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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850

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Longfellow gathered the material for The Song of Hiawatha from many sources, and his aim was to codify the various tales he read into a coherent mythology. He sought to introduce a white audience to Indian mythology. It begins, as most mythologies do, with people and their god. Gitche Manito, “the mighty/ He the Master of Life,” brings the various tribes together to smoke the peace pipe. Gitche Manito will also send a prophet to the people “Who shall guide you and shall teach you,/ Who shall toil and suffer with you.” This prophet, who sounds very much like Jesus, will bring prosperity if the people listen. The prophet is Hiawatha.

Section 2 of the poem shows the taming of nature, of the four winds—especially the West-Wind, which is to be Hiawatha’s father. Hiawatha, after his mysterious conception (an element common to nearly all mythologies), lives with his grandmother, Nokomis, who teaches him about nature. In the fourth section of the poem, Hiawatha goes to see his father, the West-Wind. The West-Wind praises him and defines Hiawatha’s mission in life:

Go back to your home and people,Live among them, toil among them,Cleanse the earth from all that harms it,Clear the fishing grounds and rivers,Slay all monsters and magicians.

One of the most important contributions Hiawatha makes to his people comes after a long fast. Hiawatha is challenged by Mondamin, “a friend of man,” to wrestle. The wrestling takes three days, and on the third day Hiawatha defeats, strips, and buries Mondamin. Soon after, plant shoots appear, then maize, the staple food of the people. Hiawatha does not go in search of great deeds so that he might win praise or honor; rather, he struggles to bring benefits to his people. The progress from hero to leader is reminiscent of the ancient epics of Beowulf and The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Hiawatha has, as an epic hero should, friends who embody lesser skills: Chibiabos is a musician, and Kwasind is “the strongest of all mortals.” Hiawatha goes wooing, but once more it is not for his own pleasure but for the people. He will woo and marry Minnehaha, a Dacotah maiden. Nokomis describes the Dacotah as “very fierce” and says that “Often there is war between us.” The wooing, therefore, has political and social benefits; a marriage will unite the warring Dacotah and Objibway tribes. Minnehaha is the only character in the poem invented by Longfellow, and she is another of his long-suffering and passive women. Her answer to Hiawatha’s proposal is, “I will follow you, my husband!”

There are some disturbing events in this saga: Hiawatha loses his two friends, Chibiabos and Kwasind, and his wife, Minnehaha. His friends die in action, but Minnehaha dies in a famine. Significantly, Hiawatha has no power to overcome this natural event. Her death, however, is seen as something of a blessing, as she will be carried to the “Islands of the Blessed,” where there is no labor or suffering. Hiawatha had discovered the existence of these islands earlier in the poem, bringing consolation to the people—and to himself for the loss of his bride.

The next-to-last section of the poem deals with the coming of the white people. A canoe “Bigger than the Big-Sea Water,! Broader than the Gitche-Gumee” appears. Hiawatha counsels peace: “Let us welcome, then, the strangers,/ Hail them as our friends and brothers,/ And the heart’s right hand of friendship/ Give them when they come to see us.” This vision of peace and brotherhood is, however, immediately obliterated by another vision. Hiawatha sees “our nation scattered” and the “remnants of the people” swept away “Like the withered leaves of Autumn.” It is a poignant passage that reveals the historic fate of the American Indian and destroys the optimistic dream. Longfellow does not assign any blame to white people for the destruction of the Indian way of life.

The last section of the poem describes Hiawatha’s departure. He will not be there for the uprooting of the people he has served. Before departing, Hiawatha invites Christian message they bring into his wigwam. The Christian message is then received and welcomed by the chiefs. (There is no hint of the historic martyrdom that was to come to so many Jesuits or of the lack of interest in the Christian message by the Indians.) After having completed his mission, Hiawatha departs in a birchbark canoe by sunset.

The Song of Hiawatha is one of Longfellow’s most successful poems. It portrays the Indians with sympathy and some understanding. The meter of the poem is very noticeable. Longfellow rejected the long dactylic hexameters of Evangeline for a short unrhymed trochaic tetrameter. It has the effect of a chant and often fits the material perfectly. The hero of the poem may be a little too noble, good, and unselfish. He has none of the human faults that make Beowulf and Gilgamesh, for example, so interesting. At times, Hiawatha is more a Victorian gentleman bringing progress to “lesser breeds without the law” than an American Indian warrior.

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