(Return to Web Text-ures)
| Click Here to
Return to the Previous Chapter
THE SONG OF HIAWATHA -- This Indian Edda -- if I may so call it -- is founded on a tradition prevalent among the North American Indians, of a personage of miraculous birth, who was sent among them to clear their rivers, forests, and fishing grounds, and to teach them the arts of peace. He was known among different tribes by the several names of Michabou, Chiabo, Manabozo, Tarenyawagon, and Hiawatha. Mr. Schoolcraft gives an account of him in his "Algic Researches," Vol. I. p. 134; and in his "History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States," Part III. p. 314, may be found the Iroquois form of the tradition, derived from the verbal narrations of an Onondaga chief.
Into this old tradition I have woven other curious Indian legends, drawn chiefly from the various and valuable writings of Mr. Schoolcraft, to whom the literary world is greatly indebted for his indefatigable zeal in rescuing from oblivion so much of the legendary lore of the Indians.
The scene of the poem is among the Ojibways on the southern shores of Lake Superior, in the region between the Pictured Rocks and the Grand Sable.
This valley, now called Norman's Kill, is in Albany County, New York.
"The scenery about Fort Snelling is rich in beauty. The Falls of St. Anthony are familiar to travelers, and to readers of Indian Sketches. Between the fort and these falls are the 'Little Falls,' forty feet in height, on a stream that empties into the Mississippi. The Indians call them Mine-hah-hah, or 'laughing waters.' – Eastman's Dacotah, or Legends of the Sioux, Introduction, p, ii.
A description of the Grand Sable, or great sand dunes of Lake Superior, is given in Foster and Whitney's "Report on the Geology of the Lake Superior Land District," part II, p, 13I.
"The Grand Sable possesses a scenic interest little inferior to that of the Pictured Rocks. The explorer passes abruptly from a coast of consolidated sand to one of loose materials, and although in the one case the cliffs are less precipitous, yet in the other they attain a higher altitude. He sees before him a long reach of coast, resembling a vast sand-bank, more than three hundred and fifty feet in height, without a trace of vegetation. Ascending to the top, rounded hillocks of blown sand are observed, with occasional clumps of trees, standing out like oases in the desert."
The Indians hold the maize, or Indian corn, in great veneration. "They esteem it so import and divine a grain," says Schoolcraft, "that their story-tellers invented various tales in which this idea is symbolized under the form of a special gift from the Great Spirit. The Ojibwa-Algonquins, who call it Mon-dá-min, that is, the Spirit's grain or berry, have a pretty story of this kind, in which the stalk in full tassel is represented as descending from the sky, under the guise of a handsome youth, in answer to the prayers of a young Man at his fast of virility, or coming to manhood.
"It is well known that corn-planting and corn-gathering, at least among all the still uncolonized tribes, are left entirely to the females and children, and a few superannuated old men. It is not generally known, perhaps, that this labor is not compulsory, and that it is assumed by the females as a just equivalent, in their view, for the onerous and continuous labor of the other sex, in providing meats and skins for clothing by the chase, and in defending their villages against their enemies, and keeping intruders off their territories. A good Indian housewife deems this a part of her prerogative, and prides herself to have a store of corn to exercise her hospitality, or duly honor her husband's hospitality, in the entertainment of the lodge guests." -- Oneóta, p 82.
The reader will find a long description of the Pictured Rocks in Foster and Whitney's "Report on the Geology of the Lake Superior Land District," Part II. p. 124. From this I make the following extract:
"The Pictured Rocks may be described, in general terms as a series of sandstone bluffs extending along the shore of Lake Superior for about five miles, and rising in most places vertically from the water without any beach at the base, to a height varying from fifty to nearly two hundred feet. Were they simply a line of cliffs, they might not, so far as relates to height or extent, be worthy of a rank among great natural curiosities, although such an assemblage of rocky strata, washed by the waves of the great lake, would not, under any circumstances, be destitute of grandeur. To the voyager, coasting along their base in his frail canoe, they would at all times, be an object of dread; the recoil of the surf, the rock-bound coast affording, for miles, no place of refuge -- the lowering sky, the rising wind -- all these would excite his apprehension, and induce him to ply a vigorous oar until the dreaded wall was passed. But in the Pictured Rocks there are two features which communicate to the scenery a wonderful and almost unique character. These are, first, the curious manner in which the cliffs have been excavated, and worn away by the action of the lake, which, for centuries, has dashed an ocean-like surf against their base; and, second, the equally curious manner in which large portions of the surface have been colored by bands of brilliant hues.
"It is from the latter circumstance that the name, by which these cliffs are known to the American traveler, is derived; while that applied to them by the French voyageurs (Les Portails) is derived from the former, and by far the most striking peculiarity.
"The term Pictured Rocks has been in use for a great length of time; but when it was first applied, we have been unable to discover. It would seem that the first travelers were more impressed with the novel and striking distribution of colors on the surface than with the astonishing variety of form into which the cliffs themselves have been worn. . . .
"Our voyageurs had many legends to relate of the pranks of the Menni-bojou in these caverns, and, in answer to our inquiries, seemed disposed to fabricate stories, without end, of the achievements of the Indian deity."
In this manner, and with such salutations, was Father Marquette received by the Illinois. See his Voyages et Découvertes, Section V.