152.4 x 87.6 x 94.6 cm
Date: 1871–72, carving 1874
On view in Gallery 700
The Metropolitan Museum Of Art

 

THE LEGEND OF HIAWATHA

TOLD IN PROSE BY

DORIS HAYMAN

Longfellow was deeply interested in all Indian lore, and in the poem of Hiawatha he has embodied many of the old legends of the North American Indians. Hiawatha, who was known among the different tribes under various names, was supposed to be a person of miraculous birth, sent among them by the Great Spirit to clear their rivers and forests and to teach them the arts of peace.

Long, long ago, in days that are now forgotten, the West-Wind wooed a lovely Indian maiden, but soon, cruelly and faithlessly, he deserted her and she died of grief, leaving her baby son, Hiawatha, to the care of his grandmother, old Nokomis.

Now, read the story of Hiawatha and Minnehaha.

Read how they met in the land where a pale people ate red earth and sent the peace of wampum to all the lands on both sides of the great river.  Thus were they wed.

Deep in the forest was Hiawatha's home, and Nature herself was his schoolmistress. He learned all about the birds, how they built their nests in summer, and where they hid themselves in winter, the names and habits of all the wild beasts which roamed through the woods, and, best of all, he learned their language and all their secrets.

Skilled in the craft of Indian hunters, and all the lore the wise men of his tribe could teach him, Hiawatha grew from childhood into manhood, and by much questioning learned from old Nokomis the story of his mother's cruel desertion. Full of wrath, he determined to be revenged on his father, Mudjekeewis, and in spite of his grandmother's warnings, the youth set out on his long journey. Wearing his magic moccasins (or deerskin shoes), with which he measured a mile every stride, Hiawatha journeyed westward, ever westward, until at length he reached the kingdom of Mudjekeewis, ruler of all the winds of heaven, who joyfully welcomed the handsome youth.

But anger rose in the heart of Hiawatha, and, rending asunder a huge rock with his magic mittens, he flung the fragments full at Mudjekeewis. For three days a terrible fight raged between the two warriors, till at last Mudjekeewis cried: "Hold, my son, it is impossible to kill me for I am immortal; I did but fight with you to test your valor. Go back now to your people; live with them, work with them, and free the land from all monsters and giants. And when Death at last lays his icy hand upon you, you shall share my kingdom and be ruler of the Northwest-Wind." Then all anger departed from Hiawatha and he went on his homeward way; only once did he turn aside, to buy arrow-heads from the ancient arrow-maker in the land of a neighboring Indian tribe.

But do you not think that arrow-heads could equally well have been bought in his own village? It was to see the arrow-maker's dark-eyed daughter, Minnehaha, that Hiawatha halted in the land of the Dacotahs, and when he reached home he told Nokomis of the meeting with his father and the great fight, but not a word did he say of arrows or of the maiden.

Hiawatha had two beloved friends, the sweet-voiced singer, Chibiabos, and Kwasind, strongest of all men. Even the birds could not sing so sweetly or the brooks murmur so gently as Chibiabos, and all the hearts of men were softened by the pathos of his music. But dear as he was to Hiawatha, no less dear was Kwasind. Idle and dreamy was Kwasind so that even his mother taunted him. "Lazy Kwasind," said she one winter's day, "you never help me in my work.

The fishing nets are hanging at the door, dripping, freezing with the water—go and wring them out for me!" Slowly Kwasind rose from his seat, and going to the doorway did as she bade him, but, to his mother's dismay, the nets broke beneath his powerful fingers as if they were wisps of straw! Sometimes Kwasind used his vast strength to good purpose; for instance, when Hiawatha built himself a swift canoe, Kwasind dived into the water and cleared the whole river-bed of sunken logs and sandbars in order to insure a safe passage for his friend.

Illustration

Shortly after this Hiawatha set out in his canoe to catch the sturgeon Nahma, king of fishes. The monster fish lay on the white sand at the bottom of the river, and Hiawatha, line in hand, sat in his canoe, shouting: "Take my bait, O Nahma; come up and let us see which is the stronger!" At length Nahma grew weary of this clamor, and said to the pike: "Take the bait of this rude fellow and break his line."

*

The pike tugged at the line till the birch canoe stood almost endwise, but Hiawatha only pulled the harder, and when the fish rose to the surface he cried with scorn: "You are but the pike; you are not the king of fishes," and the pike sank down ashamed to the bottom of the river. Then Nahma bade the sun-fish break Hiawatha's tackle, but again Hiawatha pulled the great fish to the surface of the water and again cast him down, crying: "You are not the fish I wanted; you are not the king of fishes!" Then Nahma grew angry, and, opening his huge jaws, swallowed both canoe and Hiawatha. Finding himself in utter darkness, Hiawatha groped about till he felt the monster's heart which he smote so fiercely that he killed him. Anxious to escape from his dark prison, Hiawatha waited till the giant sturgeon drifted on to the shore, then called for aid to his friends the sea-gulls, who worked with their claws and beaks till they made a wide rift in Nahma's side and set Hiawatha free. IllustrationProud of her grandson's bravery, old Nokomis now set him a difficult task. "In a land lying westward, a land of fever and pestilence, lives the mighty magician, Pearl-Feather, who slew my father.

Take your canoe and smear its sides with the oil I have made from the body of Nahma, so that you may pass swiftly through the black pitch-water and avenge my father's murder." Thus spoke old Nokomis, and Hiawatha did as she bade him, smeared the sides of his boat with oil and passed swiftly through the black water, which was guarded by fiery serpents. All these Hiawatha slew, and then journeyed on unmolested till he reached the desolate realm he sought. Here he shot an arrow at Pearl-Feather's lodge as a challenge, and the magician, tall of stature, dark and terrible to behold, came forth to meet him. All day long raged the greatest fight that ever the sun had looked on, but no weapon could penetrate Pearl-Feather's magic shirt of wampum, and at sunset, wounded and weary, with three useless arrows in his hand, Hiawatha paused a while to rest beneath the shade of a pine tree.

As he stood there, despairing of victory, a wood-pecker sang from the branches above him: "Aim your arrows at the roots of his long hair; there alone he can be wounded." Well it was for Hiawatha that he understood the bird's language! Stringing the first of his arrows to his bow he let fly at Pearl-Feather, who was stooping to pick up a heavy stone. The arrow struck him full on the crown, and the second and third arrows, swiftly following, penetrated deep into the wound, so that the mighty magician fell lifeless at Hiawatha's feet. Then Hiawatha stripped the magic shirt of wampum off his dead foe and took from his wigwam (or tent) all his wealth of furs, belts, and silver-tipped arrows. And our hero sailed homeward in triumph and shared his spoils equally among his people.

 

Now there came a time in the life of Hiawatha when he wished to wed, and his thoughts turned to Minnehaha, whom they called Laughing Water, loveliest maiden in all the land of the Dacotahs. He spoke to Nokomis of this, telling her that his wedding with the fair Dacotah should heal all strife between the two tribes. So eloquently did he speak of the maiden's beauty and skillfulness in household matters, that he overruled Nokomis' many objections to his choice of a stranger, and set out in all haste to seek his bride. After a long journey he reached the home of the arrow-maker, whom he found seated in the doorway of his wigwam making arrow-heads, with his daughter at his side, busily engaged in plaiting mats of rushes. Hearing a rustling in the woods they looked up and saw Hiawatha standing before them, carrying on his shoulders a deer he had just slain. This offer he laid at the feet of Laughing Water, and the old man and the maiden both bade the young hunter welcome; then Minnehaha prepared a meal and set it before the two men.

When they had finished eating, Hiawatha spoke of his childhood, his friends, and of the happiness and plenty in his land. "After many years of strife," said he, "there is now peace between your tribe and mine. In order to make the peace more lasting and our hearts more united, give me this maiden for my wife." And the ancient arrow-maker answered gravely: "Yes, if Minnehaha wishes; let your heart speak, Minnehaha!"

Then the maiden rose up and took the seat beside Hiawatha, saying softly: "I will follow you, my husband." Thus was Hiawatha's wooing, and hand in hand the young couple went away together, leaving the old arrow-maker in his loneliness.

When Hiawatha and his fair bride reached their home, old Nokomis prepared a sumptuous wedding-feast to which many guests were bidden. Among them was a handsome but idle and mischievous youth named Pau-Puk-Keewis, who was renowned for his skill in all sports and pastimes. To please the company he rose from his seat and danced his merry dances to the music of flutes and drums. Then the sweet singer, Chibiabos, sang a melodious love-song, and when this was finished, Iagoo the Boaster, jealous of the praise and applause bestowed on the musician, told one of his most marvelous stories, and well pleased the wedding-guests took their departure.

As the days went on, old Nokomis found that her grumblings about the uselessness of a wife from a far-off land had not been justified, for Minnehaha was as skilled with her fingers as she was beautiful, and Hiawatha loved her more and more dearly.

 

Illustration

Once, when all the maize was planted, Hiawatha bade his wife go alone at night, clothed only in her dark tresses, and draw a magic circle round the cornfield so that no blight or insect might injure the harvest. This Minnehaha did, but the King of Ravens and his band of followers, who were perched on the tree-tops overlooking the cornfield, laughed with glee to think that Hiawatha had forgotten what mischief they could do. So early on the morrow all the black thieves, crows and blackbirds, jays and ravens, flew down on the field, and with claws and beak began to dig up the buried grain. But the wary Hiawatha had over-heard the birds' mocking laughter and, rising before daybreak, had scattered snares over the fields.

Thus it happened that the birds found their claws all entangled in the snares, and Hiawatha, coming out from the hiding-place where he had been watching them killed them without mercy; only one was spared, the King of Ravens himself, whom Hiawatha pinioned with a strong rope and fastened to the ridge-pole of his wigwam as a warning to all other thieves.

Illustration

Now it chanced one day that the mischievous Pau-Puk-Keewis wandered through the village and reaching the farthest wigwam, which was that of Hiawatha, found it deserted. The raven perched on the ridge-pole, flapped his wings, and screamed at the intruder; but Pau-Puk-Keewis twisted the poor bird's neck and left the lifeless body dangling from the roof; then he entered the lodge and threw all the household things into the wildest disorder as an insult to the careful Nokomis and the beautiful Minnehaha. Satisfied with the mischief he had done, Pau-Puk-Keewis climbed a rocky headland overlooking the lake and amused himself by killing the sea-gulls as they fluttered round him.

When Hiawatha returned, fierce anger rose in his heart. "I will slay this mischief-maker," said he, "even if I have to search the world for him." Together with other hunters he set out in hot pursuit, but cunning Pau-Puk-Keewis outstripped them all and ran, swift as an antelope, till he came to a stream in the midst of a forest where the beavers had built a dam. "Change me into a beaver," he entreated them, "and make me larger than yourselves, so that I may be your ruler and king." "Yes," said one of the beavers, "let yourself down into the water, and we will make you into a beaver ten times larger than any of ourselves."

This they did, but not long had Pau-Puk-Keewis sat in state among the beavers when they heard a trampling and a crashing above the water, and the watchman cried: "Here is Hiawatha with his hunters!"

All the other beavers made their escape through the doorway of their lodge into deeper water, but so large had Pau-Puk-Keewis become that he could not pass through the opening. Then Hiawatha, peering through the water, recognized Pau-Puk-Keewis, in spite of his disguise, and slew him.

Six tall hunters bore the dead body of the beaver homeward, but the spirit of Pau-Puk-Keewis was still alive within it, and escaping, took its human form again and vanished into the forest.

Illustration

Only the wary Hiawatha saw the figure as it disappeared and followed in hot pursuit. Hard pressed, Pau-Puk-Keewis reached the edge of the lake and besought a brant (or wild goose) to change him into one of themselves, and to make him ten times larger than the others.

Straightway they changed him into an enormous brant, and, with a whirr of wings, the whole flock rose in the air and flew northward. "Take good heed and look not downward, lest some great mishap befall you," cried the other birds to Pau-Puk-Keewis, and he heeded their words. But on the morrow, as they continued their flight, Pau-Puk-Keewis heard a great shouting in the village beneath and knew the voices of Hiawatha and Iagoo.

Forgetful of his warning, he looked downward, and the wind caught his plumage and sent him whirling towards the earth. In vain he struggled to regain his balance—he fell heavily to the ground and lay dead with broken pinions. But his spirit was still alive, and, taking its human form, again fled from Hiawatha. This time Hiawatha pursued his cunning foe so closely that he could almost touch him, but Pau-Puk-Keewis changed himself into a serpent and glided into a tree. While Hiawatha was groping in the hollow trunk, the mischief-maker once more took his human shape and sped away until he came to the sandstone rocks overlooking the Big Lake; and the Old Man of the Mountain opened his rocky doorway and gave Pau-Puk-Keewis shelter.

Hiawatha stood without and battered against the caverns shouting, "Open! I am Hiawatha!" But the Old Man of the Mountain neither opened nor made answer. Then Hiawatha raised his hands to heaven and called the thunder and lightning to his aid. Stronger than any mortal power, the tempest smote the rocks till they fell to fragments, and there beneath the crags lay Pau-Puk-Keewis dead in his own human form.

This was Hiawatha's last victory—grief and loss were now to be his portion. The death of his two friends, Chibiabos and Kwasind, weighed on his mind, and, hardest of all, a long and dreary winter, bringing the specters of famine and fever in its train, came upon the land and robbed Hiawatha of his dearest treasure, his beautiful young wife.

Clad in her richest garments, Minnehaha was laid to rest deep beneath the snow, and, as Hiawatha watched the fire which was kindled at night on her grave, his heart grew less heavy, for he felt that their parting was not for long.

The time was soon to come when he too could depart to the Islands of the Blessed, where the spirit of his wife awaited him.

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