September 23, 2006

Another cute li'l Indian

Little Hiawatha debuted in one of Disney's Silly Symphony cartoons in 1937. As Don Markstein reports:This particular Silly Symphony concerned a young boy's adventure in the woods. Hiawatha, no known relation to the hero of H.W. Longfellow's famous poem (and even less to the Hiawatha who once hunted Bugs Bunny), ventured forth with his little bow and arrow, intent on emulating the mighty hunters of his village. It turned out he was too soft-hearted to kill a rabbit, but that was okay—later, when he was endangered by a ferocious bear, the rabbit rounded up an animal posse and saved him. Hiawatha returned home safely but empty-handed.Little Hiawatha showed up next in the Silly Symphonies comic strip, where he appeared from 1940 to 1942. Some of the strips were reprinted in WALT DISNEY'S COMICS & STORIES in 1943, and new adventures appeared in the same comic in 1952-53. Hiawatha's girlfriend Little Minnehaha also starred in a few stories of her own.

Note Markstein's summaries of the character:Several writers and artists handled his series, but none did outstanding work on it. After pantomimes and stilted rhythms, this was the first time Hiawatha spoke normally, and the result was a lot of insultingly stereotyped dialog. Hiawatha's father, usually called Big Chief, was fat, lazy and not very bright.AndIt's been nearly half a century since Little Hiawatha has been seen in the country he's a native of, but he still turns up reasonably often in European comic books. One secret of his success there might be that he's treated as a human being, not a stereotype.Markstein should make up his mind since these comments are somewhat contradictory.


Rob said...

Correspondent Eulala Pegram sent me the following note:

The person cited in this article as the original Hiawatha was not. Longfellow's fictional Hiawatha was based on the original or first Hiawatha (Hahyonhwatha, "He who has misplaced something, but knows where to find it") of Iroquois fame (although I am not absolutely sure whether Longfellow tried to follow this man's history or just "borrowed" the name, as alleged by this author).

From the introduction of the wonderful League of the Iroquois document at this site:

"The founder of the Confederacy of the Five Nations is generally acknowledged to be Dekanawida, born near the Bay of Quinte, in southeastern Ontario, Canada. During his travels, he associated himself with a Mohawk tribal lord in what is now New York, and named him Hahyonhwatha (Hiawatha, 'He who has misplaced something, but knows where to find it,' quote marks added). Hiawatha left his family and friends, and joined Dekanawida in his travels, becoming his chief spokesman. One legend has it that Dekanawida, while brilliant, had a speech impediment, and depended on Hiawatha to do his public speaking for him. Together, they traveled the length and breadth of the lands on the south shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario, as well as the river to the sea, now known as the St. Lawrence. These were the homelands of tribes with a common heritage, but who had been warring with one another for many years. Dekanawida united them into a League of Nations that we now call the Iroquois League. Centuries later, Longfellow 'borrowed' the name of Hiawatha to be his hero in a fictional legend; there is no other connection between the two Hiawathas nor their stories."

Rob said...

I wonder if Longfellow chose to write about Hiawatha just because the name sounded soft, romantic...almost poetic. If Hiawatha had had a less euphonic name such as Massasoit, Chingachgook, Pontiac, or Keokuk, we might have been spared the entire epic.

Rob said...

Beyond the cartoon Hiawatha's stereotypical speech and Big Chief father, let's note his stereotypical clothing and the out-of-place totem poles.

To sum it up, we have an Iroquois Indian dressed like a Plains warrior with cultural artifacts from the Pacific Northwest. How much do you want to bet that the cartoon and comic strips are a lot more stereotypical than Don Markstein thinks they are?

Rob said...

If you want to scan the pages and send them to me, I'll appreciate it. I can create a page on my website for Little Hiawatha. My brief Web search didn't turn up any critical analyses of this feature, so I could have the definitive statement on how good or bad it was.