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Photo of play held by Ketegaunseebee Anishinaabe tribe dramatizing famous play for the benefit of tourists traveling on CPR railway.
Desbarats is located east of Sault Ste. Marie, in channel between Lake Superior and Lake Huron.
‘Drama of Hiawatha, 1901. Last Scene in Departure of Hiawatha, Desbarats, Ont. On Line of Canadian Pacific Ry.
#215 of series. International Post Card Co., Montreal. Printed in Germany
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a rise in public performances by Native American writers and activists. From performance poetry to oratory to historical pageants, dramatic texts offered unique political and cultural possibilities for Native artists in what has been referred to as the “era of assimilation.” Among these performances were dramatic interpretations of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha by Ketegaunseebee Anishinaabe actors from the Garden River First Nation in Ontario. These pageants, designed for non-Native tourists on the railways and steamships traveling through the Great Lakes region, were performed every summer for decades beginning in 1899. While Longfellow’s poem itself seems antithetical to a vibrant Native presence, and the participation in its dramatization by Native actors may make them appear as unsophisticated pawns in Euro-Western literary nation-building, the Anishinaabe Hiawatha demonstrates how tribal communities transformed the stage into a site of political possibility left unrealized on the printed page. Moving beyond the script to study the entire constellation of performance—including the oral traditions at the heart of the plot, the set design, and the economic networks that sprang up around the performances—this essay reveals how the Ketegaunseebee Anishinaabe used the pageant to claim the US-Canada borderlands as Native space and pass on vital cultural knowledge to the next generation. Moreover, it challenges scholars of Native literature to read beyond the written archive to deepen our understanding of creative resistance to settler colonialism at the turn of the twentieth century.