“The Song of Hiawatha” opens conversations on local history

Vincent and Sophie Belleau and their son Ronnie Zack next to right is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's daughter. Year: ~1930. Photo courtesy of Joe Corbiere.

The Sault Ste. Marie Museum in partnership with the Shingwauk Residential School Centre, are hosting a virtual screening of the 1855 epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha” in celebration of Indigenous History Month.

“The Song of Hiawatha” is a complicated piece of our local history.  Longfellow’s poem offers a settler’s perspective on life along the area of Michigan on the south shore of Lake Superior.

The Sault Ste. Marie Museum has invited Frank Belleau as a guest speaker following the screening of the play.  Frank is of the Crane Clan from Garden River First Nation, and a graduate of Algoma and Queen’s University.  Belleau shares his recollections of his family’s participation in the play, with his grandmother and aunties participating in the 60’s.  Frank is an artist, active lacrosse player, wood worker and carver, a knowledge keeper, and offers really great insight into the iconic play.

Frank Belleau’s Aunt in the Hiawatha Play

“The Song of Hiawatha” shows the complex indigenous-settler relationships in our area.

In the event description, the museum offers differing perspectives on how the play can be received in today’s climate. “Some celebrate the play as a platform for sharing Ojibway culture and language during a period of forced assimilation and cultural suppression by settler-colonialism.”

Longfellow’s poem incorporates aspects of Ojibway culture, and some Ojibway, Dakota, Cree and Onondaga languages.

“Other perspectives are critical of the play, as it represents Indigenous culture as a historical or mythical past, presented mainly for colonizer audiences. Longfellow’s poem, ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ borrows from Ojibway stories, and is bound up with issues of appropriation and exoticism.”

Jean Pine at 17 years of age. Photo courtesy of Joe Corbiere.

Joe Corbiere is a local photographer and knowledge keeper from Batchewana First Nation.  He shared some archived images from the Hiawatha play that he has gathered over the years.  Joe’s Auntie Jean Pine acted in The Hiawatha play many times over the years, and shared her fond memories with the family.  The image of a Young Auntie Jean Pine hangs proudly in his kitchen.

Join the Sault Ste. Marie Museum and the Shingwauk Residential School Centre for the screening of “The Hiawatha Play,” followed by an informed discussion on the iconic play, on June 22nd, 7:00 pm.  Link to the event can be found here.