Henry Rowe Schoolcraft had a lot to be proud of, no question. With little formal schooling, he picked up the family glasswork business and even published an academic paper on it. On the side, he studied mineralogy under the private instruction of a local professor, who praised his scientific aptitude. When his glass business went bankrupt, he headed west and joined another Easterner in testing the Missouri territory for mining potential. This won him a gig on the Cass Expedition, exploring the wild and mysterious Upper Peninsula.
At this point, Schoolcraft developed a hubristic side gig in ethnography. He began publishing accounts of the Superior region’s native language and lore. Despite being full of factual errors, these books established him an expert, and he was appointed as a federal “Indian agent.” Tasked with advancing the United States’ appropriative interest in the Michigan territory, Schoolcraft continued publishing books on Ojibwe culture, all riddled with half truths and invented names.
At that time, most of America was adjusting to rapid urban industrialization. This change fomented an obsession with all things “Indian.” People in cities longed to see their country the way its native inhabitants saw it. (Just not with those natives anywhere close by.) In the midst of the dirty, hectic city life that hadn’t yet delivered on its promise of the American dream, these imaginative glimpses of the wild, untamed wilderness made their country appear great in their eyes.
The most prominent author of that time, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wanted the same thing. European literature was full of epic poems based on ancient folklore and traditional rhyme schemes, and Longfellow felt America ought to have such a poem of its own. Schoolcraft’s work gave Longfellow all the raw material his poetic imagination needed to produce the story he wanted. Its hero was the kind of Indian that white America loved: romantic, noble, and about to canoe his way out of town.
When it was published in 1855, “The Song of Hiawatha” took the country by storm. Mothers named their children and ship-builders christened their vessels after the main character and his bride. In living rooms and town squares across the nation, amateur actors donned headdresses and fringed buckskin to recite the poem against a painted backdrop of wigwams and forest scenery.
Forty years later, actual anthropologists began to address the grammatical, geographic and factual errors in Schoolcraft’s and Longfellow’s publications. But the American public didn’t care that the “Song of Hiawatha” was a garbled mix of mythologies from many different tribes, nor that the places characterized as “Ojibway-land” were hundreds of miles apart. They didn’t care that the words and proper names were misspelled and mistranslated. They didn’t even care that Longfellow arbitrarily changed the main character’s name from the actual Ojibwe figure to one from Iroquois myth. (Hiawatha, he said, sounded more melodious than Manabozho.)
By the 20th century, the Upper Peninsula’s new managers were still capitalizing on the poem’s cachet. Many UP landmarks, such as Tahquamenon Falls, carry names that are, at best, a jumble of Ojibwe language fragments. People like me can spend hours researching the origins of these place names before we find out that they mean nothing. Nothing, that is, except the feeling they’ve come to embody for us.
That’s the weirdest part of all—that Longfellow, despite working from a faulty account of a place he never visited, somehow did imbue his poem with the magic and mystery of this place. And those qualities are linked to the names he gave it, and those names help outsiders (like me) feel magic and mystery where we might otherwise feel fear at this land’s vastness, its wildness, its otherness. We look at it and we imagine that we’re seeing exactly what the natives saw. But we can’t know for sure, because we don’t know them.