The Song of Hiawatha


I recently learned that April is National Poetry Month and that the American Academy of Poets designated April 24 as “National Poem in Your Pocket Day.” Their idea is simple, pick a favorite poem and carry it in your pocket to share with others. I liked it. But then I had another idea. There is an epic poem that had significant impact in my corner of Minneapolis (and the United States) in the 1800s, I would share that too. My poem is The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The epic poem takes place on the southern shores of Lake Superior and tells the story of the birth of Hiawatha, his falling in love with Minnehaha, and eventually his acceptance of Christianity when missionaries finally arrive by canoe.

Tourism to south Minneapolis increased significantly when the poem was published in 1855. And the poem left such a mark, this statue of Hiawatha and Minnehaha by Jacob Fjelde stands at the top of the falls to this day:

hiawath and minnehaha sculpture
Fjelde was born in Norway and moved to Minneapolis in 1887. He was a prolific portraitist and the creator of public monuments, several of which can be found in Minneapolis today.

Near the park stands the historic Longfellow House. A house that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow never lived in or saw, but was a 2/3 scale replica of his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

longfellow house
Robert “Fish” Jones built the Longfellow House and had a zoo near Minnehaha Creek. In 1907, he opened the Longfellow Zoological Gardens. He lived in the house for 23 years, eventually closing the zoo due to complaints from neighbors. Since then, the house has been a library, a haunted mansion and now is an interpretive center.

And just beyond the Longfellow House off the beaten path is a statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow himself. More than 100 years old, it stands alone in what is now a prairie restoration area:

longfellow statue
Robert “Fish” Jones erected this statue in 1908 as part of a garden area of his property. It was originally ringed with small stone busts of Native Americans, but there is no longer any sign of them. The statue by sculptor A.A. Gewoni.

All of these remnants of Longfellow, yet I can’t seem to find any indication that he was ever in Minnesota. He relied heavily on the writings of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (an ethnographer and United States Indian agent who was inconsistent in his documentation, justifying both the rewriting and censoring of his subjects). Longfellow also based his work on visits with Ojibwe Chief Kahge-ga-gah-bowh; Black Hawk and other Sac and Fox Indians. While controversy surrounded the poem, it was tremendously popular at the time and it appears that Longfellow felt he was sharing Native American legend, but one must consider this poem American Romantic literature and nothing more.

This short extract is the most familiar portion of the poem:

 By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

Call me a romantic but my favorite part is the chapter on the wooing of Minnehaha, titled “Hiawatha’s Wooing,” these are a few short excerpts:

minnehaha and hiawatha
Hand in hand they went together, Through the woodland and the meadow….

Hiawatha found Minnehaha living with her father and the Dakota people near Minnehaha Falls. He fell in love with her, taking her back to the shores of Lake Superior:

From the sky the sun benignant
Looked upon them through the branches,
Saying to them, “O my children,
Love is sunshine, hate is shadow,
Life is checkered shade and sunshine,
Rule by love, O Hiawatha!”
From the sky the moon looked at them,
Filled the lodge with mystic splendors,
Whispered to them, “O my children,
Day is restless, night is quiet,
Man imperious, woman feeble;
Half is mine, although I follow;
Rule by patience, Laughing Water!”
Thus it was they journeyed homeward;
Thus it was that Hiawatha
To the lodge of old Nokomis
Brought the moonlight, starlight, firelight,
Brought the sunshine of his people,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water,
Handsomest of all the women
In the land of the Dacotahs,
In the land of handsome women.
Heard the Falls of Minnehaha Calling to them from the distance, Crying to them from afar off, “Fare thee well, O Minnehaha!”

Personally, I think a poem is best when read aloud and highly recommend the free LibriVox recording by Peter Yearsley. What poem will you put in your pocket today?

By Heidi Van Heel
Heidi Van Heel

Heidi Van Heel

Writer, freelancer, and believer in magic living in Minneapolis. In my free time, I love reading, exploring the great outdoors, and experimenting in the kitchen.

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