Or, How did Hiawatha get from the Upper Peninsula to Minneapolis?
by Carol Bechtel, Becketwood Member
As a youngster, I learned that the many lakes in my home state were the result of rain filling in Paul Bunyan’s footsteps. Somewhat later I learned that when Longfellow penned “On the shores of Gitche Gumee,/ Of the shining Big Sea Water” he was referring to Superior, the biggest of our great lakes. I grew up in what was then known as “Water Wonderland”: Michigan. MANY years later I found myself in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, in an apartment in a neighborhood called Longfellow, with many familiar place names. It even had a small replica of Longfellow’s home, which I had visited in Cambridge, MA. Hmmmm.
My first summer at Becketwood I visited the Nokomis branch library, thinking that surely a library so-named would have a copy of The Song of Hiawatha, which, despite being an English major, I had never read. They did not. Neither did the other nearby branch, East Lake. I checked the computer and learned that the downtown library had several historic copies of the poem, but I could not figure out which one to order, so reading the poem got postponed.
This past winter I was shopping for a teapot in the antique malls on Selby Avenue in St. Paul when I came upon a booth featuring used books. A casual glance revealed a pristine, beautifully illustrated (by Herbert Meyer) Charles E. Tuttle Company (Rutland, VT, 1975) copy of The Song of Hiawatha. I have just had what turned out to be a lovely experience reading it.
As a literature student I had memorized the meter called trochaic tetrameter with the mnemonic above quote from the poem. I always thought it sounded deadly. How would I endure hundreds of rhymed short stanzas in this unvarying rhythm? Answer: with exhilaration. I was carried along with the beautiful, lilting, simple language so suited to the story, much as I have often been by the sunlight playing on the ever-moving ripples of my beloved Minnehaha Creek—which I have walked, in small increments, from the Mississippi to Edina. My confusion over Michigan and Minnesota was removed when I read in the chapter “Hiawatha’s Wooing”:
“Thus the youthful Hiawatha/ Said within himself and pondered/ Much perplexed by various feelings,/ Listless, longing, hoping, fearing,/ Dreaming still of Minnehaha,/ Of the lovely Laughing Water,/ In the land of the Dacotahs.”
Against the wishes of his grandmother Nokomis, who requests that he not bring a stranger from an opposing tribe into her lodge, the Ojibwa Hiawatha sets out for the land of the Dacotahs: “With his moccasins of magic,/ At each stride a mile he measured;/ Yet the way seemed long before him,/ And his heart outran his footsteps;/ And he journeyed without resting,/ Til he heard the cataract’s laughter,/ Heard the Falls of Minnehaha/ Calling to him through the silence.”
He finds her: “At the doorway of his wigwam/ Sat the ancient Arrow-maker,/ In the land of the Dacotahs… /At his side, in all her beauty,/ Sat the lovely Minnehaha,/ Sat his daughter, Laughing Water,/ Plaiting mats of flags and rushes…” “After many years of warfare,/ Many years of strife and bloodshed,/ There is peace between the Ojibways/ And the tribe of the Dacotahs.” They make the long trip back to the land of the Ojibwas.
In 1951 I traveled with my parents to see the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for the first time. I remember encountering Schoolcraft County, which I considered an odd name. Largely in the Hiawatha National Forest, the county was named for Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an ethnographer and United States Indian agent who had explored the area and, according to the Concluding Note in the Hiawatha edition I read, was the source of much of Longfellow’s Indian lore. Wikipedia says that Longfellow's sources for the legends and ethnography found in his poem were the Ojibwe Chief Kahge-ga-gah-bowh during his visits at Longfellow's home; Black Hawk and other Sac and Fox Indians he encountered on Boston Common; Algic Researches (1839) and other Schoolcraft writings. As far as is known, Longfellow never visited either Michigan or Minnesota, but his influence on both was substantial. More information can be found through the Minnesota School of Botanical Art.
Hiawatha, an epic poem written in 1855, embodies the hero’s quest and glorifies the nobility and traditions of native peoples. I feel sure that 60 years ago I could not have appreciated it the way I do now. I was especially moved by the last section, “Hiawatha’s Departure,” in which the hero welcomes a European priest, the first white man he has ever seen, to his shore and then sets off in his canoe in the direction of the West, never to return—but not before admonishing Nokomis to be sure to offer every hospitality and gift to the visitors.