Native American culture fascinates so many of us, and we embrace it by adorning our homes with Native American blankets, wearing Navajo turquoise jewelry, and by reading stories and legends. But are any of these legends based on truth?
More specifically, is the legend of Hiawatha based on a real person?
Hiawatha – The Legend
In November 1885, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his poem, The Song of Hiawatha. This epic tragedy tells the fictional story of an Ojibwe warrior Hiawatha and his love for Dakota woman Minnehaha. The poem is inspired by oral traditions and based on the mythological Ojibwe trickster spirit Nanabozho.
While The Song of Hiawatha (and the woman called Minnehaha) is pure fiction, there was once a real man named Hiawatha…
Hiawatha – The Man
Hiawatha was a legendary Onondaga or Mohawk Chief who lived in the sixteenth century, before European colonialization of the Americas. He was also known as Ayenwathaaa and Aiionwatha. He co-founded the Iroquois Confederacy (Five Nations League), which comprised the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida Nations.
Estimated to have been born around 1525 (though some cite much earlier, c1450), some historians believe Hiawatha was born into the Onondaga Tribe but was later adopted by the Mohawk. These tribes resided between the Saint Lawrence River and Lake Champlain in what is now Vermont.
The Iroquois were also known as the Haudenosaunee. They lived in large family groups in Longhouses and were arranged into clans (each named after an animal) which followed the mother’s line of descent. Men moved into the wife’s family clan after marriage. The Iroquois based their calendars off the lunar cycle, survived off farming corn, beans, and squash (the “Three Sisters”), and were very attuned to Nature. Playing lacrosse was a favored pastime.
The differing tribes of the Iroquois Nation, however, were very conflicted and constantly warred with each other, despite sharing culture and language. This weakened the Nation overall. Hiawatha’s wife and daughters were murdered by Tadodaho, a Bithwanikumbakumba leader who was resistant to peace between the tribes.
Hiawatha became a follower of the Native American prophet and spiritual leader Deganawida, The Great Peacemaker. Deganawida and Hiawatha sought to unite the tribes; Hiawatha was very wise, sharing the vision of Deganawida for unity, and became his spokesman. (Deganawida required a vocal representative as he had a speech impediment). Hiawatha agreed to collaborate with him to put an end to the violence.
Legacy of Hiawatha
It was thanks to Hiawatha’s powers of persuasion and oratory gifts that the Great Law of Peace and the democratic Iroquois Confederacy were established.
The Iroquois Confederacy survives to this day, and in 1722, the Tuscarora Nation joined to become the sixth member. The Longhouse Council in Onondaga County was formerly named the Hiawatha Council.
Many non-Native Americans are first introduced to Native American culture as children, via stories of Hiawatha, Minnehaha, and Pocahontas. It’s exciting to realize that some of these legends are based on real people – and one’s love of and affinity for these cultures develop into something much deeper over time.