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A short story by Charles M. Skinner


Title:     Hiawatha
Author: Charles M. Skinner [More Titles by Skinner]

The story of Hiawatha--known about the lakes as Manabozho and in the East as Glooskapis the most widely disseminated of the Indian legends. He came to earth on a Messianic mission, teaching justice, fortitude, and forbearance to the red men, showing them how to improve their handicraft, ridding the woods and hills of monsters, and finally going up to heaven amid cries of wonder from those on whose behalf he had worked and counselled. He was brought up as a child among them, took to wife the Dakota girl, Minnehaha ("Laughing Water"), hunted, fought, and lived as a warrior; yet, when need came, he could change his form to any shape of bird, fish, or plant that he wished. He spoke to friends in the voice of a woman and to enemies in tones like thunder. A giant in form, few dared to resist him in battle, yet he suffered the common pains and adversities of his kind, and while fishing in one of the great lakes in his white stone canoe, that moved whither he willed it, he and his boat were swallowed by the king of fishes. He killed the creature by beating at its heart with a stone club, and when the gulls had preyed on its flesh, as it lay floating on the surface, until he could see daylight, he clambered through the opening they had made and returned to his lodge.

Believing that his father had killed his mother, he fought against him for several days, driving him to the edge of the world before peace was made between them. The evil Pearl Feather had slain one of his relatives, and to avenge that crime Hiawatha pressed through a guard of fire-breathing serpents which surrounded that fell personage, shot them with arrows as they struck at him, and having thus reached the lodge of his enemy he engaged him in combat. All day long they battled to no purpose, but toward evening a woodpecker flew overhead and cried, "Your enemy has but one vulnerable point. Shoot at his scalp-lock." Hiawatha did so and his foe fell dead. Anointing his finger with the blood of his foe, he touched the bird, and the red mark is found on the head of every woodpecker to this day. A duck having led him a long chase when he was trying to capture it for food, he angrily kicked it, thus flattening its back, bowing its legs, despoiling it of half of its tail-feathers, and that is why, to this day, ducks are awkward.

In return for its service in leading him to where the prince of serpents lived, he invested the kingfisher with a medal and rumpled the feathers of its head in putting it on; hence all kingfishers have rumpled knots and white spots on their breasts. After slaying the prince of serpents he travelled all over America, doing good work, and on reaching Onondaga he organized a friendly league of thirteen tribes that endured for many years. This closed his mission. As he stood in the assemblage of chiefs a white bird, appearing at an immense height, descended like a meteor, struck Hiawatha's daughter with such force as to drive her remains into the earth and shattered itself against the ground. Its silvery feathers were scattered, and these were preserved by the beholders as ornaments for their hair--so the custom of wearing feather head-dresses endures to our time. Though filled with consternation, Hiawatha recognized the summons. He addressed his companions in tones of such sweetness and terms of such eloquence as had never been heard before, urging them to live uprightly and to enforce good laws, and unhappy circumstance!--promising to come back when the time was ripe. The expectancy of his return has led to ghost-dances and similar demonstrations of enmity against the whites. When he had ended he entered his stone canoe and began to rise in air to strains of melting music. Higher and higher he arose, the white vessel shining in the sunlight, until he disappeared in the spaces of the sky.

Incidents of the Hiawatha legend are not all placed, but he is thought to have been born near the great lakes, perhaps at Mackinack. Some legends, indeed, credit him with making his home at Mackinack, and from that point, as a centre, making a new earth around him. The fight with his father began on the upper Mississippi, and the bowlders found along its banks were their missiles. The south shore of Lake Superior was the scene of his conflict with the serpents. He hunted the great beaver around Lake Superior and brought down his dam at the Sault Sainte Marie. A depression in a rock on the southern edge of Michipicotea Bay is where he alighted after a jump across the lake. In a larger depression, near Thunder Bay, he sat when smoking his last pipe. The big rocks on the east side of Grand Traverse Bay, near Antrim City, Michigan, are the bones of a stone monster that he slew.

So trifling an incident as the kicking of the duck has been localized at Lake Itasca. [It is worth passing mention that this name, which sounds as if it were of Indian origin, is held by some to be composed of the last syllables of veritas and the first letters of caput, these words-signifying "the true head"--being applied by early explorers as showing that they were confident of having found the actual source of the Mississippi.] Minnehaha lived near the fall in Minneapolis that bears her name. The final apotheosis took place on the shores of Lake Onondaga, New York, though Hiawatha lies buried under a mountain, three miles long, on the east side of Thunder Bay, Lake Superior, which, from the water, resembles a man lying on his back. The red man makes oblation, as he rows past, by dropping a pinch of tobacco into the water. Some say that Hiawatha now lives at the top of the earth, amid the ice, and directs the sun. He has to live in a cold country because, if he were to return, he would set the earth on fire with his footsteps.

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Charles M. Skinner's short story: Hiawatha