Hiawatha’s Childhood

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

‘Hiawatha’s Childhood’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow describes how the protagonist of ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ grew up and learned about his surroundings. It also focuses on the life of his grandmother.


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Nationality: American

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a famed poet and educator.

His poetry collections include Voices of the Night and Ballads and Other Poems.

This poem is only one small part of a much larger epic that is widely regarded as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's masterpiece.

‘Hiawatha’s Childhood’ is the third part of the long poem, ‘The Song of Hiawatha.’ This section is optimistic and more descriptive in nature. Nothing of too great importance happens, but Hiawatha does learn much of what shapes his worldview from his grandmother. 

Hiawatha's Childhood
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,By yhr shining Big-Sea-Water,Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.Dark behind it rose the forest,Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,Rose the firs with cones upon them;Bright before it beat the water,Beat the clear and sunny water,Beat the shingin Big-Set-Water. There the wrinkled old NokomisNursed the little Hiawatha,Rocked him in his linden cradle,Bedded soft in moss and rushes,Safely bound with reindeer sinews;Stilled his fretful wail by saying,"Hush, the Naked Bear will hear thee!"Lulled him into slumber, singing,"Ewa-yea! my little owlet!Who is this, that lights the wigwam?With his great eyes lights the wigwam?Ewa-yea! my little owlet!" Many things Nokomis taught himOf the stars that shin in heaven;Showed him Ishkoodah, the comet,Ishkoodah, with fiery tresses,Showed the Death-Dance of the spritits,Warriors with their plumes and war-clubs,Flaring far away to norhtwardIn the frosty nights ofwinder;Showed the borad white road in heaven,Pathway of the ghosts, the shadows,Running straight across the heavens,Crowded with the ghosts, the shadows. At the door on summer evenings,Sat the little Hiawatha,Heard the whispering of the pine-trees,Heard the lapping of the waters,Sounds of music, words of wonder;"Minne-wawa!" said the pine-trees,"Mudway-aushka!" said the water. Saw the fire-fly Wah-wah-taysee,Flitting through the dusk of evening,With the twinkle of its candleLighting up the brakes and bushes,And he sang the song of children,Sang the song Nokomis taught him:"Wah-wah-taysee, little fire-fly,Little flitting, white-fire insect,Little, dancing, white-fire creature,Light me with your little candle,Ere upon my bed I lay me,Ere in sleep I close my eyelids!" Saw the moon rise from the water,Rippling, rounding from the water,Saw the flecks and shadows on it,Whispered, "What is that, Nokomis?"And the good Nokomis answered:"Once a warrior, very angry,Seized his grandmother, and threw herUp into the sky at midnight;Right against the moon he threw her;'Tis her body that you see there." Saw the rainbow in the heaven,In the eastern sky the rainbow,Whispered, "What is that, Nokomis?"And the good Nokomis answered:"'Tis the heaven of flowers you see there;All the wild-flowers of the forest,All the lilies of the prairie,When on earth they fade and perish,Blossom in that heaven above us.', When he heard the owls at midnight,Hooting, laughing in the forest,"What is that?" he cried in terror;"What is that," he said, "Nokomis?"And the good Nokomis answered:"That is but the owl and owlet,Talking in their native language,Talking, scolding at each other." Then the little HiawathaLearned of every bird its language,Learned their names and all their secrets,How they built their nests in summer,Where they hid themselves in winter,Talked with them whene'er he met them,Called them "Hiawatha's Chickens." Of all beasts he learned the language,Learned their names and all their secrets,How the beavers built their lodges,Where the squirrels hid their acorns,How the reindeer ran so swiftly,Why the rabbit was so timid,Talked with them whene'er he met them,Called them "Hiawatha's Brothers."'
Hiawatha’s Childhood by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


‘Hiawatha’s Childhood’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow describes the first years in the life of Hiawatha. 

The poem begins with a description of Hiawatha’s grandmother and how she fell to earth from the moon. Throughout the rest of the poem, the poet describes how Hiawatha was raised, what he learned, and how he drew close to all the living creatures around him. He learned what to be frightened of and what not to be frightened of from his grandmother, as well as details regarding how all the creatures in his environment lived.

The Song of Hiawatha Context

This excerpt is part of the much longer poem, ‘The Song of Hiawatha.’ It follows the Native American protagonist from childhood into adulthood and through many challenges. He leads his people to prosperity, suffers losses (like his two best friends), and even loses his wife, Minnehaha, to fever. He has visions of white men arriving and teaching his people about Christianity; he then lives long enough to see this come true. At the end of the long poem, he travels away from the village, unsure if he’s ever going to return. 

Structure and Form 

‘Hiawatha’s Childhood’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is one section of the much longer ‘The Song of Hiawatha.’ This is the third part of the poem and contains eighty-six lines contained in one long stanza (known as block form). The poem is written in trochaic tetramer. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats, the first of which is stressed and the second of which is unstressed. 

Literary Devices 

In this poem, the poet makes use of a few literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Gitche Gumee” and “words of wonder.” 
  • Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “Rose” in lines six and seven. 
  • Epistrophe: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of multiple lines. For example, “water” in lines eight and nine. 

Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-15

By the shores of Gitche Gumee, 

By the shining Big-Sea-Water, 

Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, 

Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.

Dark behind it rose the forest,

Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,

Rose the firs with cones upon them;

Bright before it beat the water.

Beat the clear and sunny water,

Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

There the wrinkled old Nokomis

Nursed the little Hiawatha.

Rocked him in his linden cradle, 

Bedded soft in moss and rushes,

Safely bound with reindeer sinews;

In the first lines of this poem, the speaker describes the setting, using very clear examples of repetition that immediately imbue the poem with a steady forward rhythm. The poet wrote about the “shores of Gitche Gumee” (a reference to Lake Superior) and uses words like “Big-Sea-Water” (what the words “Gitche Gumee” loosely translate to) and “wigwam” (meaning a domed tent or hut).

The speaker begins by telling readers that long ago, a woman named Nokomis fell from the moon to earth. She gave birth to a daughter who later gave birth to Hiawatha, the hero of the story. Nokomis helped take care of him, rocking him in his cradle and ensuring he was safe. She also quieted him, as the next lines reveal. 

Lines 16-30

Stilled his fretful wail by saying,

“Hush, the Naked Bear will hear thee!”

Lulled him into slumber, singing,

“Ewa-yea! my little owlet!

Who is this, that lights the wigwam?

With his great eyes lights the wigwam?

Ewa-yea! my little owlet!”

Many things Nokomis taught him

Of the stars that shine in heaven:

Showed him Ishkoodah, the comet,

Ishkoodah, with fiery tresses,

Showed the Death-Dance of the spirits, 

Warriors with their plumes and war-clubs

Flaring far away to northward 

In the frosty nights of winter;

Hiawatha’s grandmother quieted him when he cried too loudly, warning him that the “Naked Bear” would hear him. She taught him about the legends of the Obejiwa people and cared for him. She explained why the stars shone in heaven and showed him a special comet, “Ishkoodah.” 

The poem moves from one topic to the next, generally outlining how much of what Hiawatha knew about the world and believed came from his grandmother. When he was young, he’d already seen images of warriors and legends. 

Lines 31-47 

Showed the broad white road in heaven, 

Pathway of the ghosts, the shadows, 

Running straight across the heavens,

Crowded with the ghosts, the shadows

At the door on summer evenings,

Sat the little Hiawatha,

Heard the whispering of the pine-trees,

Heard the lapping of the waters,

Sounds of music, words of wonder;

“Minne-wawa!” said the pine-trees,

“Mudway-aushka!” said the water.

Saw the fire-fly Wah-wah-taysee, 

Flitting through the dusk of evening,

With the twinkle of its candle 

Lighting up the brakes and bushes, 

And he sang the song of children, 

Sang the song Nokomis taught him;

Hiawatha learned about the “Pathway of the ghosts” in the heavens and learned to listen to the pine trees whispering. There was meaning in everything, these lines imply, and Hiawatha’s grandmother taught him how to interpret it. Each thing, like the water and the trees, says something different, like “Minne-wawa!” and “Mudway-aushka!”

The poet refers to the firefly as a “candle” that flits through the sky, resembling much of the magic that Hiawatha has already learned about. 

Lines 48-63

“Wah-wah-taysee, little fire-fly,

Little flitting, white-fire insect,

Little, dancing, white-fire creature,

Light me with your little candle,

Ere upon my bed I lay me, 

Ere in sleep I close my eyelids!”

Saw the moon rise from the water, 

Rippling, rounding from the water,

Saw the flecks and shadows on it,

Whispered, “What is that, Nokomis?” 

And good Nokomis answered:

“Once a warrior, very angry,

Seized his grandmother, and threw her

Up into the sky at midnight;

Right against the moon he threw her;

‘Tis her body that you see there.”

The next few lines also deal with the firefly, with Hiawatha considering the way it moves or dances (an example of personification) and how it is always there when he closes his eyes. 

The poet also uses a wonderful example of imagery to describe the way the moon seemed to rise “from the water” (likely Lake Superior). Hiawatha was incredibly observant and noticed the shapes in the moon that appeared to indicate outlines. His grandmother told him that this was the evidence of another myth

She describes how a warrior threw his grandmother, in anger, into the moon, and that was the result. It’s her “body that you see there,” she told him. Clearly, this is meant as a lesson regarding respecting one’s elders. The grandmother’s body, from the myth, is always there for everyone to see and remember. 

Lines 64-77

Saw the rainbow in the heaven,

In the eastern sky the rainbow,

Whispered, “What is that, Nokomis?” 

And the good Nokomis answered:

‘Tis the heaven of flowers you see there;

All the wild-flowers of the forest,

All the lilies of the prairie,

When on earth they fade and perish, 

Blossom in that heaven above us.”

When he heard the owls at midnight, 

Hooting, laughing in the forest,

“What is that?’ he cried in terror;

“What is that,” he said, “Nokomis?” 

And the good Nokomis answered;

In the next few lines, the poet writes about how Hiawatha learned about rainbows (they are “the heaven of flowers…All the wild-flowers of the forest) and the owls at night. They scared him at first, the speaker says, but Nokomis explains to him that the sound is only an owl talking in its native language. 

This section of the poem is a great example of the ups and downs that Hiawatha experienced as a child and how his grandmother was there, helping him understand everything about the world, from rainbows to owls. 

Lines 78-86

“That is but the owl and owlet, 

Talking in their native language, 

Talking, scolding at each other.”

Then the little Hiawatha

Learned their names and all their secrets,

How they built their nests in summer, 

Where they hid themselves in winter,

Talked with them whene’er he met them,

Called them “Hiawatha’s Chickens.” 

Hiawatha learned the names of all living creatures, like the owls he was once so afraid of in the night. He learned how they lived and where they “hid themselves in winter.” By learning so much about them, he felt closer to them and called them “Hiawatha’s Chickens.” He understood the natural world in the way he did because of what his grandmother taught him, the poet suggests. 

Lines 79-86

Of all beasts he learned the language,

Learned their names and all their secrets,

How the beavers built their lodges,

Where the squirrels hid their acorns,

How the reindeer ran so swiftly,

Why the rabbit was so timid,

Talked with them whene’er he met them,

Called them “Hiawatha’s Brothers.”

In the last few lines of this section, Hiawatha is described learning all the names of all the beasts and how/where they built their homes. He knew where the squirrels hid their acorns and how it was possible that the reindeer ran so quickly. By understanding them, he could draw closer to them. So much so that he referred to them as “brothers.” 


What happens in ‘Hiawatha’s Childhood?’

In ‘Hiawatha’s Childhood,’ the third part of ‘The Song of Hiawatha,’ the young Hiawatha is born, raised, and educated. He learns about the myths and legends of his people and about his environment. 

What is the metrical pattern of ‘Hiawatha’s Childhood?’

The metrical pattern of this poem is trochaic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed.

What is the purpose of ‘Hiawatha’s Childhood?’

‘Hiawatha’s Childhood’ is one section of ‘The Song of Hiawatha.’ It is the third part of the poem and details how Hiawatha was raised and educated by his grandmother.

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poems. For example: 

  • The Song of the Owl’ – describes the hooting of the great black owl. It taps into the themes of silence and darkness.
  • The Indian Hunter’ –  tells the story of land thefts and injustices for the Native American people.
  • A Day of Sunshine’ – uses imagery to celebrate nature. It reminds the reader to take advantage of these special moments when they come.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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