Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 14. Amerind Epic; Hiawatha

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXXII. Non-English Writings II

§ 14. Amerind Epic; Hiawatha

In one or another of these forms all that was really important to the aboriginal American was stated. Longfellow, had he been more of an American and less of an academician, could have easily found native measures for his Hiawatha cycle without borrowing from the Finnish, although he showed more discrimination than most writers who have attempted to render Indian epics, in choosing a form that was very closely akin to the Amerind.

It is possible that the literary mode of the Amerind epics has been influenced by the native choice of story interest. While all of the longer poems begin with the creation of the world and purport to record the early wanderings of the tribe and its subsequent history, there is a notable lack of the warrior themes that occupy the epics of the old world. The Amerind hero is a culture hero, introducer of agriculture, of irrigation, and of improved house-building. Hiawatha, not Longfellow’s Ojibway composite, but the original Haion ‘hwa’tha of the Mohawks, was a statesman, a reformer, and a prophet. His very name (“he makes rivers”) refers to his establishment of canoe routes among the Five Nations and with the peoples along the headwaters of the Ohio River. In company with Dekanawida, an Onondaga coadjutor, he formed the original League of Nations with the object of “abolishing the wasting evils of inter-tribal blood feuds.”