The Little Laugh

Minnehaha Falls

When I see the word Minnehaha I always think of a little laugh. However, Minnehaha is the Dakota word for waterfall. After the publication of the epic poem The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1855, Minnehaha falls in Minneapolis, Minnesota, became a big tourist attraction. Longfellow never made the visit.  In the story, the warrior, Hiawatha, falls in love with a Dakota maiden.

From the water-fall he named her,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water

In the poem Minnehaha is translated as “Laughing Water”. This came from a translation by Mary Eastman in the book Dahcotah, which she published in 1849.

In 1889 the area around Minnehaha Falls became a Minneapolis City Park. A sculpture of Hiawatha carrying Minnehaha sits on a small island within the creek and bears the inscription “Over wide and rushing rivers In his arms he bore the maiden”.

The sculptor, Jacob Fjelde, was a Norwegian immigrant who settled in Minnesota around 1887. The sculpture was originally exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair Columbian Exposition in 1893. The Expo celebrated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the New World.

Longfellow’s poem is purely fictional. At the time it was published it was very popular, although there were also racist negative reviews,

As an Indian Saga, embalming pleasantly enough the
monstrous traditions of an uninteresting, and one may
almost say, a justly exterminated race, the Song of
“Hiawatha” is entitled to commendation…Hiawatha, we
feel, will never add to Mr Longfellow’s reputation as a
poet. It deals with a subject in which we of the present
day have little interest; a subject too, which will never
command any interest upon its own intrinsic merits.
These Indian legends…are too clumsy too monstrous,
too unnatural to be touched by the Poet.”

The New York Times, December 28, 1855

However, it endured to become a part of American culture spawning musical pieces, artists renderings, parodies, and Disney cartoons (like it or not).

Longfellow used the trochaic meter instead of the iambic that is more comfortable for English speakers. It has a rhythm that is more common in languages like Finnish. Apparently Longfellow thought this imitated the rhythms of the speech of the First Peoples. If you read it aloud or recite it, it can lull you into a meditative trance.

In Minneapolis you will find Minnehaha Falls, Minnehaha Park, Minnehaha Creek, Minnehaha Academy, Minnehaha Avenue and Hiawatha Avenue. And not far from Minnehaha Falls is Lake Nakomis, named after Hiawatha’s grandmother.

Minnehaha Park is on the National Register of Historic Places, meaning it is thought to be worthy of preservation. Whether you like the poem or not, it is a beautiful place to visit. Yesterday was our first hot day in Minnesota for a very long time. It seemed like everybody was out enjoying it. I managed to get a few good shots of the falls.

This is what it looks like in winter:

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