The Song of Hiawatha

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The poem opens with a great Indian parley held on the shore of Lake Superior. Gitche Manito, the Indian divinity, has summoned the tribes to unite under a prophet whom he promises to send.

That prophet is Hiawatha, son of the West-Wind and Wenonah. Hiawatha brings corn to the Indians, destroys Pearl-Feather (who brought disease), and teaches the Indians how to keep pictographic records and cure illnesses.

He cannot, however, save his wife, Minnehaha, from death in a famine, nor can he prevent the coming of the white man, who will soon scatter the Indian tribes. Realizing that his world is ending, Hiawatha sails westward after making a vague promise to return someday, like King Arthur, to lead his people once again.

Although Longfellow wrote the poem in approximately a year, it is the product of at least two decades of interest in the legends of the Indians. Recognizing that these stories were in danger of disappearing, Longfellow sought to preserve them within the framework of an epic poem.

The Indians are American, but the poem reflects the European legend of the noble savage and the classical conventions of the heroic poem. Longfellow’s Indians are fierce, even savage, but they are also brave, stoic, loving, and patriotic. Indeed, they bear a strong resemblance to the Greeks of Homer and the Trojans of Virgil.

In celebrating the Indian, Longfellow also extols the American West, which he regards as his...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The Song of Hiawatha is a long narrative poem that, in its twenty-two sections, recounts the adventures of an American Indian hero. The setting is on the southern shore of Lake Superior, where Hiawatha is reared among the Ojibwas. The poem presents a series of encounters and contests that enable Hiawatha to bring progress and blessings to his tribe and to help create peace among the other tribes. During the course of the narrative, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow weaves together many aspects of American Indian mythology concerning life, nature, and ritual.

The narrative begins when Gitche Manito, the Great Spirit, calls the warring and vengeful tribes together, rebuking them for their childish behavior and informing them of a prophet who will come to guide and teach them. Hiawatha, the prophet mentioned by Gitche Manito, is born after Mudjekeewis, the West-Wind, seduces Wenonah, the daughter of Nokomis, and then leaves her to die deserted and heart-broken after giving birth to Hiawatha. Reared by Nokomis, Hiawatha grows to manhood and obtains magic gifts and powers that will enable him to perform his great deeds.

Through supernatural adventure tales of his building a canoe, fishing for sturgeon, and using a picture language, readers are told how American Indians learned these arts and are blessed by them. In one account, Hiawatha’s concern for his people is shown as he fasts and prays on their behalf. As a result of his experience, he...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Ojibway land

Ojibway land (oh-JIHB-way; also spelled Ojibwa). Area inhabited by the Algonquian-speaking peoples of the Upper Great Lakes—a region encompassing much of what is now Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio. Longfellow never visited this area and he relied heavily on books by John Tanner and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft to write his poem. He was probably also influenced by engravings by George Catlin to create his mental visualization of Ojibway life in the Great Lakes region. At the time when The Song of Hiawatha was published, Ojibway land was still remote and mysterious to many eastern Americans. At the same time, however, the Upper Great Lakes region was one of the first parts of the North American interior in which Europeans and Native Americans began their uneasy coexistence. Longfellow ends his poem with the incursion of white men into the “Land of the Ojibway” and the departure of Hiawatha.

Longfellow’s Great Lakes region can be seen as the mythic and Edenic vanished land of the Ojibwa, as well as a place in which Europeans were settling in ever greater numbers, encouraged by the region’s rich ore deposits. Thus, for Longfellow’s readers, the location of the poem presents a paradox: On one hand, it depicts the romantic notion of the “noble savage” living at one with nature; on the other hand, it depicts the contemporary reality of logging camps and copper and iron mines. It does so, however, without blaming the intrusive white population for the destruction of a way of life; rather, there is an air of inevitability in the poem, which...

(The entire section is 679 words.)

The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Weary of the constant fighting of the people, Gitche Manito, the Master of Life, calls together all the Native American tribes to remind them of their foolish ways, to try to bring peace among them, and to smoke the peace pipe with them. Although Manito has provided fertile lands, abundant streams, and forests, the groups continue foolishly to feud, to quarrel, and to fight. The Master of Life promises to send a prophet to guide and to teach his people. Should they fail to follow the prophet’s wise counsel, however, they will surely perish. Removing some of the minerals from the quarry and breaking them into pieces, Manito molds the red stone into peace pipes. He instructs the warriors to plunge themselves into the stream, to remove the war paint from their faces, and to cleanse the bloodstains from their hands.

One evening at twilight, the beautiful Nokomis falls to the earth from the full moon. There, among the ferns and mosses, she bears a daughter: Wenonah. As Wenonah grows tall and lovely, Nokomis fears for her daughter and warns her to beware of Mudjekeewis, the West Wind. Wenonah fails to heed the warning and succumbs to Mudjekeewis’s wooing, bearing him a son, Hiawatha. Deserted by the false and faithless Mudjekeewis, Wenonah dies from grief.

Hiawatha grows up in the wigwam of Nokomis. Their home is near the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water, and near the forest. From boyhood, Hiawatha masters the crafts of the hunt, of sports, and of other arts and labors. He is a master of speed and accuracy with a bow and arrow. He wears magic deerskin mittens that give him great physical power. On his feet, he wears magic moccasins that allow him to stride a mile with each step.

Angered by the story of his father’s treachery, Hiawatha vows to visit Mudjekeewis and seek revenge. Nokomis, however, warns him of Mudjekeewis’s magic and cunning; she asks Hiawatha not to go. Hiawatha does not listen. He travels to the land of the West Wind, where he fights with Mudjekeewis for three days. At last, the West Wind admits that it will be impossible for Hiawatha to kill him because Mudjekeewis is immortal. Pleased, however, with the boy’s courage, Mudjekeewis sends Hiawatha back to serve his tribe as the prophet and protector that Gitche Manito promised them.

On his long journey home to the shores of Gitche Gumee, Hiawatha stops in the land of the Dacotahs to purchase arrowheads from an old man. There, Hiawatha sees Minnehaha (Laughing Water), the arrow-maker’s lovely daughter. She captivates Hiawatha.

When Hiawatha returns to his people, he builds a wigwam in the forest and goes there to fast and pray. On the fourth day of his fast, as he lies exhausted on his couch, Hiawatha sees a young stranger standing before him. The youth has green plumes over his forehead and wears green...

(The entire section is 1166 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963. Discusses the significance of Longfellow’s conscious utilization of American imagery in The Song of Hiawatha.

Carr, Helen. “The Myth of Hiawatha.” Literature & History 12, no. 1 (Spring, 1986): 58-78. Argues that Longfellow made various source materials fit his readers’ expectations. Carr discusses Longfellow’s use of the Finnish poem Kalevala as the source of both certain events in the poem and the poem’s rhythm, which is similar to the standard rhythm of the Indian tom-tom.

Gioia, Dana. “Longfellow in the Aftermath of Modernism.” In The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Argues that Longfellow’s poetry has fallen into critical disrepute because of the revision of the American poetry canon by the modernist school of criticism. Places The Song of Hiawatha in the foreground of American attempts at producing a national epic.

Millward, Celia and Cecelia Tichi. “Whatever Happened to ‘Hiawatha’?” Genre 6, no. 3 (September, 1973): 313-332. Discusses the metrics and the poetic devices found in The Song of Hiawatha and shows how The Song of Hiawatha fits into the traditional epic-poem mold.

Waggoner, Hyatt H. “Beginnings.” In American Poets from the Puritans to the Present. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984. Argues that The Song of Hiawatha romanticizes the life and culture of the American Indian without resorting to the sentimentality often found in other presentations.