Reminiscences on the Hiawatha Pageant of Pipestone, Minnesota

by on October 11th, 2010
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The Hiawatha Pageant portrays scenes from “The Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This work is a narrative poem, according to the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature and other sources. I personally think that it deserves to be called an epic.

The poem was inspired by a historical Indian chief who lived in the eastern United States, but Longfellow shifted the scene of the story to the shores of Gitche Gumee, or Lake Superior. Here Hiawatha grew up under the care of his grandmother Nokomis. A high point in his life was his marriage to Minnehaha. After many experiences, his wife’s death prompted him to leave his people and follow his beloved wife to the Islands of the Blessed. Before he goes, he provides hospitality for a group of white men led by a priest and urges his people to accept the message that the strangers are about to offer them.

When I was living in southwestern Minnesota, a dramatic presentation of the Hiawatha story was enacted every year in Pipestone, Minnesota. Pipestone is a long way from Lake Superior. It is in the southwestern section of the state near the South Dakota border. However, it is a logical place to hold such a pageant because of the nearby quarry of a rock named pipestone. In “The Song of Hiawatha,” the warring Indian tribes gather at this quarry at the summons of Gitche Manitou, an Indian divinity. At his command, they wash off their war paint, break off chunks of pipestone rock, make peace pipes, and smoke them together.

In a museum associated with the pageant, it was explained that this pipestone mineral is called catlinite after George Catlin, who painted many pictures featuring Native Americans, including the pipestone quarry. This mineral possesses admirable qualities. When quarried, it is soft and easily carved. However, it soon hardens, so that if a pipe is finished while the material is still soft, it will make a durable pipe.

The pageant takes place in a rural area by a small lake. The audience sat a ways back on one side of the lake, and the wigwam of Nokomis and other scenery were on the other side. I attended three times, always coming early to get a good seat. The action began when it grew dark.

Nights in rural Minnesota are normally infested with mosquitoes, but they did not cause trouble during the play. Since there were a multitude of people swatting them, they soon disappeared from the scene.

The pageant quoted Longfellow’s poetry at length. Of course, they did not declaim the entire poem, but the presentation included all the important action in the plot. Thanks to a loudspeaker, good enunciation, and good acoustics, the audience had no trouble hearing the words. I never sat in the back seats, but I am confident that they also could hear the presentation.

The pageant employed light effectively. For example, when Gitche Manitou appeared on the scene, a light suddenly flashed on him with a puff as soon as his name was spoken over the loudspeaker. The impressiveness of the scene was enhanced by the fact that he appeared standing at an elevation considerably higher than the surface of the lake. The light generally focused on a specific area of interest rather than lighting up the entire scene. For example, it focused on Hiawatha and his father the West Wind when they were fighting with one another. (The West Wind had seduced and abandoned the mother of Hiawatha, so Hiawatha blamed the West Wind for his mother’s death. The fight ended amicably when the West Wind informed Hiawatha that it was impossible to kill an immortal. In this fight, the West Wind was testing the valor of Hiawatha.)

Most of the costumes were traditional Indian apparel, including the clothes of Gitche Manitou and the West Wind. However, there were exceptions. For example, when Minnehaha was about to die, Famine and Fever appeared on the scene. If their clothing had been darker, they would have made good Halloween customs. One of them was green. I am tempted to say that the other was red, but I cannot remember for sure.

The lake was functional in the drama. In the final scene, a boat with a man standing in it glided across the lake. He was dressed in the garb of a priest and was holding a cross. At least, I think that I remember him holding it up in the air. Longfellow says that the cross was on his chest. This of course indicated the coming of Christianity.

When I had the opportunity to access the internet, I checked around to see if the Pipestone Pageant was still being performed. Sad to say, it was discontinued a few years ago. The last performance occurred in the summer of 2008.

This makes the title of this article all the more appropriate. The pageant was only a memory for me, since I now live too far away to see it again. Now, since it has been discontinued, live performances of the Hiawatha Pageant are only a memory to everyone else also.

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