The Song of Hiawatha

Hiawatha and Minnehaha sculpture by Jacob Fjelde near Minnehaha Falls

Bright above him shone the heavens, Level spread the lake before him; From its bosom leaped the sturgeon, Sparkling, flashing in the sunshine; On its margin the great forest, Stood reflected in the water, Every tree-top had its shadow, Motionless beneath the water.  From the brow of Hiawatha, Gone was every trace of sorrow, As the fog from off the water, As the mist from off the meadow.  With a smile of joy and triumph, With a look of exultation, As of one who in a vision, Sees what is to be, but is not, Stood and waited Hiawatha.  

Immediately following the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862, there was throughout the state a palpable thirst for revenge over the defeated enemy.  Anyone at that time who had Indian blood, had little choice but to disguise their background, or, if they could not, migrate from settled parts of the state to Indian communities.  Minnesota sought to transform its history from one of a multicultural borderland to a modern, domesticated garden of opportunity.

Interestingly, Minnesota’s push to separate itself from its Indian heritage did not last, but rather, was reversed.  This was due to the perception created by image makers such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with his epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha (1855).  Longfellow, who never visited Minnesota, relied on the descriptions of explorers such as Henry Schoolcraft, George Catlin, and Joseph Nicollet to create a literary masterpiece that, according to historian Michael Kammen, assuaged the American conscience by transforming a shameful history of American Indian relations into a romantic portrayal of a proud yet primitive people finally giving way to a more accomplished society foredestined to supplant them.

This new image was embraced by cities and towns across Minnesota who sought to enshrine an imagined Indian heritage as part of their identity.  One noted example is that of Minnehaha Falls, originally named Brown’s Falls until 1889 when the city of Minneapolis changed the name and declared the falls the “jewel” of its city park system.  Already a tourist magnet in 1889, Minnehaha Falls has become a civic emblem boasting a statue of the fictitious Hiawatha holding Minnehaha in his arms.

Article Source:  Mary Lethert Wingerd, North Country:  The Making of Minnesota, Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Image Source:  Wikipedia, The Song of Hiawathahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Song_of_Hiawatha