Today it’s almost impossible to imagine how a book-length poem could become a cultural sensation, but Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s rhymed story became so influential that its characters wove their way into civic geography, in Minnesota and beyond.
In addition to Minnehaha Park, Creek, Falls and private school in Minneapolis, there’s a Minnehaha Lake in Ontario, a Minnehaha Park in Spokane, Wash., and Minnehaha County is the most populous in South Dakota. There’s even another Minnehaha Falls, in Georgia.
Minneapolis also retains Hiawatha landmarks — golf course, lake, thoroughfare, rail line, schools. There are towns named Hiawatha in Iowa and Kansas, along with a trail in Idaho, a Hiawatha high school in Illinois and a community center in Seattle. Northern Michigan was home to a Hiawatha Telephone Co. and correctional facility as well as the Hiawatha National Forest. Giant fiberglass Hiawatha statues still stand in La Crosse, Wis., and Ironwood, Mich.
The poem’s popularity led it to become the source material for Hiawatha books, plays, symphonies, movies — both live action and animated. Katharine Hepburn recited lines from it in a 1957 movie and Johnny Cash spoke-sang a fragment of it in a ballad recorded in 1965. Of course, the propulsive rhythm is the basis of the classic Hamm’s Beer jingle — “Hamm’s, the beer refreshing.”
A century and a half ago, readers were enthralled with “The Song of Hiawatha.” The critics, then and now, not so much. At the time of its publication, it was panned in the New York Times. It has come to be regarded as historically inaccurate propaganda loaded with tropes and racial stereotypes.
While Longfellow wrote extensively of his respect for Native people and meant his epic to honor them, literary critics have noted that his poem misunderstands Native spirituality, traditions and customs and sets up caricatures of the “noble savage” image that endures to this day.
A Harvard professor, Longfellow spent decades collecting Native American lore and legends from the East Coast through the Great Lakes and then mashed the vivid stories together in his epic, which includes nothing about the realities of genocide, famine, disease and broken treaties.
The historic Hiawatha was a heroic Mohawk leader from New York who is credited with uniting the Iroquois Nation. But Longfellow’s poem is set around Lake Superior, where Hiawatha is presented as an Ojibwa warrior who falls in love with the Dakota maiden Minnehaha.
The couple were idealized in a series of paintings, murals, sculptures and statues that still stand around the Midwest, including a statue installed at Minnehaha Park in 1912.