The Song of Hiawatha

The Song of Hiawatha is an epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow based on the legends of the Ojibway Indians. Longfellow credited as his source the work of pioneering ethnographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, specifically Schoolcraft's Algic Researches and History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States.



Intentionally epic in scope, Longfellow himself described it as "this Indian Edda," and wrote it in the same meter as the Finnish folk-epic, The Kalevala.

It was published on November 10, 1855 and was an immediate success.

A short extract of 94 lines from the poem was and still is frequently anthologized under the title Hiawatha's Childhood (which is also the title of the longer 234-line section from which the extract is taken). This short extract is the most familiar portion of the poem. It is this short extract that begins with the famous lines:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

The poem closes with the approach of a birch canoe to Hiawatha's village, containing "the Priest of Prayer, the Pale-face." Hiawatha welcomes him joyously and the "Black-Robe chief"

Told his message to the people,
Told the purport of his mission,
Told them of the Virgin Mary,
And her blessed Son, the Saviour.

Hiawatha and the chiefs accept their message. Hiawatha bades farewell to Nokomis, the warriors, and the young men, giving them this charge: "But my guests I leave behind me/Listen to their words of wisdom,/Listen to the truth they tell you." Having endorsed the Christian missionaries, he launches his canoe for the last time westward toward the sunset, and departs forever.

Hiawatha in music

Antonín Dvořák was familiar with the work in Czech translation. In an article published in the New York Herald on December 15 1893, he stated that the second movement of his Symphony No. 9, From the New World, was a "sketch or study for a later work, either a cantata or opera ... which will be based upon Longfellow's Hiawatha" and that the third movement scherzo was "suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance."

Curiously enough, Dvořák claimed that "the music of the negroes and of the Indians was practically identical," and some passages that suggest African-American spirituals to modern ears may have been intended by Dvořák to evoke a Native American ambience.

The poem was later used as the basis for a three-part cantata, Scenes from the Song of Hiawatha (18981900), by the English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Part of the poem is recited in Mike Oldfield's album Incantations.

Laurie Anderson also includes an excerpt of the poem in her song of the same name.

Longfellow's Hiawatha vs. the historical Iroquois Hiawatha

There is virtually no connection, apart from name, between Longfellow's hero and the sixteenth-century Iroquois chief Hiawatha who founded the Iroquois League. Longfellow took the name from works by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, whom he acknowledged as his main sources. In 1856 Schoolcraft published The Hiawatha Legends, based on this material.

In his notes on the poem, Longfellow cites Schoolcraft as a source for "a tradition prevalent among the North American Indians, of a personage of miraculous birth, who was sent among them to clear their rivers, forests, and fishing-grounds, and to teach them the arts of peace. He was known among different tribes by the several names of Michabou, Chiabo, Manabozo, Tarenyawagon, and Hiawatha." Longfellow's notes make no reference to the Iroquois or the Iroquois League or to any historical personage.

According to ethnologist Horatio Hale (1817-1896), there was a longstanding confusion between the Iroquois leader Hiawatha and the Iroquois deity Aronhiawagon due to "an accidental similarity in the Onondaga dialect between [their names]." The deity, he says, was variously known as Aronhiawagon, Tearonhiaonagon, Taonhiawagi, or Tahiawagi; the historical Iroquois leader, as Hiawatha, Tayonwatha or Thannawege. Schoolcraft "made confusion worse ... by transferring the hero to a distant region and identifying him with Manabozho, a fantastic divinity of the Ojibways. [Schoolcraft's book] has not in it a single fact or fiction relating either to Hiawatha himself or to the Iroquois deity Aronhiawagon."


The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica notes that "The metre is monotonous and easily ridiculed, but it suits the subject, and the poem is very popular." During the twentieth century it diminished both in esteem and in popularity, and as of 2004 perhaps survives primarily as the subject of parodies.

Lewis Carroll wrote a poem, Hiawatha's Photographing, which he introduced by noting "In an age of imitation, I can claim no special merit for this slight attempt at doing what is known to be so easy. Any fairly practised writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose, for hours together, in the easy running metre of 'The Song of Hiawatha."

Another is The Song of Milkanwatha, by Rev. George A. Strong (18321912):

He killed the noble Mudjokivis.
Of the skin he made him mittens,
Made them with the fur side inside,
Made them with the skin side outside.
He, to get the warm side inside,
Put the inside skin side outside;
He to get the cold side outside
Put the warm side fur side inside.
That's why he put the fur side inside,
Why he put the skin side outside,
Why he turned them inside outside.

As of 2004 there are probably more people who can quote Strong's parody in full than can quote eleven consecutive lines of Longfellow's original. The Smothers Brothers used this as a song on one of their albums; although, they made it refer to Hiawatha.

Another parody popular among hacker culture is The Song of Hakawatha.

Some Disney cartoons include episodes in which inept protagonists are beset by comic calamities on camping trips. Often these are introduced by a mock-solemn intonation of the lines about the shores of Gitche Gumee. The most famous of these—perhaps the nail in the coffin of the poem's reputation?—was the 1937 Silly Symphony Little Hiawatha, whose hero is a small boy whose pants keep falling down.

Finally, Margaret Pietsch wrote a parody skit based on "Song of Hiawatha". The skit was actually performed hundreds if not thousands of times, most famously on Saturday Night Live. As an introduction to "Song of Hiawatha" in a listing of "Programs of Inspiration and Humor", she wrote:

"As chairman of an adult dance at my daughter's grade school on January 25, 1958, our committee chose an Indian theme. The gym was decorated with live trees cut and arranged around the room. Large halved totem poles decorated the sides of the gym. A ceremonial artificial fire with lights and red paper and sticks was placed in the center and tables around the room. Ninety-five percent of those that attended wore hand-made or rented Indian costumes.

"This skit was prepared as the entertainment. Presidents of banks, leading realtors and business men in high positions were recruited to be a tree, the firefly or the deer, and each person was responsible for his own costume.

"It has been repeated several times, a must at the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the school.

"We appreciate and have a high regard for the Indian culture and this was always presented for the humor of the actions, as many of the Indian dances were performed with humor too.

"It has always received a happy response with requests for its repeated performance."

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