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.)