Places: The Song of Hiawatha

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1855

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Folklore

Time of work: Aboriginal period

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedOjibway land

Ojibway Song of Hiawatha, Theland (oh-JIHB-way; also spelled Ojibwa). Area inhabited by the Algonquian-speaking peoples of the Upper Great Lakes–a region encompassing much of what is now Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio. Longfellow never visited this area and he relied heavily on books by John Tanner and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft to write his poem. He was probably also influenced by engravings by George Catlin to create his mental visualization of Ojibway life in the Great Lakes region. At the time when The Song of Hiawatha was published, Ojibway land was still remote and mysterious to many eastern Americans. At the same time, however, the Upper Great Lakes region was one of the first parts of the North American interior in which Europeans and Native Americans began their uneasy coexistence. Longfellow ends his poem with the incursion of white men into the “Land of the Ojibway” and the departure of Hiawatha.

Longfellow’s Great Lakes region can be seen as the mythic and Edenic vanished land of the Ojibwa, as well as a place in which Europeans were settling in ever greater numbers, encouraged by the region’s rich ore deposits. Thus, for Longfellow’s readers, the location of the poem presents a paradox: On one hand, it depicts the romantic notion of the “noble savage” living at one with nature; on the other hand, it depicts the contemporary reality of logging camps and copper and iron mines. It does so, however, without blaming the intrusive white population for the destruction of a way of life; rather, there is an air of inevitability in the poem, which suggests that the Ojibway land must fade from existence as states such as Michigan and Minnesota are taking shape.

Vale of Tawasentha

Vale of Tawasentha (tah-wah-SEHN-thah). Located somewhere in Ojibway land, the Vale of Tawasentha is the location of Longfellow’s mythic singer, Nawahada, who tells the story of Hiawatha. The description of the vale suggests a golden, prehistoric paradise where Native Americans lived in harmony with nature. Further, Longfellow attempts to connect his poem with the oral traditions of the Native American singer by inventing Nawahada.

Red Pipestone Quarry

Red Pipestone Quarry. Place where Gitche Manito, the Master of Life, calls the tribes of men to gather, entreats them to make peace with each other, and teaches them to make peace pipes. While it is not possible to identify accurately this location geographically, it is likely that Longfellow was thinking about the pipestone quarries of southern Minnesota where native peoples have long gathered to collect the precious pipestone for fashioning into sacred relics and pipes. One such Minnesota quarry is the Pipestone National Monument. By using this location as the site for the important ritual meeting of the tribes, Longfellow ties his poem to actual Native American customs as well as to contemporary American geography, all while preserving the sense of a prehistoric, mythic past.

Gitche Gumee

Gitche Gumee (GIT-chee GEW-mee). Indian name for Lake Superior–which is also called Big-Sea-Water–by which Hiawatha grows up. The largest of all the Great Lakes, Superior is also the Great Lake that extends farthest north and west. Lands surrounding the lake include Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. As one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world, Superior is of suitable size and grandeur to be associated with Longfellow’s vision.

*Dakota land

*Dakota land. Area west of Ojibway land, including parts of present-day Canada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana that was the traditional home of the Dakota peoples. The “Dakotahs” to whom Longfellow refers are probably Sioux. Their land plays an important role, because it is here that the young Hiawatha finds his beloved, Minnehaha, the daughter of an arrow maker. Traditionally, the Falls of Minnehaha are associated with waterfalls in present-day Minneapolis. Structurally, it is important for the poem as a journey quest that Hiawatha leaves his own people and goes to the land of the enemy to find his mate. Moreover, this union produces peace among the Ojibway and the Dakotah.

BibliographyArvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963. Discusses the significance of Longfellow’s conscious utilization of American imagery in The Song of Hiawatha.Carr, Helen. “The Myth of Hiawatha.” Literature & History 12, no. 1 (Spring, 1986): 58-78. Argues that Longfellow made various source materials fit his readers’ expectations. Carr discusses Longfellow’s use of the Finnish poem Kalevala as the source of both certain events in the poem and the poem’s rhythm, which is similar to the standard rhythm of the Indian tom-tom.Gioia, Dana. “Longfellow in the Aftermath of Modernism.” In The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Argues that Longfellow’s poetry has fallen into critical disrepute because of the revision of the American poetry canon by the modernist school of criticism. Places The Song of Hiawatha in the foreground of American attempts at producing a national epic.Millward, Celia and Cecelia Tichi. “Whatever Happened to ‘Hiawatha’?” Genre 6, no. 3 (September, 1973): 313-332. Discusses the metrics and the poetic devices found in The Song of Hiawatha and shows how The Song of Hiawatha fits into the traditional epic-poem mold.Waggoner, Hyatt H. “Beginnings.” In American Poets from the Puritans to the Present. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984. Argues that The Song of Hiawatha romanticizes the life and culture of the American Indian without resorting to the sentimentality often found in other presentations.
Categories: Places