• Voices from the Gathering PlaceSault Ste. Marie: 1622 - 1870

Die Stromschnellen von St Marie (The Rapids Of St Mary), Frank Buchser, 1868

By kind permission of the Kunsthaus Art Gallery, Zurich, Switzerland

This website was created by teacher Peter White for the Algoma District School Board

Hiawatha

In 1838 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published an epic poem (yes, that is what they officially called long poems back then) called "Hiawatha."

 

The poem told a story about First Nations people that was based on their legends.

 

The poet  Longfellow said that one of the most important sources for the poem were the Ojibway stories collected by Henry Schoolcraft.

 

This was both good and bad. On the good side, many of these stories would not have been preserved if Henry had not collected them. On the bad side, Henry was sometimes wrong about important facts and he would also change parts of stories if he thought they were more than the white population could handle.

 

For instance, the main character in the story was based on the character Manabozho. Schoolcraft told Longfellow that another word that meant the same thing as Manabozho was Hiawatha. That was wrong.

 

As it turns out, the word "Hiawatha" has nothing to do with the famous Ojibway spirit "Manabozho." There was an Iroquois chief named "Hiawatha" in the 1600s but the word is not found in Ojibway.

 

Are there any places or things that go by the name "Hiawatha" today in and around Sault Ste. Marie? Mistakes can last a very long time!

 

Today it is pretty much accepted that Longfellow did not write the true story of First Nations people but rather he created a fantasy about First Nations people that appealed to his white audience.

 

What would you think if someone made a famous movie about your life but got a lot of it wrong? Would you be happy to be famous or would you be angry because the facts were often wrong? (By the way, you wouldn't be making any money from this movie.)

 

Around the year 1900 a producer arranged to have First Nations people from the area act out "Hiawatha" on a wilderness shoreline that is near the spot where CASS high school in Desbarats is today.

 

Tourists would come from far and wide by train to watch the play. (There was no highway back then!) The performances had an additional bonus for the Anishnaabe, giving them a chance to keep their ceremonies alive within the play because it was against the law for them to practice them in their communities at that time.

 

"Pitched It Sheer into the River . . . Where It Still Is Seen in the Summer." Illustration for "The Song of Hiawatha," Frederic Remington, 1891. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art