellow also drew his subject matter from the Narratives of John Heckewelder (12 March 1743 – 21 January 1823), a missionary to the Indians, from Ojibwe[4] Chief Kahge-ga-gah-bowh “during his visits at the author’s,” and from “Black Hawk and other Sac [Sauk] and Fox Indians Longfellow encountered on Boston Common.”  (See The Song of Hiawatha, Wikipedia.) Hiawatha is an Ojibwa and there can be no doubt that Longfellow knew Amerindian tales. One need only read North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends (Amazon), illustrated by R. C. Armour and published in 1905. Would that this book were online! It may be, but I have not found it.[5]

R. C. Armour’s book features Mudjikewis, Hiawatha’s father in The Song of Hiawatha, the mischievous Paupukkewis (p. 15) whose name is Pau-Puk-Keewis in Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. More importantly, the book R. C. Armour illustrated, tells the adventures of Manabozho.

For instance, Manabozho is swallowed whole by the king-fish, a sturgeon named Nahma. So is Hiawatha. After giving a name—Ajidanneo (animal tail)—to a squirrel that has entered the fish, depicted in the image at the top of this post, Manabozho-Hiawatha “recommenced his attack of the king-fish’s heart, and by repeated blows he at last succeeded in killing him.” (p. 71) Gulls, whom he calls “my younger brothers” helped open the mouth of the sturgeon to free Hiawatha. As we have seen, for North-American Indians, there is no difference between humans and animals, hence the “my younger brothers” referring to the gulls. Manabozho names the gulls Kayoshk, a word meaning “noble scratchers” (p. 71). Moreover, Manabozho “made the land” (p. 11), in which he would be a creator.

The killing of Nahma is one of Hiawatha’s legendary deeds (geste, in chanson de geste). Two other legendary deeds are the killing of Mondamin, the Corn Spirit (canto v), and that of Pearl-Feather, the sender of death (canto viii). So is, to a lesser extent, the killing of Pau-Puk-Keewis (canto xiv).

Hiawatha by Thomas Ea kins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hiawatha by Thomas Eakins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Death of Minnehaha

Death of Minnehaha by William de Leftwich Dodge, 1885. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Temporary Conclusion

Were The Song of Hiawatha a fairy tale, it would end with the marriage of Hiawatha and Minnehaha. Moreover, the wedding-feast is followed by cantos that are looked upon as idyllic.

“As unto the bow the cord is,
So unto the man is woman;
Though she bends him, she obeys him,
Though she draws him, yet she follows;
Useless each without the other!” (Canto x of xxii)

Canto (xi) The Wedding-Feast (appearance of Pau-Puk-Keewis)
Canto (xii) The Evening Star (metamorphoses)
Canto (xiii) Blessing of the Corn-Fields (the food of Amerindians)
Canto (xiv) Picture writing (to be able to write)

However, Hiawatha will lose his friends Chibiabos, the musician (canto xv) and Kwasind (canto xviii). We know moreover that the white man is arriving. Finally, having lost the beautiful Winnehaha, Hiawatha will walk into the sunset to go and rule the kingdom of the Northwest.

“In the wigwam with Nokomis [Minnehaha’s mother],
With those gloomy guests that watched her,
With the Famine and the Fever,
She was lying, the Beloved,
She, the dying Minnehaha.” (canto xx of xxii)

I am inserting a video, a lovely reading of the Pau-Puk-Keewis episode, and will then close because this post is already very long and my computer has slowed down.

Hiawatha was made into three Cantatas by Samuel Coleridge Taylor. This is not the music we will hear. The text and music we will hear is the Hiawatha Melodrama, based on Antonín Dvořák‘s Ninth Symphony: “From the New World,” Op. 95, B. 178.

In short, Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha is a product of its times. It partakes of the intellectual endeavours of folklorists and ethnologists.

Next, we will hear that Hiawatha is Manabozho. These were still the early years of ethnology! We should also tell more about Osseo (canto xii).


Sources and Resources


[1] Antti Aarne would publish his first index of folk-literature: Verzeichnis der Märchentypen, in 1910. Stith Thompson would continue Aarne’s work and publish his six-volume Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1955-1958). It is an online publication.

[2] Stith Thompson, The Folktale (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: The University of California Press, 1977 [1946]), pp. 297-298.

[3] “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 29 Aug. 2015

[4] Ojibwa are also called Ojibwe or Chippewa.

[5] R. C. Armour, illustrator, North-American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore, and Legends (London: Gibbons & Co. and Philadelphia: Co. J. B. Lippincott, 1905). Kessinger Legacy Reprints.

Hiawatha Melodrama: The Hunting of Pau-Puk-Keewis

Antonín Dvořák
Kevin Deas (narrator), Post Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez
Visual artist: Peter Bogdanoff

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Longfellow (Google images)

© Micheline Walker
29 August 2015