Researching Hiawatha

At the age of ten, Hiawatha was the first play my dad ever performed in. He recalls the school hall, the performers chanting the entire poem in broken English and the costumes based on bad 60s Westerns. Back then, cultural sensitivity was not as much of an issue, and Hiawatha could easily turn into a parody of Native Americans and their way of life.

In fact, Longfellow wrote surprisingly sensitively for his time, avoiding the stereotypical ‘Red Indian’ which features heavily in our exposure to indigenous America. This is partly because the story is set prior to Columbus, so the natives are presented in a more realistic light, not as the primitive, inferior savages as the colonists portrayed them.

These stereotypes were reinforced to justify the Native American genocide, which aimed to wipe out the entire race. This is a race with a history as rich and varied as that of any continent. They are a sophisticated people with a diverse culture, and have contributed so much. For example, the entire governmental system of the USA is based upon the Iroquois Confederacy, founded by a historical leader also by the name of Hiawatha. Those stereotypes are an insult to the five million Native Americans today, who are fighting to protect their languages and cultures from assimilation.

As you might have already guessed, we’ve been set extra research into the people and places featured in the story. This means the artwork, costume and music will be as authentic as possible. The script is even dotted with words in Ojibwe, a language spoken around the Great Lakes (try this for size: “oboodashkwaanishiinh”, which means “dragonfly”). We aim to live up to Longfellow’s decent portrayal of native people and do justice to his epic, imaginative poem.

By Elliot Bannister

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