The commemorative poem The Song of Hiawatha is neither a historically accurate nor an exact chronological account of actual events among Native Americans in the southern Lake Superior area of the United States. Instead, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow bases the narrative in part on information about Native Americans from many areas and eras; he employs myths and folktales from many cultures. His main character, Hiawatha, combines features taken from the heroes of several different tribes, such as Tarenyawago of the Iroquois, a legendary chief named Hiawatha who may have helped form the Iroquois Confederacy, and the mythical Manabazho of the Algonquin or Chippewa tribe. In addition, Longfellow employs his own creativity.
Longfellow utilized some traditional myths in his poem, incorporating stories of the people that explain phenomena they do not understand. Thus, The Song of Hiawatha explains how the woodpecker got its red head, how the tribes acquired corn, how picture writing began, and how the peace pipe developed. In addition, the poet borrowed some characters (fairies and evil spirits) from traditional European tales and used some of his own imaginative storytelling as well to produce his episodic poem. Longfellow mentioned in his journals and diaries that one of his sources was Algic Researches (1836) by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (a supporter of the finished work). The poet also utilized the travel logs of George Caitlin and the accounts of missionary John Heckewelder’s experiences among the Delaware and Huron tribes. He wrote also of the inspiration he received from a young Harvard graduate who shared with him some stories from the West.
Longfellow drew on traditional literature, incorporating its three most popular themes into his work: the picaresque (journey) theme, the survival of the unfittest theme, and the reversal of fortune theme. The picaresque theme is one that Longfellow applied liberally in The Song of Hiawatha. Young Hiawatha travels to the land of the West Wind to find his father. He journeys also to the land of the Dacotahs; there, he sees and falls in love with Minnehaha. Other travelers—white men from a faraway place—arrive in the land of Hiawatha’s people and receive welcome. To some readers, however, Longfellow presents a rather detached, benign view of the arrival of Europeans to the land of the Native Americans. At the end of the poem, Hiawatha suggests another trip; he tells Nokomis that he must go on a journey to the “hereafter,” perhaps a reference to heaven.
Longfellow uses the traditional theme of the survival of the unfittest in The Song of Hiawatha. As Hiawatha is enduring days of fasting, he encounters a stranger...
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