Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned an epic poem about a Native American hero named Hiawatha that was published in 1855. I read it as a child and was immediately enamored by the hero, Hiawatha. He learns the ways of life and then goes on to accomplish all sorts of things, from slaying an evil magician to inventing a written language.
The Song of Hiawatha is fictional, but it is loosely based on the legends of the Ojibwe and other Native American peoples. Longfellow did do some research including interviewing native peoples and reading from the writings of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an Indian agent, but Schoolcraft’s accounts were not necessarily factual and riddled with mistakes. Longfellow didn’t really seem concerned with complete facts anyway. In truth, Hiawatha was a real person, but this poem is not the story of his life, a case of mistaken identity perhaps. Other than sharing a name, there is no historical connection between Hiawatha of the poem and the Hiawatha who co-founded the Iroquois League. Unfortunately, critics focus so much on the lack of historical facts that often the beauty of the poem is overlooked. I adore its sing-song rhythm and language that paints a picture in my mind.
Older students can read the epic poem in its entirety, which is available online. Younger students can illustrate a homemade booklet using an excerpt of the poem called Hiawatha’s Childhood. Here is a printable featuring that portion of Longfellow’s poem. “Hiawatha’s Childhood” tells of how Nokomis, Hiawatha’s grandmother, taught him the ways of life, nature, and the animals after his mother died in childbirth.
Cut apart each stanza of the poem and glue it to a new page in the booklet. Read each stanza aloud, discuss its meaning, and then illustrate its page. Make a cover and turn the whole thing into a book you can read again and again.
The rhythm of the language is beautiful, and a discussion about the Native American imagery and beliefs would be a terrific accompaniment to making the illustrations. One of the interesting things about the poem is its style. It wasn’t written a bit like a Native American legend. Instead it was written in the style of American Romantic literature of Longfellow’s day, completely dissimilar from the authentic style of the oral tradition of the tribes. Still, it’s an interesting story, with authentic Native American ideas combined with a healthy dose of literary license.
- Compare this story with an authentic Indian legend. How are they alike? How are they different?
- Have a discussion about the responsibility authors have for what they write. If you set a story in a true historical context, are you responsible for getting the facts right? Can a fictional story be set in a true historical setting?
- Longfellow describes a firefly as a “little flitting white-fire insect.” What descriptive words can you use in place of these animals:
- Write a story that is well-known to a culture you came from in a new style. My family descends in part from England, so I may tell the story of Jack and the Beanstalk as a poem, in a newspaper article, or even as a rap song.
- When Hiawatha asks Nokomis what a rainbow is that he sees in the sky, she describes to him that it is a heaven of flowers that blossom above us. Make a painting of a rainbow that is composed completely of flowers. Look up specific kinds of flowers that bloom in each of the rainbow colors and paint them into your rainbow.
This Exploration was created for Layers of Learning Unit 2-18, along with dozens of other learning activities. Get the whole unit here: