In 1855, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his most popular poem, The Song of Hiawatha. It was an immediate success, propelling Longfellow into literary stardom and influencing popular culture for decades to come. In this epic work, Longfellow set out to honor and praise Native American heritage, but at the same time, he laid the foundation for stereotypes and a false assumption that indigenous culture was dying in America. Since then, the merits and pitfalls of Hiawatha have been rightly debated and its hold on American culture endures today.
Longfellow used rhythmic poetry to convey various Native American myths to a popular audience. Primarily, the epic poem highlights the stories of the Ojibwe people of the Lake Superior region. Its main focuses are the adventures of a fictional Ojibwe hero, Hiawatha, his gifts to his people, and his tragic love story with a Dakota woman, Minnehaha. Before Hiawatha’s arrival, the reader enjoys various interwoven scenes, such as the case of the personified South Wind, Shawondasee, falling in love with a dandelion he takes to be a golden-haired young woman.
Later, Hiawatha’s grandmother falls from the moon, and he is eventually born. The poem traces his life from childhood adventure, falling in fast love with Minnehaha, marrying, and losing her from illness. In the end, he leaves after white settlers arrive, feeling his time has passed and that his people will manage. Before this ending, Hiawatha defeats malevolent gods, and gifts his people with greater crop yields, and the invention of reading and writing.
Longfellow’s poem was much more than a retelling of traditional Ojibwe tales for a white audience. His intent, born out in his creation, was to mold Christian values, European literary structure and Native American culture into a single great “American” epic to rival those of the European classics. In so doing, Longfellow brought positive attention to the Ojibwe people and helped spur the preservation of some elements of their culture. However, he also Europeanized their legends and assimilated their culture into the American mainstream. Because of this, Hiawatha has a complicated legacy that has impacted perceptions of Native Americans in this country for over 165 years.
Creating an American Epic
Before entering his career as a respected college professor, and long before he would become widely considered “America’s poet,” Longfellow traveled extensively in Europe. Through the languages and literature he absorbed, he came to feel that any nation’s identity should be one with its written word. This fueled his hope for a distinct national literature for the United States, still a relatively young nation seeking cultural independence from its estranged parent country.
Longfellow was not alone in this desire. From 1795 until the publication of Hiawatha in 1855, at least nineteen American epic poems were published.1 The collective goal was to fortify America’s identity through the establishment of a national mythology, comprised of the grand heroes and events inherent to epic poetry. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a friend of Longfellow’s, expressed eagerness to write about America with a local focus, shunning descriptions of what could only be found overseas.2 These same principles informed Longfellow’s choice of a Native American subject matter when he endeavored to create a national epic.
In 1901, Longfellow’s daughter, Alice, reflected that, “an interest in the Indians had long been felt by Mr. Longfellow, and in his early prose sketches, tales about the Indians had a place.”3 Six years before writing, Longfellow made the acquaintance of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh, an Ojibwe academic, advocate and writer, who would provide some insight for the future work. Seemingly, it was an undertaking Longfellow pondered for a long time, wanting to do it justice. He wrote in his journal, “I pored over [Henry] Schoolcraft’s writings for nearly three years before I resolved to appropriate something of them to my own use.…” While writing, Longfellow wrote in his journal, “I must put a live, beating heart into it [the poem]."
While his earnest cross-cultural interest was undoubtable, it must be mentioned that Longfellow likely sensed the popular desire for a particular factor in a national epic: that it could grant Americans a link to the ancient history of the land they lived on even if his predominantly white audience had dubious claims to this heritage. As Europe looked back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans for a sense of distinction, America could look back to ancient Native American stories in the same way. Today, however, we recognize the unfairness inherent in that idea.
Criticism for Hiawatha
The most popular and contemporary literary critiques of The Song of Hiawatha were focused on its poetic meter (tetrameter, or eight syllables in each line), and the accusation that some of its myths were lifted from a Finnish epic, The Kalevala. To the assertions that he used tetrameter in imitation of The Kalevala, Longfellow defended his decision and stated that the style was not exclusively Finnish. In light of his reliance on scholar Henry Schoolcraft, it is of little surprise that Longfellow would choose the form. In the introduction to one of his own poems, Schoolcraft suggested, “The measure (tetrameter) is thought to be not ill-adapted to the Indian mode of enunciation. Nothing is more characteristic of their harangues (aggressive lectures) and public speeches.”4 It has, in fact, been determined that the majority of Native American narrative poems from 1790 to 1849 contained mostly tetrameter.5
Longfellow sidestepped the claims that some of the legends in Hiawatha were stolen from The Kalevala. To Longfellow, what actually mattered were the similarities between his epic poem and the work of his scholarly informant, Schoolcraft. Scholars have indeed tracked down a Schoolcraft reference for almost every detail the poem paints.6 But while Longfellow may have been true to his main source, there are issues to be found with Schoolcraft.
Schoolcraft’s interactions with the Ojibwe began when he was appointed as an “Indian agent,” or American government delegate to Native American tribes. He learned the Ojibwe language and culture from his wife, Jane, and her Ojibwe mother, Susan (Ozhaguscodaywayquay). Although Schoolcraft lived among various Native American tribes for almost twenty-four years,7 he does not seem to have taken the most open-eyed approach when it cames to the accuracy of what he recorded. He “had returned with many volumes of undigested material, material that was sometimes inaccurate but always rich with the poetic lore of the tribal mythologies.”8 It is understandable that Longfellow would have turned to a source whose work highlighted the culturally-rich literature he sought inspiration from, and who could boast of abundant firsthand experience. Nevertheless, Schoolcraft’s inaccuracies are permanently etched into Longfellow’s most ambitious poem.
However, not all the divergences between Hiawatha and Ojibwe legend can be chalked up to Schoolcraft. Some plot points were wholly invented by Longfellow. One prominent example is the romance between Hiawatha and Minnehaha. Not only was there no such point in Schoolcraft, nor indeed in any Anishinaabe legends, but it was at odds with the structure of Anishinaabe familial life. Anishinaabe families relied on commonly recognized relationships, akin to common-law marriages, rather than formal, licensed marriages. This was regularly a cause of angst for white Americans seeking to Anglicize Native American groups, whether they were official government “Indian” offices or missionaries. The formal wooing and wedding plot in Hiawatha was a thoroughly European story dressed in the costumes of Native Americans.
Another mistake of Longfellow’s concerns the central character, Hiawatha. Longfellow noted in his journal in June of 1854 that he began “Manabozho's first adventure.”9 Manabozho, or Nanabozho, a trickster spirit who was a cultural hero in Ojibwe legend, was Longfellow’s basis for his hero. By the very next day, though, Longfellow wrote that he was working on “’Manflbozho;’ [sic] or, as I think I shall call it, ‘Hiawatha,’-- that being another name for the same Manito.”10 This is a mistake. Hiawatha was not another name for the Ojibwe trickster, but rather a 16th century Iroquois leader, renowned in his own right. The true Hiawatha, who aided peace and cooperation among the Iroquois tribes, has had his identity overshadowed by the renown of Longfellow’s poem. Longfellow’s editorial discretion goes beyond his naming mix-up. Objiwe writer and academic Gerald Vizenor explains that Manabozho “represents a spiritual balance in a comic drama rather than the romantic elimination of human contradictions and evil." Longfellow sanitized the essential “trickster” nature of Manabozho, transforming him into an “isolated and sentimental tragic hero” rather than the complex figure of Ojibwe legend.11
This is perhaps most evident in the closing of the poem. Hiawatha welcomes the white missionaries who arrive, and urges his people not only to welcome them, but to follow their lead:
Listen to their words of wisdom,
Listen to the truth they tell you,
For the Master of Life has sent them
From the land of light and morning!
This scene is not from Schoolcraft, and instead is entirely Longfellow’s creation. By attaching the Anishinaabe legends to the arrival of white settlers, Longfellow built a seamless lineage connecting his American cultural hero to the expansion of white settlements in the country.
Hiawatha's Implications for Native Americans
When examining the impact that the poem has had on Native Americans as a whole, it is important to look at both the past and the present, the good and the bad. Longfellow wrote in his journal, “I have at length hit upon a plan for a poem on the American Indians... It is to weave together their beautiful traditions into a whole.” In another statement, he again showed reverence, but it was accompanied by acceptance of the prevailing narrative of a dying Native American culture. For him, albeit, it was a hallowed heritage:
When our native Indians, who are fast-perishing from the earth, shall have left forever the borders of our wide lakes... the dim light of tradition will rest upon those places, which have seen the glory of their battles, and heard the voice of their eloquence;---and our land will become, indeed, a classic ground.12
This relegation to the past served the poem’s main purpose: creating a classic American hero. But while the Hiawatha of the poem became a beloved character, the end of the poem sees him leaving, and the white settlers arriving.
Despite this problematic message, the culture surrounding native reenactments of The Song of Hiawatha proved to be enriching. While adaptations by white casts were popular for decades after publication, the 1880s brought all-Native casts onto the scene. In 1899, Ketegaunseebee Anishinaabe actors in Ontario, Canada began a tradition of annual performances (pageants), which came to serve as a catalyst towards deeper study and appreciation of ancestral roots. In addition, performing these pageants often allowed Anishinaabe actors to skirt government regulations surrounding their drumming and singing, serving as an important cultural connector within Anishinaabe communities. Across different Anishinaabe peoples, the practice also boosted indigenous economies. The prevalence of these pageants has waned in recent years, though.
Today, The Song of Hiawatha is valuable for both its strengths and weaknesses. There has been much valid criticism over the fact that the poem did not break from the idea that Native American culture would, and should, soon vanish. This abrasive element of the poem can inspire modern readers to value and support indigenous culture that endures and thrives. It should also be acknowledged that the poem has aided the survival of some of those cultural traditions. On the most apparent level, at least one hundred places names were inspired by the poem and are in the native languages of Algonquian and Siouan13, a small form of preservation. In writing Hiawatha, Longfellow created the first major piece of popular culture in which Native Americans were portrayed in a heroic light, rather than a patronizing or outright negative one. Reading this poem today, modern readers learn the to be wary of popular stereotypes and the necessity of involving groups when making meaning of their own cultures for popular consumption.
Ironically, it is Longfellow’s success at his goal of assimilating Native American culture into a great American epic that modern readers most heavily praise and critique. Longfellow’s attempts to include Anishinaabe legend in American literary canon was an attempt at inclusivity and one that allowed Anishinaabe peoples to preserve and celebrate their culture, while reaping economic benefits from pageants. On the other hand, Longfellow’s poem played directly into the attempts of many missionaries and government Indian agents to assimilate Native American people, at the expense of their own cultural practices.
While it is tempting to try and place The Song of Hiawatha into a single binary category of “good” or “bad,” our approach to it should really mirror the Anishinaabe mindset, as demonstrated by the trickster Manabozho himself: “holding both good and bad, sacred and profane, mischief and honor, in tension.”14
Fruhauff, Brad. "The Lost Work of Longfellow's "Hiawatha"." The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 40, no. 2 (2007), 81.
Chiasson, Dan, et al. “How Ralph Waldo Emerson Changed American Poetry.” The New Yorker, (7 November 2017). www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/07/ecstasy-of-influence.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth and Alice M. Longfellow. The Song of Hiawatha. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1901), 5.
Schramm, Wilbur. "Hiawatha and Its Predecessors", Philological Quarterly 11, (1932), 340.
Thompson, Stith. "The Indian Legend of Hiawatha." PMLA 37, no. 1 (1922), 128-40. Accessed April 15, 2020. doi:10.2307/457211, 129.
HWL Journal, 27 June 1854.
HWL Journal, 28 June 1854.
Vizenor, Gerald. The People Named the Chippewa: Narrative Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 4.
Longfellow, Henry. "The Literary Spirit of Our Country," The United States Literary Gazette, 1 April 1824, in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings, ed. J.D. McClatchy (New York: Library of American, 2000), 371.
Vogel, Virgil J. “Placenames From Longfellow's ‘Song of Hiawatha,’” Names, 39:3, (1991), 261-268.
McNally, Michael D. “The Indian Passion Play: Contesting the Real Indian in "Song of Hiawatha" Pageants, 1901-1965.” American Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Mar, 2006), 110.