Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2005

5.15. 'Literatur' als Schnittstelle der Kulturen
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Reinhard Krüger (Universität Stuttgart)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

A Story of a Native American and a Story Told by a Native American

Secil Saracli (Universität Ankara)


Geographically speaking American West refers to an ever-changing borderline extending from Eastern coastline to Appalachians then to the Great Plains of North to Western Ordinance, up to Oregon Trail ending down in California. As a conception the American West has been metaphorically grounded on the ideology of supremacy of the white race over the "others", namely Indians. It has been mythologized by ideologists like F. Jackson Turner and John L. O’Sullivan who endowed characteristic like valor, endurance, resistance to hardships and resourcefulness - excuses for white man’s hunger for land, to the white settlers of great Plains. While imaginary legendary heroes of the white race dominated the Western horizons, and the picturesque frontier of Great Plains depicted as covered wagons of white settlers proceeding towards West on the foreground and a lone Indian paddling a canoe, or horseback with lance and bow, the real picture of bands of shattered Indians mostly women and elders trailing towards their destiny - the reservations are missing.

In 19 th Century America, when Westward expansion was encouraged by the governments through Homestead Acts and ordinances to statehood for newly acquired lands; Indians being the main obstacle to the program were expelled from the scene by being pushed to reservations, or being cheated out of their lands, there was a man, whose vision was much higher than the tardy political discussions of his time. He was the renowned poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow whose familiarity with Indian legends guided him to write "The Song of Haiwatha", in the fashion of classics to glorify an Indian legendary hero.

Almost a century later a native Indian Simon Ortiz deconstructed the history of his ancestors from the time when the final defeat of Indians occurred in Sand Creek in his epic poem entitled "Sand Creek", experimenting with technical devices of versification to revive what has been clumsily stereotyped by the whites as "shamatic", "primal", and "mythic" about his race.

This paper proposes to discuss H.W. Longfellow, a representative of white man’s sensitive view of the "other"- the Indian, and S. Ortiz’s angry voice of a wronged race in regard with their interpretation of historicity. At first sight, it sounds irrational to compare and contrast two poets of different eras, different literary traditions, and from different cultural molds. Yet, they share the same idea: that the American history is irrecoverably stained by the wrongs done to the natives of the land.

Being a widely known poet of his time not only in U.S.A. but, also in Europe (many of his poems were translated to German, Italian, French languages, and a Russian Ivan Bumin, a Nobel Laureate was recognized because of his translation of "Hiawatha") Longfellow used to be ranked with his contemporary Walt Whitman as an eminent genius in verse. His already established popularity was increased with the publication of "Hiawatha" in 1855 - an epic compounded of Indian legends centering on Hiawatha, the Deliverer of the Nations. By 1877 almost 300.000 copies of it sold both in America and in Europe.

But, in early 20 th Century, when modernist view attained centrality to decide on the canon, Longfellow of 19 th century doomed alongside with other so-called schoolroom poets to decline. In late 1970s, when MLA undertook the project of reconstructing American Literary canon, his name re-appeared widely in the anthologies.

In search of romantic sublimation that many of the romantics found in the revival of old heroism inherent in legends, Longfellow created "Hiawatha" when the survival of the many of the Indian tribes were at a stake in the heydays of Westward expansion, at a time just after the Little Big Horn, the last resort of Indian resistance yielded to white invasion. Yet, at this critical moment of American history, Longfellow’s echoing criticism of governmental politics was delineated to an interest for aesthetic perfection of his versification rather than making open political statements. However, today’s appreciative mood of any fictive account of historical past, which had been earlier denied from the public eye because of its adherance to marginality, re-estimated its value.

In Hiawatha, Longfellow laboriously and meticulously imitated ancient epic ‘four-beat’ pattern to capture the rhythmic repetitions of Indian verse. He changed the original name of the legend he is familiar with from "Menabozho" to an Iroquois one Hiawatha for the sake of popularity.

As in all mythical accounts of supernatural heroes, Hiawatha was born to a mother Wenonah, a Joyful maiden of wilderness through a supernatural insemination of the West Wind, causing the death of the mother at childbirth. Again, like the other legendary heroes, he was nursed and brought up by a foster mother namely Nakomis -by the shores of Lake Superior.

As Haiwatha becomes a healthy lad, he was by Nakomis taught about all the ancient accounts of Indian oral tradition in regard with the creation of cosmos, the unification of all species with earth and its elements regardless of the qualities attributed to them. He learned what Naked Bear; an unearthly huge creature meant, how the Ghost and Death Dances congregated not only the living but the death and the ancestors of his race.

He was acquainted with Indian mysticism in regard to creation of the world and he learned to value the objects in nature according to the stories behind them; also he learned the language of the beasts and birds from Nakomis. Then, Lagoo, the traveler, adventurer prepared him for his first ordeal as a hunter to earn his name Hiawatha ─ The Strong Heart. Endowed with magical outfit like mittens and moccasins made of deerskin he entered manhood as he relentlessly killed his first game.

Meanwhile, Nakomis was no longer able to prevent him to take his revenge from his father, The West Wind, whom he detested as the wrong doer to his mother; eventually he found the West Wind at his kingdom at the top of the Rocky Mountains, and challenged him.

After a long-lasting tournament between the two, where Hiawatha tried to show his invincible might against an immortal, finally he had to accept his defeat. The father consoled him by saying that he had already proved his courage to lead his people until his death to share with his father the heavenly kingdom. On his way home, he meets his life-long partner, the beautiful daughter of arrow-maker Minnehaha (the Laughing Water).

When he was sure of his ordinance as the Savior of his people, he was resolved to fast in order to find the ways for the welfare of his people. During this period of meditation in seclusion, waiting for messages, he asked every object in nature how his people be benefited from and dependent on them. The Master of life approved his endeavors to protect his people and proposed to him a new ordeal where he has to wrestle with Mondamins the incarnation of nature in all forms, such as earth’s resistance to be tilled, or the changing weather conditions. Hiawatha succeeds in burying his rival in earth to see the fist sprouts of maize - The Gift of Great Spirit to his people, to come out.

Another gift was the canoe, which the trees in the forest are supplicant for its completion, and which will enable him to meet Nahman, the king of Fishes. Catching him would be the last phase of the grail. Thus as a savior of his race he has completed his mission without harming the cycle of nature.

It is then, his turn to tell the legend of his people to Laago, who listens to him with wonder and admiration until the moment when a bitter twist of events indicate that the whites began to swarm to this land of peace. Hiawatha’s exaggerated account of his encounter with the whites and his welcoming of them despite the warnings of Manito who showed him the vision of the future, which bears some historical events and facts. With the help of Manito "[He] beheld the westward marches / Of the unknown, crowded nations / All the land was full of people, "who are restless, and careless for "In the Woodlands rang their axes, / Smoked their towns in all the valleys, was the whites invaded the country.

Longfellow names many of the encounters between the whites and the Indians and saves criticism of the wrongs done to the Indians in the final lines of his long poem where Hiawatha is shown the dreadful future of his race. Here are Haiwatha’s forebodings:

"Then a darker, drearier vision
Passed before me, vague and cloudlike
I beheld our nations scattered,
All forgetful of my counsels,
Weakened, warring with each other;
Saw the remnants of our people
Sweeping westward, wild and woeful,
Like the cloud-rack of a tempest,
Like the withered leaves of Autumn!"

In short "Hiawatha" displays Longfellow’s skill at story-telling at its best, with adequate dramatic clashes between the hero, Hiawatha and the nature which he challenged to tame in the service of his nation, all culminating to the essential facts about the Indian history as viewed from a white man’s perspective.

Simon Ortiz, a member of Acoma Pueblo tribe, and who is presently a teacher of poetry at the University of New Mexico, where he initially became aware of the voices in native American literature under the guidance of Scott Momaday and James Welch, the forerunners of the new Native voice, has written his contemplations about his race’s fate in a cycle of poems entitled "From Sand Creek" in 1981.

The long epic poem begins with a prose section in italics to separate the facts from the lyric sections, which were written in the fashion of rhythmical Indian oral tradition. Here he depicts the massacre of Cheyenne and Araphoe people encamped with the assurance of the president, proudly displaying their alliance to the promise with stars and stripes conspicuous even from the distance. Yet they mere stabbed at the back by a deceitful Colonel W. Chivington, who with his band of Colorado volunteers in November 29, 1864, just ten years after Longfellow’s prediction, plundered the scattered Indians, who were helpless and devastated from hunger. Then the doom waiting for Hiawatha’s peoples was carried out by the verdict of a single man, as predicted earlier.

The recollection of this fatal blow to the Indian race constitutes the Epilogue of the long narration where a fragmentary view of history after the contact of two races entirely different cultural backgrounds, Indians being spiritual white men materialistic, was told. According to histography of Ortiz, for the intolerant whites Indians were demonic and heathen that should be wiped of from the sight of righteous Puritans; later the Indians to be labeled as Noble Savages", a schizophrenic attitude of the so-called American romantics. Regardless of their tribal peculiarities, religious denominations and language differences were identified by the word "wilderness" ─ a concept rather than a name given to unknown, the "other", whereas the wilderness means for the natives a harmonious existence with nature.

In the Prologue, which immediately follows the Epilogue, Ortiz sums up his view of America past and present which is made of "steel constructions" and "madness" yet, hope prevails since from the dead bodies of his ancestors signs of new hopes will prevail:

This America
has been a burden
of steel and mad
but, look now,
there are flowers
and new grass
and a spring wind
from Sand Creek.

Then episodes composed of snap-shots chosen at random to describe the high lights in the advancement of white race to the heart of the land, and the doctrines that shaped the white man’s future ideology, and the "hunger for land and power" that motivated their actions, are given:

Many of them
built their sod houses
without windows.
Without madness.

But fierce, o
with a just determination.

Consulting axioms
and the dream called America.

The first axioms of Cotton Mather appeared in his "Glory of Americana" celebrating the white man’s discovery of the new land, would be the guideline to early settlers as well as to the presidents like Andrew Jackson, who claimed to be the forerunner of American democratic idealism, and who ironically to "ruminate, savoring fresh Indian blood." Then, the result of Mather’s teachings would be:

The axiom
would be the glory of America
at last,
no wastelands
no forgiveness.
The child would
be sublime.

The child the American Adam born from the sick brain of Mather would find no Eden but a false vision of Utopia turning into a dystopia, where no "forgiveness" exists, since while "perfecting the child, that is America to sublimation", the child was torn from the bosom of nature, shut up to "the city built upon a hill", where later sky-scrapers of ruthless capitalism reigns. The plains on the other hand, of the West, or the last frontiers were greedily exploited and dispossessed as ghost towns:

Frontiers ended for them
and a dread settled upon them
and became remorseless

The namelessness, the meaninglessness also defines the poet’s life. In some sections, aspects of his own life, which he thinks stolen from him, he thinks, must have been restored to him. The repetition of the lines "I should have stolen / My life, My life." It is the indication of a life on both private and public levels ended with despair. In other words, unless his people retain their old autonomous self-hood, his will never be attained. But the hope prevails because the bloodshed a century ago will replenish, and supply again fresh power for them to recover from the relics of the past:

It almost seemed magical
that they had so much blood.
It just kept pouring,
like rivers,
like endless floods from the sky,
thunder that had become liquid,
and the thunder surged forever
into their minds.

As in the past, when their leader Black Cattle led them to "The Vista of the mountains - / to the rivers" Their spirit will nourish them and "the land was open to them, like a child’s heart." They now, know that there is no earthly paradise, but the hope, the dream, which is no way vengeful but affirmative in regaining America.

That dream
shall have a name
after all,
and it will not be vengeful
but wealthy with love
and compassion
and knowledge.
And it will rise
in this heart
which is our America.

Shortly, "From Sand Crcek" is a long narrative poem, which paints a vision of America that is immediate and personal provided by the intersections of lyrical poems, many almost cinematic and picturesque blending color and action to the narration. Ortiz weaves into the mock-epic tapestry paradoxical elements such as "steel" symbolizing Euro-centric power as opposed to "memory and dream", which are the premises still powerful in the collective unconsciousness of the Indian, to underline the cultural diversity.

From the accounts of Longfellow and Ortiz the American landscape, it is suggested that the land which had hosted a hero, Hiawatha who in the long oral tradition of his peoples will continue to tell them to keep their spirits up knowing their ancestral strength and valor will prevail no matter they seem to be no longer masters of their fate, will bestow its blessings equally on both races, if the past memories lend themselves mutual understandings. The same landscape which has also witnessed another race of people coming with new hopes but no collective unconscious to immortalize their experience except for creating their own myths of frontiersmen whose only trophy is the material gain, will teach them how to yield themselves to its natural rhythm.


© Secil Saracli (Universität Ankara)


Arvin, Neal. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, Lubbock: U of Texas Press, 1966.

Appelman, Deborah, Reed Margaret. Braided Lives: An Anthology of Multicultural

American Writing, St Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Humanities Commission, 1991.

Bradley, Sculley; Beatty, Richmond Croom; Long, E. Hudson; Perkins, George The American Tradition

In Literature, Vol.1, New York: Grossed and Dunlop, 1978.

Lankford, George E. (ed.) Native American Legends, Little Rock, Arkansas: August House, 1978.

Lanter, Paul. (ed.) The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Vols.1-2, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath & Company, 1990.

Longfellow, Stephan. Life of Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, 3.Vols Random House, New York, 1969.

Wiget, Andrew. Native American Literature, Boston: Twayne Publication, 1985.

5.15. 'Literatur' als Schnittstelle der Kulturen

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