Academic journal article ARIEL

Hiawatha / Hereafter: Re-Appropriating Longfellow's Epic in Northern Ontario

Academic journal article ARIEL

Hiawatha / Hereafter: Re-Appropriating Longfellow's Epic in Northern Ontario

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article focuses on appropriation and re-appropriation in selected uses of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha in Northern Ontario from the early twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, using a framework drawn from Indigenous theory on colonialism and decolonization and research on the cultural politics of race and nature. Issues of colonial resource extraction and appropriation have marked the text from its inception, as Hiawatha was based mostly on Anishinaabe narratives that were collected by Indian Agent and "ethnographer" Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in the process of his work towards the dispossession of Indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region in the nineteenth century. In the years since its publication, Hiawatha has been a hugely influential piece of literature, north as well as south of the border. As I show, the text has signified in very different ways for settler and Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario. In the early twentieth century, Canadian Pacific Railway Colonization Officer L.O. Armstrong used the text to attract settlers and tourists to the forests of Northern Ontario through promotional pamphlets and outdoor performances of the work; to the Indigenous communities involved in the performances, however, the play held very different meanings. Today, versions of Longfellows text form the subject of historical and cultural transmission projects in Batchewana and Garden River First Nations. Poet Liz Howard has also worked with Longfellow's text in producing a critique of settler resource extraction and colonial assimilation in the context of Northern Ontario. In tracing these very different uses of Hiawatha, this article builds on the work of Indigenous writers and scholars who explore colonialism as an ongoing process characterized by interconnected forms of theft and theorize methods of literary and cultural analysis to halt and reverse such processes in the context of work towards decolonization. I also draw on studies of the cultural politics of race and nature, which demonstrate how settler ideas about race and indigenousness have long been central to the construction of iconic Canadian wilderness spaces.

Keywords: Hiawatha, Canadian literature, cultural appropriation, colonialism, decolonization

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha (1855), which was hailed as "a prediction in verse of the conquest of America by the white race," built upon the unreliable "ethnographic" work of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an Indian Agent "notorious for having orchestrated the dispossession of [Odawa and Ojibway] lands" (McNally 105, 110). At the conclusion of Longfellow's poem, its chimerical hero Hiawatha (based very loosely on the Anishinaabe cultural hero Nanabozho but named after a historical figure of great significance to the Haudenosaunee) (1) cheerfully enjoins his people to welcome the Palefaces as he briskly departs in his canoe for the land of the Hereafter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Longfellow's use of Indigenous narratives in writing his "Indian epic" has long been celebrated by settlers north and south of the border. While the poem is generally considered in the context of canonical American literature, this article focuses on three particular appropriations and reappropriations of Hiawatha in Northern Ontario, Canada. Just as the border between Canada and the United States cuts through Anishinaabe territory (as well as through the territory of other nations implicated in Longfellow's epic, including the Haudenosaunee), the "original" text reflects the input of a number of Indigenous and settler sources, writers, translators, and storytellers who frequently moved back and forth across the border, and across whose lives the border also moved.

While the poem was published in 1855, this article begins in the first years of the twentieth century with the Canadian Pacific Railway's use of Hiawatha in attracting white settlers and tourists to the forests and lakes of Northern Ontario, branded as "the Land of Hiawatha. …

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