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Why I'm Uncancelling Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Updated: May 29, 2023

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow embraced diversity and wanted to help others see the beauty of all cultures. Yet some modern scholars are now accusing him of everything from cultural appropriation to cultural exploitation. His legacy is being polluted by people who despise his message. I'm uncancelling Longfellow and here's why. The facts simply do not support their claims.


His "The Song of Hiawatha" has particularly come under fire in recent years. As I've read the articles trying to make a case against Longfellow, I am convinced that many of those writers have never truly experienced other cultures.


Pastor Moses and Melania and their children

For example, in the ten years that our family lived in the Simbai tribe of Papua New Guinea, we learned to love the people there. Some of them became dear friends. A few of them became the kind of friends whose hearts were knit together with ours. Moses and Melania, for example, were not just some of our best Simbai friends, they were and still are some of our best friends in life. We raised our children together, worked alongside each other in ministry, laughed together, and cried together. We love them, dearly. I wish that everyone could know these amazing friends of mine! I wish that you could hear their stories, meet their families, understand their culture, and love them as I do.


Our girls with Rebeka, Moses and Melania's daughter

Our daughter Hayley "sharing"/stealing Moses' lunch

I recognize few people will ever have the opportunity to know them personally, and that is why I have told some of their stories over the years. And, I know for a fact that they have told some of our stories to their friends and families. We, as humans, love sharing the important people and events of our lives with others. Why do you think social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are so insanely popular? Because they provide a platform for us to share with our friends and families all of the people, places, and events that matter to us.

Longfellow was the same way. He had many amazing life experiences that made him culturally diverse. He was a gifted linguist that had become fluent in 8 languages. He reportedly could read several more. He had travelled abroad and actually lived for significant lengths of time in many different European cultures. He also fully embraced the diverse cultures in his own homeland. He had close friendships with men like Chief Kahge-gagahbowh, of the Ojibwe tribe. (Believe me, we had a lot of fun trying to learn how to pronounce that name in our homeschool!)


Chief Kahgegagahbowh was not only a guest in Longfellow’s home, he was a respected literary peer. Kahgegagahbowh's accomplishments are significant and Longfellow truly enjoyed learning about the Ojibwe people from him. Longfellow so admired the chief's talents, that he wrote a letter of introduction for him when the chief left to tour Europe. Longfellow also had friendships with other members of local tribal groups such as the Iriquois and Sauk people, particularly with a leader named Black Hawk.


Longfellow embraced his Native American friends and cared enough about them to truly get to know them. The more he heard of their customs and legends, the more he wanted others to learn about and celebrate their rich history.

After several years of hearing their stories, Longfellow wrote in his journal on June 22, 1854, “I have at length hit upon a plan for a poem on the American Indians, which seems to me the right one and the only. It is to weave together their beautiful traditions as whole.”

We don't have to wonder why he did it. We don't have to project current political mindsets and sensibilities on him. We don't have to accuse him of cultural appropriation or exploitation. We can read his own words, and use our knowledge of the materials he had to work with and recognize that he genuinely wanted to "weave together their beautiful traditions as a whole."

This, my friends, is why as a historian, I urge you to use primary documents whenever possible. Don't let others rewrite history for you.

Read for yourselves. A great resource for primary documents relating to American history can be found at https://teachingamericanhistory.org/


By the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,

He combined the legends of multiple tribal groups into "The Song of Hiawatha." He didn’t claim that it was exact history, only that it stemmed from a mix of the legends he learned from his friends. He consulted the work of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft whose wife, Jane, was of Ojibwe heritage. She had written down many of the legends of the Ojibwe people that her husband eventually expanded upon and published into an extensive two-volume set entitled Algic Researches. As modern historians, we realize that Schoolcraft's work was lacking in many areas, but, neither Schoolcraft nor Longfellow had volumes and volumes of work readily available at their fingertips to do more extensive research. In the 1850s there just wasn't a whole lot of information available to either man. They both relied heavily upon the actual Native Americans they knew to guide them.


Longfellow also credited the Finnish epic, "The Kalevala," with helping him organize his story and more importantly, for giving him the idea of using the rhyme and meter of his poem to advance the story. Some accused him of forms of plagiarism from these sources, but he stated that, “I can give chapter and verse for these legends. Their chief value is that they are Indian legends.” And, it seems Longfellow was right. He actually did do his research, and he did record a lot of his sources, and he was able to show his diligence.


The important thing to remember is that he wasn't recording just one tribe's legend, or even many tribes' legends. He created his story as a melting pot of legends and it was clearly ONE fictional piece very loosely based on MANY legends. In other words, his purpose was much bigger than being a historian. He wanted his audience to learn to appreciate the rich cultural beauty and depth of his tribal friends, and he used the limited research available to him, personal interviews, and his literary talents to do so. And, it seems that perhaps his old friend, Chief Kahgegagahbowh may have loved the poem because he named his daughter Minnehaha - the name of the heroine of "The Song of Hiawatha." Some accuse Longfellow of promoting the "noble savage"ideal but again, the facts simply do not match that agenda.


Longfellow also used the poem to shed light on the plight of Native Americans. In a letter to his mother dated November 9, 1823, a young Longfellow wrote that the Indians "are a race possessing magnanimity, generosity, benevolence, and pure religion without hypocrisy" and who "have been most barbarously maltreated by the whites." Longfellow used his pen to show his audience that the Native Americans had a rich and beautiful culture and he called out the barbarity of the whites that had mistreated them and forced them to leave their lands.


Again, after studying the historical record, including Longfellow's own words and actions, I find his poem to be a charming and persuasive epic dedicated to opening the eyes of his audience to both the beauty and plight of the Native American tribes around them.


Some great resources that may help you learn more about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow include the Maine Historical Society's Henry Wadsworth Longfellow site which has a complete database of all of his poems. It also has quite a few lesson plans and worksheets for parents and teachers who may want to further develop a study of Longfellow. You will obviously need to use your judgement with any lesson plans you decide to use, but they can easily be adapted as you see fit.


Also, Thomas Wentworth Higginson's biography, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow offers some interesting insights since he was not only a contemporary of Longfellow, but also knew him and his family personally. He is able to bring to the table more personal information.



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