Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Wayward as the Minnehaha

I look out at Minnehaha Creek, as it flows unstoppably towards Minnehaha Falls, and I remember Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha, a tattered copy of which I have from my mother's childhood.

Homeward now went Hiawatha;
Pleasant was the landscape round him,
Pleasant was the air above him,
For the bitterness of anger
Had departed wholly from him,
From his brain the thought of vengeance,
From his heart the burning fever.

Only once his pace he slackened,
Only once he paused or halted,
Paused to purchase heads of arrows
Of the ancient Arrow-maker,
In the land of the Dacotahs,
Where the Falls of Minnehaha
Flash and gleam among the oak-trees,
Laugh and leap into the valley.

There the ancient Arrow-maker
Made his arrow-heads of sandstone,
Arrow-heads of chalcedony,
Arrow-heads of flint and jasper,
Smoothed and sharpened at the edges,
Hard and polished, keen and costly.

With him dwelt his dark-eyed daughter,
Wayward as the Minnehaha,
With her moods of shade and sunshine,
Eyes that smiled and frowned alternate,
Feet as rapid as the river,
Tresses flowing like the water,
And as musical a laughter:
And he named her from the river,
From the water-fall he named her,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water.

Was it then for heads of arrows,
Arrow-heads of chalcedony,
Arrow-heads of flint and jasper,
That my Hiawatha halted
In the land of the Dacotahs?

Was it not to see the maiden,
See the face of Laughing Water
Peeping from behind the curtain,
Hear the rustling of her garments
From behind the waving curtain,
As one sees the Minnehaha
Gleaming, glancing through the branches,
As one hears the Laughing Water
From behind its screen of branches?

Who shall say what thoughts and visions
Fill the fiery brains of young men?
Who shall say what dreams of beauty
Filled the heart of Hiawatha?
All he told to old Nokomis,
When he reached the lodge at sunset,
Was the meeting with his father,
Was his fight with Mudjekeewis;
Not a word he said of arrows,
Not a word of Laughing Water.

How many of you know that the name Minneapolis comes from Minnehaha? We are the city of Minnehaha. I remember reading an article in the vaults of the Minnesota Historical Society which described the naming of the city. There was a Bowman involved (no relation). Originally the name was to be Minnehapolis, combining the word "minnehaha" meaning river-falls with the Greek word "polis" meaning city. The letter 'h' was dropped as the pronunciation proved awkward. In its founding, the waterfalls of the area lent themselves to an economy centered on mills, first used for cutting lumber, and later for the grinding of flour. Unfortunately even the Minnesota Historical Society in some, not all, of its publications makes the error of forgetting the significance of the letter 'a', behind which are the falls.

How many of you know that the very word "caucus" is an American Indian word? Jack Weatherford, professor at Macalaster College just across the Mississippi, has written the book Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World, which chronicles a number of important contributions for which we should all be grateful. We owe important principles in our own Constitution to the Iroquois League, principles that set our Constitution apart from those of the rest of the world, particularly our federalism and our civility in Congress. Let us not forget.

Behind the fictional Hiawatha of Longfellow stood a historic figure (perhaps legendary) named Aiowantha. Aiowantha was said to be inspired by Deganawidah, who said,
When you administer the Law, your skins must be seven thumbs thick. Then the magic darts of your enemies will not penetrate, even if they prod you with their points.

This is to be of strong mind, O chiefs: Carry no anger and hold no grudges. Think not forever of yourselves, O chiefs, nor of your own generation. Think of continuing generations of our families, think of our grandchildren and of those yet unborn, whose faces are coming from beneath the ground.
Paul A. W. Wallace (1986) White Roots of Peace, p. 40.
Now available in a 2nd edition - White Roots of Peace: The Iroquois Book of Life.

For those interested in more of the history,
Although some twentieth-century anthropologists maintain that the Iroquois League was only fully formed after Europeans made landfall in North America, the historical records of Europeans such as Colden contained no hint that the Confederacy was in formation at that time. The consensus of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers, who saw the Confederacy in its full flower, was that it had formed sometime before colonization. The oral history of the Iroquois indicated a founding date somewhere between A.D. 1000 and 1450. ...

According to Iroquois oral history, the Confederacy was formed by the Huran prophet Deganawidah (called "the Peacemaker" in oral discourse), who, because he stuttered so badly he could hardly speak, decided to enlist the aid of Aiowantha (sometimes called Hiawatha) in order to spread his vision of a united Haudenosaunee confederacy....

Peace among the formerly antagonistic nations was procured and maintained through the Haudenosaunee's Great Law of Peace {Kaianerekowa}, which was passed from generation to generation by the use of wampum, a form of written communication that outlined a complex system of checks and balances between nations and sexes. Although a complete oral recitation of the Great Law can take several days, encapsulated versions of it have been translated into English for more than a hundred years and provide one reason why the Iroquois are cited so often today in debates regarding the origins of fundamental law in the United States. While many other native confederacies existed along the borders of the british colonies, most records of the specific provisions of their governments have been lost.

... The primary national symbol of the Haudenosaunee was the Great White Pine, which served throughout the Great Law as a metaphor for the Confederacy. Its branches sheltered the people of the Five Nations, and its roots spread to the four directions, inviting other peoples, regardless of race or nationality, to take refuge under the tree....
Donald A. Grinde, Jr., and Bruce E. Johansen (1991) Examplar of Liberty, pp. 22-24.

Just to show how timeless certain issues can be,
The Great Law stipulated that sachems' skins must be seven spans thick, so that they would be able to withstand the criticism of their constitutents. The law pointed out that sachems should take pains not to become angry when people scrutinized their conduct in govermental affairs. Such a point of view pervades the writings of Jefferson and Franklin, although it was not fully codified into United States law until the Supreme Court decision New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), which made it virtually impossible for public officials to sue for libel.

The Great Law also included provisions guaranteeing freedom of religion and the right of redress before the Grand Council. It even forbade unauthorized entry into homes—measures which sound familiar to United States citizens through the Bill of Rights.
Exemplar of Liberty, pp. 24-27

Grinde and Johansen go on to write,
... [T]he Constitution was toasted in 1790 by John Jay, Jefferson, and others as "our tree of peace," which sheltered them "with its branches of union" (see New York Journal, 10 August 1790).
Exemplar of Liberty, p. 307
Attend the caucus. Support Ron Paul in his bid for the presidency and his message, our message, the American message of rights. Network.

Update (Jul 25, 2008): For more on the naming of Minneapolis, see -

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