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Hiawatha

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Tales recounting the deeds of Manabozho, collected and published by Schoolcraft, as the "myth of Hiawatha," were the primary materials from which Longfellow drew for his Song of Hiawatha. The fall of Nokomis from the sky; Hiawatha's journey to his father, the West Wind; the gift of maize, in the legend of Mondamin; the conflict with the great Sturgeon, by which Hiawatha was swallowed; the rape and restoration of Chibiabos; the pursuit of the storm-sprite, Pau-Puk-Keewis; and the conflict of the upper and underworld powers, are all elements in the cosmogonic myths of the Algonquian tribes.

Quite another personage is the actual Hiawatha of Iroquoian tradition, certain of whose deeds and traits are incorporated in the poet's tale. Hiawatha was an Onondaga chieftain whose active years fell in the latter half of the sixteenth century. At that time the Iroquoian tribes of central New York were at constant war with one another and with their Algonquian neighbours, and Hiawatha conceived the great idea of a union which should ensure a universal peace. It was no ordinary confederacy that he planned, but an intertribal government whose affairs should be directed and whose disputes should be settled by a federal council containing representatives from each nation. This grandiose dream of a vast and peaceful Indian nation was never realized; but it was due to Hiawatha that the Iroquoian confederacy was formed, by means of which these tribes became the overlords of the forest region from the Connecticut to the Mississippi and from the St. Lawrence to the Susquehanna.

This great result was not, however, easily attained. The Iroquois preserve legends of Hiawatha's trials: how he was opposed among his own people by the magician and war-chief Atotarho; how his only daughter was slain at a council of the tribe by a great white bird, summoned, it is said, by the vengeful magician, which dashed downward from the skies and struck the maiden to earth; how Hiawatha then sadly departed from the people whom he had sought to benefit, and came to the villages of the Oneida in a white canoe, which moved with-out human aid. It was here that he made the acquaintance of the chief Dekanawida, who lent a willing ear to the apostle of peace, and who was to become the great lawgiver of the league. With the aid of this chieftain, Hiawatha's plan was carried to the Mohawk and Cayuga tribes, and once again to the Onondaga, where, it is told, Hiawatha and Dekanawida finally won the consent of Atotarho to the confederation. Morgan says, of Atotarho, that tradition "represents his head as covered with tangled serpents, and his look, when angry, as so terrible that whoever looked upon him fell dead. It relates that when the League was formed, the snakes were combed out of his hair by a Mohawk sachem, who was hence named Hayowentha, `the man who combs,'—which is doubtless a parable for the final conversion of the great war-chief by the mighty orator. After the union had been perfected, tradition tells how Hiawatha departed for the land of the sunset, sailing across the great lake in his magic canoe. The Iroquois raised him in memory to the status of a demigod.

In these tales of the man who created a nation from a medley of tribes, we pass from the nature-myth to the plane of civilization in which the culture hero appears. Hiawatha is an historical personage invested with semi-divinity because of his great achievements for his fellow-men. Such an apotheosis is inevitable wherever, in the human race, the dream of peace out of men's divisions creates their more splendid unities.



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