By Chet Yarbrough
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Narrated by William Hotkins
“The Song of Hiawatha” is a four-hour poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and nicely narrated by William Hotkins.
Published in 1855, it is a telling of a 16th century legend about an Iroquois Indian chieftain named Tarenyawagon, who was said to have had the power of a god in the form of a man. Tarenyawagon was called the “Holder of the Heavens” with the power to take any form or shape.
History suggests Tarenyawagon was a great Indian teacher and law giver. He was called Hiawatha (“wise man”) by some Indian tribes.
Much of the legend comes from Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an American ethnologist that studied Native American Cultures in the early 19thcentury. He was appointed a U.S .Indian agent for northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota in 1822.
Schoolcraft uncovers Indian cultural beliefs while Longfellow gives those cultural beliefs a lyrical presence. “The Song of Hiawatha” tells stories similar to parables in a bible; teaching life lessons to readers and listeners about the importance of forgiveness, love, family, the worth of all living things, and about judging not, unless ye be judged.
Longfellow uses much of Schoolcraft’s ethnological studies to fashion “The Song of Hiawatha”.
The poem tells of Hiawatha’s childhood, a fight with his father and reconciliation; his adventures as a young warrior, his marriage to Minihaha, his life as an Indian leader/teacher, and finally his death.
Hiawatha is saddened by wars between Indian tribes and considers how tribes can be brought together as one community through trade and marriage. He explores and practices the principles of trade for wampum and marriage between adversarial tribes.
“The Song of Hiawatha” is an environmentalist notion of the use of natural materials in the telling of a story about a manufactured canoe; trees that talk and say they knowingly give their lives for the sake of man’s utility.
Hubris is a sin that is exemplified by an evil spirit that transforms itself into a beaver and a bird to hide from Hiawatha but always reveals itself by insisting on being ten times bigger than his fellow animals.
There is the story of the ten sisters that marry; one of which is the youngest and most beautiful that chooses to marry an ugly old man. The old man has been trapped by a spell. The spell is broken and the old man becomes a handsome young man; but, at the same time, the beautiful young sister is transformed into an ugly old woman. The young man slows his step; stays with his newly old wife because he loves her for who she is. This new spell is soon broken so that the tenth sister, once again, becomes a beautiful young woman. True love is between spirits; not between human forms that are only the outer manifestation of who we are.
“The Song of Hiawatha” is a great family entertainment; like a bible parable, it has teaching moments.