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I was first introduced to this poem as a child of about seven or eight years old when I was given a rather battered book by an elderly family friend. It gave me a lifelong love of poetry, especially narrative verse as well as showing me an entirely different view of the Native American to the one I had previously known. This wasn't the entire poem but an abridged version for children covering the boyhood, youth and early adulthood of Hiawatha and from the instant I opened the book and saw the first illustration showing a twilight scene of a lonely wigwam pitched beside a lake with a backdrop of tall, dark pine trees, I was utterly captivated.
Growing up in the 1950s, arguably the golden era of the American Western, I'd already been subjected to the prevailing view of Red Indians, as they were called in those un-PC days, as violent savages who were intent on the destruction of the noble white settlers of America. In this poem, however, I was presented with a picture of the Native American before the advent of the white man and though I'm sure it's a highly romanticised, not to mention somewhat sanitised view of the life of a Native American, it also showed a totally opposite perspective to that which most children then were being spoon fed both on TV and at the cinema.
Hiawatha is the son of Mudjekeewis, the West Wind who seduced his mother Wenonah who gives birth to Hiawatha. When Mudjekeewis abandons Wenonah, she dies of a broken heart leaving Hiawatha to be raised by his grandmother, Nokomis. He is to be the saviour of the Indian nation as predicted by Gitche Manito and through his actions he brings about peace and prosperity to his people. The poem narrates his legendary life.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an American poet who based his Song of Hiawatha on an amalgamation of many North American Indian folk tales but mainly on those of the Ojibwee, a tribe who lived on the shores of Lake Superior. He also used the writings of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a superintendent of Indian affairs, who had collected information about the indigenous peoples of North America, including their folk tales and traditions, and these were woven into the fabric of his epic poem, along with many words from the Ojibwee language. The poem was first published in 1855 and received considerable acclaim, though it also had its detractors who accused Longfellow of plagiarising a similar narrative poem from Finland. Although it has gone in and out of fashion ever since publication, it remains an enduring tribute to a people and way of life that has gone forever.
When I saw this recording in my local library, I couldn't resist borrowing it to listen once again to the story which had so captured my imagination all those years ago. The book from my childhood had long since disappeared and had only been about half the length of the entire poem so I was curious to hear it in its entirety.
This recording is from Naxos Audiobooks and lasts for just under 4 hours. It's read by William Hootkins, an American by the sound of him but with one of those attractive American voices lacking any stridency. He's softly spoken with just a hint of accent; there's a slight rolling of his r's and a lengthening of his vowels. In fact, William Hootkins sounds a little like Orson Wells.
When I read this poem as a child, I was struck by its rhythm which is measured and hypnotic and fits perfectly with the narrative, sounding as it does almost like the tom-tom beat of an Indian war dance. This rhythm isn't quite as evident in this recording although the hypnotic elements are definitely there and, in fact, sometimes sound quite monotonous but that could just be down to the narrator.
Listening to this poem with adult ears, the influences on Longfellow are quite obvious. Although the setting is a world away from Ancient Greece, there is something Homeric about the adventures of Hiawatha, especially as his story is also interwoven with Native American mythology in the same way that the journeys of Ulysses included a large proportion of Greek mythology. There is also something Biblical about the story in that Hiawatha is created from the union of a god with a mortal woman and Gitche Manito, the Great Spirit predicts this child will be the saviour of the people: a Jesus Christ of the Indian nation?
'I shall send a Prophet to you, A deliverer of the nations, Who shall guide you and shall teach you, Who shall toil and suffer with you. If you listen to his counsels, You will multiply and prosper. If his warnings pass unheeded, You shall fade away and perish.'
The poem was every bit as lyrical and entrancing as I remembered and Longfellow paints incredible pictures with his words describing the North American wilderness as it was long before any white European set his foot upon the land and began the systematic destruction of the indigenous population. It details a beautiful landscape of lakes and rivers, forests and mountains and demonstrates how closely and harmoniously the Native American lived with nature.
The illustration I mentioned from my childhood book is a case in point. The artist had perfectly captured the image as described by Longfellow.
'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'
This is an excellent recording of a wonderful poem and will certainly enthral adults and older children alike. I think, however, younger children would probably enjoy this tale in book form, preferably illustrated, which would help them understand it more. The sections that deal with Hiawatha's childhood and youth would be particularly appealing to younger children as Longfellow delivers an almost Disneyesque depiction of Hiawatha's childhood and his affinity with the animals.
I've never been to America so haven't visited any reservations but I've been told by people who have that modern day Native Americans are, in the main, a rather sorry sight. This is a romantic depiction of the 'noble savage' as viewed from a nineteenth century white man's perspective but it's a story which is told sympathetically and I couldn't help but feel great sorrow that the true natives of America have been destroyed by the European interlopers.
Audio versions: Naxos Audiobooks £13.99 for 3 disc audio format Or £5.19 for MP3 download from Amazon
Paperback editions: Adult and children's versions available from 1p plus postage
Kindle edition: Various Kindle editions are available including a free copy. There is also an illustrated children's version available for the Kindle at £1.87
Pictures of The Song of Hiawatha - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow