Shades of Hiawatha

There is an old axiom which says, ‘It is never to late to learn,’and through my long years of living, have always found this saying to be true. However, I have never ceased to wonder why it is so often true that we learn many things so late in life that there is little time left for the use of this knowledge. One who ponders that mystery gets very little comfort from that familiar saying, ‘So soon old, yet so late smart.’ Suffice it to say, that at my tender age of 96, I am still learning things which, had I learned earlier, might have made my years richer and fuller. Having said this, I am going to give you a for instance: I learned’a long time ago, quite by accident, that poetry is not just a tool my English teacher used to teach me to memorize. I found that she was trying to teach me to enjoy it’that it can be a delight (when understood)’and that I might have missed some 75 years of good reading. I was wanting to refresh my memory on a poem I had to memorize in high school (The Village Blacksmith), so I checked out a book of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poems from the library. After refreshing my memory on our village smithy, I started browsing through his other poems and found that the old fellow was quite a prolific writer of poems which were, in fact, long interesting stories. I became so interested in the poem of Hiawatha that I started reading it aloud to my wife’then, after she left me, I said to myself, “that doesn’t look hard.” So I started composing and the following is what developed: I read the stories of Hiawatha, Some remembered and some forgotten. Read aloud to my mate of all seasons The stories of the young Hiawatha. Did I hear the wood gods laughing At the embarrassment of the Indians, Caused by my clumsy pronunciation Of their names so proudly cherished’ I read how Mudjekeewis stole the belt of Wampum. From the neck of Mishe-Mokwa, How he slew the Great Bear of the mountains Thus becoming god of the West Wind Holding dominion o’er all winds of heaven And he gave the North Wind to fierce Kabibonokka. I learned that Hiawatha was in fact what we might call an illegitimate child, fathered by Mudjekeewis who then deserted his mother, Wenonah, leaving him to be reared by his grandmother, Nokomis, who lived on the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big- Sea-Water. I was amazed to find that the poem, ‘The Song of Hiawatha,’ continued on for 135 pages. To one wanting to learn of the lives and folk lore of the early Indian, this story was quite entertaining. However, the one listening to a reader who had trouble with the pronunciation of Gitche Gumee soon lost interest in a story containing the language of the Ojibways and the Dacotahs, of the Choctaws and Camanches, of the Shoshonies and the Blackfee, and so I continued with my composition: ‘Thus it was I who lost my listener, Lost the audience to my story. Then left alone there in my forest I continued onward with my poem. Read the smoking of the Peace-pipe, Read the story of the Four Winds, Learned the childhood of Hiawatha, How he grew to fight his father Mudjekeewis who killed his mother. How they fought that famous battle, A conflict won by neither warrior. Then Hiawatha returning homeward Often dreamed of Minnehaha, Daughter of the arrow maker, in the land of the Dacotahs. ‘Where the Falls of Minnehaha laugh and leap into the valley’ Through his fasting and his friendships, his sailing and his fishing, I followed still the great Hiawatha. From his wooing to his wedding, ‘through His times of lamentations, ‘To the days of drought and famine. Stood I with him in his anguish ‘As he saw his Minnehaha Lying dead and cold before him.’ And stayed I with him thru his travails, Till near the end of his dominion O’er the forests and his people. Till time approached for his departure ‘To the Kingdom of Ponemah, To the Land of the Hereafter!’ Then I sighed, as did the forests, As did the people at his leaving, And heard the heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah, Who screamed in sorrow as he departed, ‘Farewell, farewell, O great Hiawatha, Thou great and famous warrior.’ * * * I had no idea when I got into this Hiawatha business that I was going to turn into a poet, although, to tell the truth, I have written other poems. While I was not trying to emulate Longfellow, I did find that, once one gets into the swing and flow of his rhythm, it becomes hard to find a stopping place. Quite often, when I get started writing, I do not know exactly where I am going’and seldom recognize the place when I get there. That saying does not hold true in this instance, for now I do have a starting objective and that objective is to induce some of you to once again read and enjoy “The Song of Hiawatha” as you did in your youth. You will likely find that you remember little of the poem other than that old familiar portion: By the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis. How interesting and refreshing it will be for you to read how Gitche Manito, the mighty, the creator of the nations, counseled his people with words of wisdom that we today, with open minds, should heed as I continue with my poem: Could they, the Congress of our nation Heed the counsel of Gitche Manito, Wash the war paint from their faces, Bury their war clubs and their weapons, Break the gridlock between the factions, And live as brothers of one nation’ The remainder of the story of the mighty Hiawatha will absorb and entertain the reader with the folk lore of the Indians of long ago. Therefore, my admonition to you is contained in the following saying, ‘Try it, you might like it.’ Read the introduction to “The Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as he says: Should you ask me, whence these stories’ Whence these legends and traditions, With the odors of the forest, With the dew and damp of meadows, With the curling smoke of wigwams, With the rushing of great rivers, I should answer, I should tell you, Read the Song of Hiawatha! Ye who love a nation’s legends, Love the ballad of a people, That like voices from afar off Call to us to pause and listen. Ye whose hearts are fresh and simple, Who have faith in God and Nature, Who believe that in all ages’ Feeble hands and helpless Groping blindly in the darkness, Touch God’s hand in that darkness And are lifted up and strengthened;’ Listen to this simple story, To this song of Hiawatha! * * * FOOTNOTE No.1: There is one danger in reading the entire poem: You could get hooked on its words and rhythm and wind up trying to become a poet’ (as have I ‘). FOOTNOTE No.2: I asked a friend to critique my Hiawatha fantasies before exposing them to public criticism. His comment was, ‘Well Bill, they are not bad’now I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I don’t believe you’ll sell as many copies as did Longfellow.’ Bill Bodenhamer is a weekly columnist for the Brady Standard-Herald. Email him at

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