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Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans 1880-1930.

Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880-1930. By Alan Trachtenberg (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004. xxv plus 369 pp. $30.00).

Hiawatha gets the prize for most misinterpreted American Indian. An Iroquoian culture hero, he converted to the cause of Deganawida, another culture hero who had taken on as his mission no less than the cessation of feuding among Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, and others. But Deganawida had a speech impediment and so Hiawatha, as his mouthpiece, went from tribe to tribe persuading the chiefs to stop the bloodshed and join a great council at Onondaga--from which the great League of the Iroquois was born.

That was the Iroquoian Hiawatha--the real Hiawatha, if you will--until Henry Wadsworth Longfellow came along and published The Song of Hiawatha in 1855. An instant hit (50,000 copies in the first six months) and best-seller for years, this Hiawatha was a mash. Longfellow modeled his poem on the Finnish epic Kavelala, conflated the Iroquoian Hiawatha with an Algonquian culture hero named Nanabozho, and from that point on Hiawatha was never the same.

Alan Trachtenberg plies, as he puts it, the "light and shade cast" [xi] by Long-fellow's Hiawatha. A scholar of nineteenth- and early-twentieth century America, Trachtenberg draws on his vast knowledge of cultural history to investigate changing understandings of Indians as they intersect with race, ethnicity, nationalism, and immigration. He is especially interested in how representations of Indians changed from savage (which they never exclusively were, however) to ancestor and first American. Given Longfellow's agenda, the interest is well placed.

Trachtenberg ranges widely in an introduction and six chapters through various appropriations of Longfellow's Hiawatha and the increasing interest in inventing, playing and dreaming Indian. He plies ground well trod by others, from Robert Berkhofer, Roy Harvey Pearce and Ray Billington, to Philip Deloria, Shari Huhndorf, and Susan Scheckel, among others. But his particular concern is with nationalism, which, indeed, was a concern not just for Longfellow but Henry Rowe Schoolcraft from whom Longfellow took his ideas about Algonquian culture heros before converting the principal one to the more euphonic Hiawatha (merely contemplate the alternative, a Song of Nanabozho).

Longfellow reduced Hiawatha to simple, childlike, infantile poetics (one needless to say that bore no resemblance to American Indian verse). Trachtenberg asks, "Is it possible to take The Song of Hiawatha seriously today?" (58) The answer is, Of course, because it was taken with different degrees of seriousness when it was published, and it spawned a virtual Hiawatha industry, not least in stage performances. At the turn of the century there occurred a Hiawatha (Longfellow's Hiawatha, that is) revival in illustrations, songs, sculpture, on stage, and so on in which native people themselves participated.

Trachtenberg makes sense of all this thought and action about Hiawatha in a context of fin-de-siecle immigration, ethnicity, and racism; of the search for American type and a national consciousness. Anxieties about Yiddish (on the part of Henry James) leads Trachtenberg to the translation into Yiddish of Longfellow's Hiawatha and the attempt to make Yiddish a national language. Edward Curtis's staged romantic images of vanishing Indians "exuded a Hiawathan aura" (180). And Joseph Dixon, who labored for Rodman and his son John Wanamaker, the department-store kings with friends in the oval office and eyes for self-aggrandizement, helped change the trope from vanishing Indian (Curtis) to first and real American (Indian) as Wanamaker's store became America's store, the nation's warehouse and stage. Here also at the heart of merchant kingdom, Hiawatha, coupled to God and nation, was staged. In none of this can be seen action lacking self-interest or an act in the least noble or neutral, on the part of non-Indians, according to Trachtenberg. His history is a history of "crisis;" specifically, "of morale, of masculinity, of modernity" (244). How else can one possibly imagine these various players and their intentions?

Shepard Krech III

Brown University
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Author:Krech, Shepard, III
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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