he peace-loving side of me greatly appreciates The Song of Hiawatha, written in 1855 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for the beautiful language and its conciliatory message by Hiawatha to his Native American brethren to accept the white man and his religion. My truthful side tells me that this poem has little to do with truth. Folklorist, Stith Thompson, said, “it is non-Indian in its totality,” and “the episodes (of Hiawatha) are but superficial.” So, I think what we have here is simplistic folklore for whatever it’s worth.
The poem was immediately a success for Longfellow when he published it. He sold 50,000 copies right off. The popularity of the piece with the public was there. Scholars had questions and doubts. Although Longfellow did have connections and input from Natives, it is important to note that even Longfellow admitted that Hiawatha was a fictional character. One of Longfellow’s main sources, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, has been criticized for mismanaging Native legend to suit his own tastes.
Do we have a white-acting Native in the person of Hiawatha? If we do, does that ruin any chance for redemption of The Song of Hiawatha? That depends on what you’re trying to get out of it. To take it as historical, is probably not a good bet. However, to take it as a beautiful and skillfully written piece of fiction, you might be able to pass muster. […]