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Manabozho in the flood. (Illustration by R.C. Armour, from his book North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends, 1905)

Manabozho in the flood. (Illustration by R. C. Armour, from his book North American Indian Fairy Tales Folklore and Legends, 1905) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pictured above, for the second time in this little series on North American Indians, is Manabozho or Nanabozho and his “brothers:” the beaver, the otter and the muskrat. We know that Manabozho, a Objiwa, who lived near Lake Superior, Longfellow’s “Gitche Gumee,” was swallowed by the king-fish whom he killed by pounding on his heart. Manabozho is a “Culture Hero:” he “made land.”

The Historical Hiawatha

Hiawatha, “the hero of these legends [Longfellow’s legends],” was not Hiawatha (who was a historical Iroquois leader of the sixteenth century”), but Manabozho[1] who “joined Huron (the Wyandot people) Deganawida in a plan to end warfare among Native Americans in what is now New York State.”[2]

In fact, as a follower of the Great Peacemaker, Deganawida, the historical Hiawatha did as “Gitche Manito, the mighty, the creator of the nations[.]” (Canto i) requests Longfellow’s Hiawatha to do. He brought peace.

In The Song of Hiawatha, Gitche Manito, a creator, was tired of the wars waged among Amerindian tribes and sent a prophet: Hiawatha. The Iroquois and Hurons speak related languages.

“I have given you lands to hunt in,
I have given you streams to fish in,
I have given you bear and bison,
I have given you roe and reindeer,
I have given you brant and beaver,
Filled the marshes full of wild-fowl,
Filled the rivers full of fishes:
Why then are you not contented?
Why then will you hunt each other?”

“I am weary of your quarrels,…” (Canto i) 

Hiawatha (Photo credit: Gutenberg 8090)

Hiawatha (Photo credit: Gutenberg [EBook #9080]) (The artist’s name is at the top right of the image.)

From the full moon fell Nokomis

From the full moon fell Nokomis (Photo credit: Gutenberg [EBook #31922]

Westward, Westward, Hiawathat sailed into the fiery sunset

Westward, Westward, Hiawatha sailed into the fiery sunset (Photo credit: Gutenberg [EBook #31922]

Manabozho as Creator

Longfellow’s source was Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, but although Hiawatha is generally considered a substitute for Manabozho, Manabozho was a creator, in which he again differs from Longfellow’s Hiawatha. According  to Stith  Thompson:

“[s]ometimes we find the Creator living in a world before he has created it, and sometimes we are told of a primeval water presumably covering a not-yet-created. The latter conception is present in almost every American Indian creation story, with the probable exception of the Eskimo. It is on such a body of primeval water that the Creator, sometimes with a companion, finds himself floating about on a boat or raft. He sends various animals down to the bottom of the water to try to find some earth. One after another, they float back dead and unsuccessful. Finally, one of them, usually the muskrat, comes back with a bit of soil between his paws. The Creator takes this soil and works with it so that it expands and becomes the earth floating upon the original flood.” (my bold letters)[3]

This is the story, entitled “A Legend of Manabozho,” R. C. Armour illustrated in North American Indian Fairy Tales Folklore and Legends (1905).[4] This Manabozho “made the land.” (p. 11 and p. 14) He is also the shapeshifter we have already met. As we have seen, he was able to transform himself into the trunk of a tree to escape a snake. Afterwards, his “brothers” were the beaver, the otter and the muskrat.

In short, Hiawatha described above as Manabozho, is not Manabozho, in that he does not make land. (See The Song of Hiawatha, Wikipedia.) He is a hero because of his legendary deeds. Nanabozho, however, is the Ojibwa “Culture Hero:” a creator and a shapeshifter. In The Song of Hiawatha, the only deity is Gitche Manito, as his name suggests: Manito.

“I have given you lands to hunt in,
I have given you streams to fish in,
I have given you bear and bison, …” (Canto I)

One wonders why Longfellow called his variant of Manabozho, Hiawatha. It could simply be that he considered Hiawatha a more poetical name than Manabozho. Longfellow was a poet and poetry has its own imperatives, hence a degree of poetic license. Yet, both Hiawatha and Manabozho or Nanabozho, are inside the stomach of a fish.

Hiawatha and Winnehaha
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Hiawatha is the son of Mudjekeewis and Wenonah, but his birth is described as “miraculous” in Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. According to Chambers Biographical Dictionary, his name means “He Makes Rivers.”[5]

He was brought up by his grandmother Nokomis (featured in an image above), his mother Wenonah having died at the time of his birth. Using his “magic mittens” and “enchanted” moccasins, an Amerindian variant of European seven-league boots, he goes to avenge his mother who appears to have been seduced by Mudjekeewis, the West Wind. Father and son fight but are reconciled. (Canto iv)

  1. Hiawatha is the son of Wenonah and Mudjekeewis
  2. Hiawatha wants to avenge his mother, who was abused by Mudjekeewis
  3. Hiawatha and Mudjekeewis are reconciled
  4. Hiawatha defeats Mondamin, the Corn Spirit and becomes the leader of his people
  5. Maize grows from the buried body of Mondamin
  6. Hiawatha kills the sturgeon Nahma (who has swollen both Hiawatha and his canoe)
  7. He destroys Pearl-Feather, the sender of disease and death
  8. Hiawatha marries Minnehaha, daughter of an arrow-maker and a Dakotah once hostile Dakotah, she is brought up by Nokowis, as is Hiawatha
  9. Wedding feast and Song of the Evening Star: idyllic time of peace and culture. Osseo is reminiscent of “Beauty and the Beast” and Apuleius’ Golden Ass
  10. Hiawatha rules until the death of Chibiabos, the musician man
  11. Hiawatha kills Pau-Puk-Keewis, who has insulted him
  12. Kwasing dies, killed by Puk-Wudjies, the little people, a variant of Pygmies
  13. Ghosts are famished and soon afterwards Hiawatha’s people are victims of a famine
  14. Famine kills Minnehaha
  15. Bees: fore-runner of the white
  16. Hiawatha leaves for the Isles of the Blest in Keewaydin to rule the kingdom of the Northwest Wind.”
  17. Hiawatha tells his people to heed a missionary offering a new religion.[6]
  18. The Squirrel is named Jidanneo and each seagull, a Kayoshk

The Evening Star: Osseo

I had planned to tell the story of Osseo and his wife Oweenee and will, briefly. It resembles “Beauty and the Beast,” but metamorphoses are so numerous that one is reminded of Apuleius’ Golden Ass.

Oweenee, the youngest of ten beautiful daughters, marries Osseo, an ugly old man, because she loves him. Her nine sisters laugh. Osseo goes through an entry in an oak tree and emerges as a beautiful man. Oweenee, however, has become an ugly old woman. Osseo loves her as she loved him. As for the nine sisters and their husbands, they have been transformed into birds. Osseo’s father arrives just in time, and tells Osseo to put the birds in a gilded cage and to bring the cage to his wigwam.

Although she looks old, Oweenee gives birth to a boy. When he learns to use his arrow, the boy points at the birds and hits one of them. The bird falls, but he is no longer a bird but a beautiful woman with an arrow in her bosom. She bleeds and her blood triggers metamorphoses. Oweenee is her beautiful self again and the birds are humans, but small: Puk-Wudjies (see 12, Summary). In fact, we are at the wedding again…

Then come scourges.


Canto xiv is about the importance of literacy…, but it cannot be discussed in this post as I must close and we haven’t discussed Glooscap, a gigantic creator who comes out of nothing, ex nihilo.

Stith Thompson writes about the work of ethnologists: Henry Schoolcraft (28 March 1794 – 10 December 1864), James Mooney (10 February 1861 – 22 December 1921)and, especially, Franz Boas, a famous ethnologist.

Not all tribes were removed, Southwest tribes weren’t. So anthropologists have collected hundreds of stories. However, although Longfellow was familiar with Amerindian lore, The Song of Hiawatha was written by a poet and lovingly.

It has been mocked, but it remains a favourite. For one thing, if well written, stories of star-crossed lovers are popular. Moreover, Longfellow knew that the Southeast Cherokee had been removed from their land, knowledge that undoubtedly saddened him and may explain the scourges.

My kindest regards to all of you.


Sources and Resources


[1] Stith Thompson, The Folktale (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: The University of California Press, 1977 [1946]), p. 307.

[2] “Hiawatha,” in Una Govern, editor, Chambers Biographical Dictionary, 7th edition (Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap Publishers, 2003 [1897]).

[3] Stith Thompson, The Folktale, p. 311.

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

[5] “Hiawatha,” in Adrian Room (revised by), Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 16th edition (London: Cassell, 2004 [1959]).

[6] “Hiawatha,” in James D. Hart with revisions and additions by Phillip W. Leininger, The Oxford Companion to American Literature, Sixth Edition (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Hiawatha Melodrama

Antonín DvořákSymphony No. 9, “From the New World.”
Kevin Deas (narrator), Post Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez
Visual artist: Peter Bogdanoff & John James Audubon, Frederic Church, George Catlin, Herbert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington …

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Photo credit: Google images)

© Micheline Walker
31 August 2015