Hiawatha / Hereafter: Re-appropriating Longfellow’s Epic in Northern Ontario
Keywords:Hiawatha, Canada, cultural appropriation, colonialism, decolonization
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha has long been a hugely influential piece of literature, north as well as south of the border. While its narrative and characters have often been evoked in settler constructions of “wilderness,” the text has also signified in very different ways for Indigenous communities. Drawing on Indigenous theory on colonialism and decolonization, and on studies of the cultural politics of race and nature, this article examines reworkings of Longfellow’s text in Northern Ontario, in the early 20th and early 21st centuries. Issues of colonial resource extraction and appropriation have marked the text from its inception, as Hiawatha was based mostly on Anishinaabe narratives, which were collected by Indian Agent and “ethnographer” Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, as he worked to dispossess Indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region in the 19th century. In the early 20th century, Canadian Pacific Railway Colonization Officer L. O. Armstrong’s attempts to attract settlers and tourists to the forests of Northern Ontario included promotional pamphlets describing “The Land of Hiawatha,” and outdoor performances of Longfellow’s text, translated and performed by members of local Anishinaabe communities. Today, versions of Longfellow’s text are used in cultural transmission projects in Batchewana and Garden River First Nations. And recently, poet Liz Howard has “unwritten” Longfellow’s text, 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 engages with Indigenous theorists’ analyses of colonialism as an ongoing process characterized by interconnected forms of theft; with the development of decolonial modes of literary and cultural analysis that work to halt and reverse such processes; and with studies of the cultural politics of race and nature, which demonstrate how colonial ideas about race have long been central to the construction of iconic Canadian wilderness spaces.