Significant Minneapolis place names come from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha: Hiawatha Avenue, Lake Hiawatha, the Hiawatha Light Rail Line, Lake Nokomis, Minnehaha Avenue, Minnehaha Park, Minnehaha Falls, and Minnehaha Creek.
The poem’s opening lines are fairly well known: “On the shores of Gitche Gumee, Of the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood Nokomis, the old woman, Pointing with her finger westward … ” The poem is a fictional and tragic love story between Hiawatha, an Ojibwe man, and Minnehaha, a Dakota woman. A popular statue at Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis commemorates the poem.
Less well known is that the Song of Hiawatha is a story of Manifest Destiny — the idea that white Europeans had God on their side and God’s blessing to take Indigenous lands and convert Indigenous peoples. Longfellow’s poem is a deluded fairy tale of how Indigenous peoples would gently give up their traditional customs and become Christians. It papers over the brutal realities of land theft, forced assimilation, broken treaties and genocide that was occurring during Longfellow’s day and have continued thereafter.
The Song of Hiawatha was published in 1855, the year after Minneapolis was officially recognized as a town. Later Minneapolis leaders took characters from The Song of Hiawatha as namesakes for lakes, streets, and parks, embedding Manifest Destiny into the city’s very fabric.
The Wikipedia entry on The Song of Hiawatha says:
The poem closes with the approach of a birch canoe to Hiawatha’s village, containing “the Priest of Prayer, the Pale-face.” Hiawatha welcomes him joyously; and the “Black-Robe chief” brings word of Jesus Christ. Hiawatha and the chiefs accept the Christian message. Hiawatha bids farewell to Nokomis, the warriors, and the young men, giving them this charge: “But my guests I leave behind me/ Listen to their words of wisdom,/ Listen to the truth they tell you.” Having endorsed the Christian missionaries, he launches his canoe for the last time westward toward the sunset and departs forever.
Longfellow’s poem is based on Indigenous legends and his own imagination. People of Longfellow’s day criticized the poem” “[M]any Americans weren’t happy to see Native Americans portrayed in such a sympathetic way.”
The Song of Hiawatha also is an example of a white author appropriating Indigenous stories for his own benefit.
Here’s background on the poem’s characters who are part of Minneapolis’ landscape.
Hiawatha: There was a real-life Hiawatha, just not this Hiawatha. The real Hiawatha, a skilled 16th Century orator, lived in what is now the northeast United States. He played a key role in “persuading the Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas, and Mohawks to … band together to become the Five Nations of the Iroquois confederacy.” (Longfellow initially was going to call the Ojibwe hero Manabozho (also Nanabozho), a trickster figure who appears in traditional Ojibwe stories that are still told today as part of modern Ojibwe cultural education. He ultimately settled on Hiawatha.)
Minnehaha: In Dakota, the name means waterfall or rapid water. There was no real-life Minnehaha. There are places named after her all over the world, including Minnehaha Falls in Katoomba, Australia.
Nokomis: Nookomis means “grandmother” in Ojibwe. (So when you walk by Lake Nokomis, you’re walking by Grandmother Lake.) In traditional Ojibwe stories, Nokomis is Nanabozho’s (the trickster’s) grandmother.
I grew up in Minneapolis but never read The Song of Hiawatha. (A friend only recently explained the poem’s Manifest Destiny overlay to me.)
We from the settler lineage need to know that these Song-of-Hiawatha place names carry a powerful mythology that — consciously or not — shape our worldviews. We have been offered The Song of Hiawatha and similar narratives to shield us both from painful truths of our history and any responsibility for repair.
Thanks to the propaganda of writers like Longfellow, many modern Americans believe that the first inhabitants of this continent happily accepted Western ways of life, such as Christianity. A recent survey showed that a high percentage of Americans believe that Indigenous people no longer exist in the United States.
A broader lens
There are many stories of this land and its original peoples that those of us in the settler lineage were never taught.
Consider the Treaty of of Washington between the Anishinaabe and the United States. It was signed in 1855, the same year The Song of Hiawatha was published. The treaty established reservation boundaries for various bands in the Minnesota Territory, including the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Those reservation boundaries eroded over time due to settler greed and government policies such as the Dawes Act of 1877 which forced private land ownership on communal cultures. Today, the Leech Lake Band and its members own only four percent of the original Leech Lake Reservation.
Many non-Indigenous people have little understanding of treaty rights, making it extremely difficult for Indigenous peoples to get public support for treaty rights when they try to exercise them. The Treaty of Washington is still being contested today, 165 years after it was signed.
Those of us in the settler lineage need to learn these stories of land theft, forced assimilation, broken treaties, and genocide. We need to learn about Indigenous peoples who are still here and still resilient. We need to grieve and seek opportunities for right action and repair.