The Clements Library website includes events, exhibits, subject guides, newsletter issues, library staff, and more.

A Case Study on the Hiawatha Pageants

Vanishing Race: The concept of Native Americans as a race that would become extinct upon the climax of Manifest Destiny — a belief common at the turn of the 20th century and forwarded by photographer Edward Curtis. This belief ingrained itself into the American consciousness, freezing Native Americans in the past. This is further enforced by the majority of education, representation, and presentation of Native Americans as focusing on pre-1900s history.

Indigenuity: A portmanteau coined by Curtis Kekahbah (Kaw Nation) and Daniel Wildcat (Muscogee Nation) that combines the terms indigenous and ingenuity. Indigenuity is a mode of problem solving that centers local indigenous knowledge and seeks to ensure the continuation of both indigenous knowing and doing.

Photographs are among many types of cultural artifacts created to support myths and stereotypes about Native Americans. Many of these cultural artifacts were paired together to enhance the perspective represented in a single medium. One powerful example of this is the Hiawatha pageants, commonly performed in Northern Michigan at the turn of the century.

The Tale

The Song of Hiawatha, published in 1855 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, is a well known epic poem that romanticizes Ojibwe natives. Lauded by the American public for being a wholesome poem about “savages*,” Hiawatha romanticized a racist ideology, expanding the myth of the “Vanishing Race.” This concept is represented dramatically by the ‘Death Song’ at the conclusion of the poem, in which missionaries arrive on the shore and Hiawatha sails away into “the Land of the Hereafter.”

The visual nature of performances became a fundamental component of the poem’s continued popularity.

While it was widely read before the pageants, the visual nature of performances and photographs of the performances became a fundamental component of the poem’s continued popularity decade after decade.

Ojibwe Chief Buhkwujjenene is generally credited with telling ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft and his multiracial wife Jane Johnston the stories that would make their way into Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. The first section of the poem credits these tales to Schoolcraft — not Buhkwujjenene — under the authenticating Native name ‘Nawadaha.’ 

Buhkwujjenene also travelled to England to fundraise for the religious mission in his community at Garden River, Sault Ste. Marie, Canada. A devout convert to Christianity, Buhkwujjenene reportedly enjoyed his time in England, where he retold the story of his conversion and faith. He distributed photos, such as these, to audiences during his tour.

Together these photos ask: What messages could Buhkwujjenene’s styling have conveyed to Europeans? What do these two images show about perceptions of Native Americans and “authenticity” to viewers?

Rev. Edward Francis Wilson and Buhkwujjenene
Thomas Charles Turner
Carte de visite ca. 1872

Chippeway Chief, Buhkwujjenene
Thomas Charles Turner
Carte de visite ca. 1872

The Performances

At the turn of the century, the Grand Rapids Railway brought a steady stream of tourists into the Petoskey region of Michigan and took over the production of the Hiawatha pageants.

Hiawatha playbill. 
Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad

The railway published this playbill in 1912, featuring the photographs of Grace Chandler Horn. As this example shows, the playbill integrates her photographs with the text, referencing the performances and making the poem more engaging for readers of all ages.

Much like Wild West Shows, these pageants presented a rare opportunity for Native persons to earn money while engaging with their cultures. Actors were encouraged to perform in their native language to increase “authenticity,’” an irony at a time in which many government policies were actively suppressing the same languages. 

Eventually, some Odawa tribes reclaimed the pageants for tourism revenue and out of a pride in the new tradition of performance. However, pageants also continued within non-Native communities with many, if not all, of the Native roles played by non-Natives in redface. Performances of the poem in the midwest lasted well into the 2000s.

Grace Chandler Horn’s photographs of the local Hiawatha pageants were offered for sale in her photography shop in Petoskey. In keeping with expectations of what “authentic” Indians were widely believed to be, eagle feather headdresses of tribes from the Great Plains were mixed with local buckskins and bead-work.

This photograph shows a dramatization of first contact between the Natives and a European missionary.

Hiawatha Pageant – First Contact
Grace Chandler Horn
Photographic postcard, ca. 1920
David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography

Explore the Exhibit

Select any one of the following options to begin exploring the exhibit, or navigate with the Table of Contents to the left. The sections can be approached in any order.