The Epoch Times – BRIGHT
Like the constant beat of drums at a tribal gathering, the rhythm of the poem reverberates in our hearts:
BY the SHORE of GITche GUMee,
BY the SHINing BIG-Sea-WAter
We hear its rhythm as it carries us through the epic travels of the first legendary American hero, Hiawatha.
This was not the first long poem that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, but “The Song of Hiawatha,” published in 1855, embodies the spirit needed by a nation on the verge of civil war. Longfellow got the story of an Onondaga tribal leader from historian and ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who had collected the oral history of the Ojibway of northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Longfellow also heard stories from his friend, an Ojibway chief, who told him of the legendary tribal leader Hiawatha.
Marble sculpture, 1891, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens of Hiawatha in thoughtful reflection. (Public Domain)
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The historical Hiawatha lived in northern New York state circa 1580 and is known to have united five tribes into the Iroquois Confederacy. He charged the tribes never to disagree among themselves. He called anger disgraceful. He required great patience and goodwill among the tribes when deliberating. His way was to have peace among the tribes and cultivate friendship and honor.
Like Homer’s Odysseus, Longfellow’s Hiawatha sets out on epic journeys that cover great expanses of the new land. Our hero grows up near the shores of Gitche Gumee—Lake Superior. Then as now, Longfellow describes the lake as plentiful with sturgeon:
Level spread the lake before him;
from its bosom leaped the sturgeon.
Our hero sets out for the Rockies to confront Mudjekeewis, his father and Ruler of the West Wind, because he abandoned Hiawatha’s mother. He struggles with his father, who then becomes the Spirit of the West Wind.
Just as Odysseus did, Hiawatha cultivated special friendships. There is a Hercules-type companion, Kwasind, who once hurled a huge rock into the river that was so big it could be seen at all times. Hiawatha’s musician friend, Chibiabos, sings our hero’s praises as they travel together.
Hiawatha painting by Remington
Painting by Frederic Remington for Canto 6 for the 1891 publication of “The Song of Hiawatha.” (Public Domain)
The great love of his life is Minnehaha, “Laughing Water,” whom he meets among the Dacotahs on his return from sending his father to the hereafter. This is truly a love for the ages. No one is more beautiful than this Dacotah maiden:
Minnehaha, Laughing Water,
Handsomest of all the women
In the land of the Dacotahs,
In the land of Handsome women.
Hiawatha fearlessly accepts any challenge to help his people. Like the courageous heroes of the past, he engages gods, demons, and other-worldly beings. Just as Jacob wrestled an angel, Hiawatha successfully battles the corn spirit Mondamin whose body magically gives the people maize, which feeds them during famine. Hiawatha takes on Pearl Feather, the evil magician who brings disease and death.
Spirits watch over him and his loved ones, even if it is to bring sad news. He listens with sadness as small gray spirits foretell Minnehaha’s death. Whatever he does is for his people. Hiawatha never fights for personal gain but stands strong for peace to build prosperity and power.
And the gods reward him. What could be a cliché in a Western becomes very moving when Hiawatha rides into the sunset’s portal to the realm of the hereafter.
Epic American Literature
“Hiawatha” is a bona fide epic poem by any standard. Longfellow gives us a legendary hero who serves his people through courage and vision. Our hero engages supernatural beings with strength and skill. As the epic hero, Hiawatha travels to many lands in his quest to serve his people.
The poem is built on 22 poems in eight sections, called cantos. The poetic rhythm is written in trochaic tetrameter—four pairs of stressed-unstressed syllables in each line. This is similar to the Finnish epic, the “Kalevala,” which Longfellow may have discussed with Schoolcraft since Finns had settled in the upper Midwest where the story is set.
Prominent American artists of the day contributed their talents to making “Hiawatha” memorable. For a deluxe edition of the poem in 1891, Frederic Remington painted a series of 22 black-and-white paintings using the grisaille technique (monochromatic tones). He created one for each canto, including a painting of Hiawatha’s friends Chibiabos and Kwasind for Canto 6.
In 1874, Thomas Eakins presented our hero poised in silhouette between the earth and the spirit realm in the sky. Augustus Saint-Gaudens completed a marble sculpture in 1891 of Hiawatha sitting in quiet reflection. Renowned landscape artist of the American West, Albert Bierstadt chose to depict Hiawatha leaving his earthly realm as a reward for his heroic deeds in the final scene of the poem:
Westward, westward Hiawatha
Sailed into the fiery sunset,
Sailed into the purple vapors,
Sailed into the dusk of evening
“The Departure of Hiawatha,” 1868, by Albert Bierstadt. It depicts the final scene of “Song of Hiawatha.” (Public Domain)
Legacy of Peace and Power
In planning his work, Longfellow said: ”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 the tradition of all great literary works, Longfellow has given us a leader who thinks of others first, fosters peace over war, and battles invisible forces without hesitation.
The poem made its mark on America’s landscape. Character names from the poem appear in geographical locations throughout North America. Parks, trails, and waterways are named for our hero. A waterfall in Minnesota is named for Minnehaha.
Each generation that inhabits this land can benefit from an understanding of this epic poem. It not only weaves together the traditions of Native Americans but of all Americans, of every group and every age, as it nurtures the epic power of peace.