Song of Hiawatha (review)

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The Stuff That Myths Are Made Of

“Everybody knows Hiawatha, just nobody ever met him.” So says O Kagh (Graham Greene: Dances with Wolves), who’s guiding the French trapper Bertrand (Michael Rooker: The Bone Collector) and priest Marcel (David Strathairn: Simon Birch, Home for the Holidays) to a hoped-for meeting with the legendary Ojibway leader. It appears the same maxim will apply to Bertrand and Marcel as well, for the Ojibway people, happy as they are to tell tales of Hiawatha’s adventures, seem reluctant to produce him.
Based on the epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Song of Hiawatha (which debuted on the cable network Showtime on Thanksgiving Day and is also available on video) is a likable introduction to Native American history and legend. Some of its young, mostly Native American cast are a bit too modern in their demeanor and the delivery of their dialogue for this to be taken as a serious historical film, but Song is respectful — almost reverential — in its presentation of Native American religious beliefs and cultural attitudes, which isn’t something seen onscreen often enough.

Bertrand — hoping to trade guns and other European goods for furs — and Marcel — looking to bring his religion to the heathen savages — want to talk business with Hiawatha, chief of the Ojibway, but all they find are Nokomis (Sheila Tousey: Ravenous), Hiawatha’s grandmother — who raised him — and Iagoo (Gordon Tootoosis), who tutored the young Hiawatha in the ways of hunting and war. We watch in flashback as Nokomis and Iagoo share stories of Hiawatha’s youth and the exploits that raised him to almost mythical status.

“Favored by the spirits from the time he was a little boy,” Iagoo says, Hiawatha (the rap artist Litefoot, who’s just a bit Keanu-esque: cute, but not much of an actor) is actually the son of a god and a mortal woman, and when he learns the true story of his parents — how his father left his mother to die of a broken heart — Hiawatha vows to find his father and kill him. In the great heroic tradition of characters from Hercules to Luke Skywalker, Hiawatha journeys to the distant mountains to face his deity dad, who, after their battle, implores his demigod son to live a life worthy of the prize his father can bestow: immortality.

And so he does. Hiawatha becomes the youngest war chief of the Ojibway in a time of war between the Indian nations over ancient feuds. As all great heroes do, he gathers around him worthy companions: Chibiabos (Adam Beach: Mystery, Alaska), a Seneca poet and musician who’s always on the lookout for good stories; and the sharp-tongued but beautiful Minnehaha (Irene Bedard, who was the voice of, and obviously the visual inspiration for Pocahontas in Disney’s animated film), the “she-cat,” or so says Chibiabos, who will become Hiawatha’s wife. With their support, the young but wise warrior embarks on spiritual quests for the best ways to help his people in times of need — as when he discovers corn, in the midst of a famine, with the help of the spirit Mondamin (Peter Kelly Gaudreault) — and deals with treachery from within his own tribe. And when the evil Pearlfeather (Flint Eagle) threatens the Ojibway with a deadly sickness, Hiawatha and Chibiabos venture into the Black Swamp to face him (think Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor in Lord of the Rings).

When Marcel hears how Hiawatha held that “there is strength in peace” and tried to forge alliances between all the Indian nations, the priest begins to wonder whether the “heathens” he has come to save are already in good hands: A son of a god who preaches peace? Could Hiawatha be Jesus come again (nicely tying Christian mythology to those of other cultures, something else that is rarely done explicitly onscreen)? Bertrand is dismissive of the idea, seeing nothing wrong in both technological and cultural imperialism: He has guns and metal pots and knives to trade, and the Ojibway want them. Bertrand is oblivious, but Marcel seems to understand that Hiawatha’s ultimate refusal to meet with them is somehow representative of a native culture being pushed out by European encroachment.

A simple story simply told, the uncomplicated Song of Hiawatha may leave grownups a bit unsatisfied, but kids discovering Native American culture and those with a liking for tales of larger-than-life heroes will be enthralled. It’s also a great way to acquaint youngsters with literary conceits like the hero’s journey, and gosh, maybe even get them interested in reading some 19th-century poetry.

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