Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hiawatha's Canoe III

Longfellow continues:
  "Give me of your quills, O Hedgehog!
All your quills, O Kagh, the Hedgehog!
I will make a necklace of them,
Make a girdle for my beauty,
And two stars  to deck her bosom!
   From a hollow tree the Hedgehog
With his sleepy eyes looked at him,
Shot his shining quills, like arrows,
Saying with a drowsy murmur,
Through the tangle of his whiskers,
"Take my quills, O Hiawatha!"
    From the ground the quills he gathered,
All the little shining arrows,
Stained them red and blue and yellow,
With the juice of roots and berries;
Into his canoe he wrought them;
Round its bows a gleaming necklace,
On its breast two stars resplendent.
Thus the Birch Canoe was builded,
In the the valley, by the river,
In the bosom of the forest;
And the forest's life was in it,
All its mystery and its magic,
All the lightness of the birch-tree'
All the toughness of the cedar,
All the larch's supple sinews;
And it floated on the river
Like a yellow leaf in Autumn,
Like a yellow water-lily.
How did a New England intellectual and literary lion writing in 1854 and 1855 learn the details of building a birch-bark canoe? Take away the talking trees and porcupine and you are left with a fairly accurate (though incomplete) description of the materials and method of birch-bark canoe construction, including how and when to harvest bark.
Longfellow made no secret of the fact that he borrowed heavily from the works of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. At the beginning of his writing he made a note to himself, "Look over Schoolcraft's great volume on Indians..." Later he said, "I poured over
Mr. Schoolcraft's writings nearly three years."
Schoolcraft was the geologist on an 1820 expedition by birch-bark canoe led by the then Governor of Michigan Territory, Lewis Cass. Among other places, the expedition explored the west shore of Lake Huron, the south shore of Lake Superior and the Upper Mississippi River.
Much of his research and writing was conducted later while he was the Indian Agent at Sault Ste. Marie, close by "Gitchie Gumee". There he married the half-Ojibwa daughter of fur trader John Johnston.
In his book "Michigan in Four Centuries" author/historian F.Clever Bald says:
"Schoolcraft had become interested in Indians during the journey of 1820, and now began an intensive study of these poeple. With the intelligent assistance of his wife and her relatives, he aquired a vast collection of Indian lore, and he published numerous books on the Indians. It was from his writings that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow got both inspiration and material for his epic."
Schoolcraft knew and was proud that Longfellow used his work as the basis for "Hiawatha"
NEXT: Hiawatha's paddles.

Hiawatha illustration by Andrea Kowch. Used with permission.


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