Hiawatha: American Classic Poem for Children

Pictured Rock National Lake Shore,on Lake Superior, Michigan
Pictured Rock National Lake Shore,on Lake Superior, Michigan

Destination: Upper Peninsula of Michigan

Book: Hiawatha (Picture Puffins)by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow  and illustrated by Susan Jeffers  (A Puffin Picture Book)

My mother loved poetry and as a teacher she persuaded many a skeptical student to become lovers of poetry, too.  Her tricks included presenting poems with strong rhythm (The highwayman came riding, riding, riding…), poems that told stories (Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…), or limericks for anything-goes humor.

I remember her reading from Longfellow’s American literature classic, The Song of Hiawatha about the boyhood of Hiawatha, Ojibwa brave. Her voice pulsed dramatically with the drum beat of

By the shores of Gitchee Gumee,

By the shining Big-Sea-Water,

Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,

Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.

When I saw this children’s book version in a museum store, I could not resist. What child does not like nonsense words? And these words from another language certainly sounded silly–Gitchee Gumee–but Mother read it all with great seriousness.

I did not realize until much later that these were the actual myths of an actual Indian people who lived just a few hundred miles away from where I grew up. And the langauge was not just nonsense words. Gitchee Gumme meant Lake Superior. I had never thought of Hiawatha as travel literature. Longfellow tells the Indian legends with respect and as much accuracy as 19th century anthropology could muster.  He based his epic poem on stories collected by Jane and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Henry generally gets the credit, since he was the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the state of Michigan from 1836 to 1891.  But Jane was an Ojibwa, the tribe who lived in the thick forests of the  northern peninsula of Michigan along Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.

Ojibwa Cultural Center, St. Ignace, Michigan
Ojibwa Cultural Center, St. Ignace, Michigan

On my recent visit to the area, our group of travel writers dropped by the Ojibwa Cultural Center in St. Ignace and learned a bit about their customs and legends. I also learned that the European settlers warped Ojibwa into Chippewa, and the terms are used almost interchangeably now.

For the first time since my mother had read to me from The Song of Hiawatha, I saw the forests and streams and the Shining Big Sea Water that were the home of the hero, Hiawatha and the setting of the original legends. It all seemed very familiar.

How a city kid could envy that little Indian boy –living in a wigwam surrounded by friendly animals in the forest with streams to ride in a canoe and a grandmother who taught him secret names of everything–even the fireflies. Every question he asked was answered with a story.

Although Longfellow’s poem is meant for adults, and is much too long to hold a child’s attention,for this Puffin publications picture book,  Susan Jeffers has selected the part of it that will most interest a child. The beauty of her illustrations take your breath away.  They convey the real world of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where the Ojibwa still live. But the pictures also have a soft, dream-like quality appropriate for legends– or for a book to inspire travel to Michigan.

See the entire Song of Hiawatha at a website called theotherpages.org

Photos by Vera Marie Badertscher

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

12 thoughts on “Hiawatha: American Classic Poem for Children

    1. Kerry: Thanks. I wasn’t aware of that program, and don’t know how you find time to keep your ear tuned to all the things you do! I have downloaded the program and listened to part of it. Very interesting. I find it interesting, also, that they spell the tribe’s name as Ojibwe when I saw Ojibwa and Ojibway up in Michigan. By the way, the mystery novel I write about in the next post (above) discusses a little bit of the Ojibwa language and how it differs from our thought patterns. Again, I appreciate your giving us this link.

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