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Mary Austin’s Review of Longfellow’s Poem “Hiawatha”

By Mary Austin

The performance of Hiawatha by the young people of the Santa Fe Indian School, on Thursday the twelfth of June, was the sort of public service that one wishes could be expected oftener from  the Indian Schools throughout the country. It was regrettable, of course, that Indians in the Southwest, whose own history and mythology is so full of the dramatic and beautiful, should be obliged to seek expression in an Ojibway story. It is all the more to the credit of the performers, as it is an evidence of the essential unity of Indian life and feeling, that they succeeded so well with it.

That they had succeeded was fully demonstrated by the end of the second scene. Throughout the entire evening they had the audience with them, and sent them away full of the enthusiasm which always wakes in an American audience over the discovery of a new field of esthetic enjoyment. Almost no one was heard to praise the performers without adding something of the expectation aroused of future development of the dramatic art among our Indian young people.

The version of Longfellow's epic which was given Thursday night was the one prepared by the teachers of the Academic Department of the School.

Scenes were arranged in natural sequence, introduced by a Narrator, between acts, or series of scenes, covering related incidents. The part of Narrator was taken by Eva Lujan of Taos Pueblo, the lines being delivered with charming grace and inflection.

Hiawatha, the child, was played by Santiago Crespin. and Hiawatha, the man, by Manuel Trujillo without creating in the audience any sense of dislocation, so easily did both actors enter into the spirit of the part. Crespin and Trujillo had both the appearance and the dramatic ability to have pleased any playgoer but the best part of his acting was the revelation of simplicity and sincerity in Indian character which he managed to convey to his audience. One could not but feel that friends of the Indian had overlooked a great advantage in not encouraging the Indian long ago to express himself in his native medium of dance drama.

What was remarkable about all the acting was its genuineness, and its absence of awkward self consciousness in the scenes which ordinarily would have been called sentimental, but became delightfully human and endearing as they were played by the young people from the pueblos. Recalling as I do the attempt, and its final futility, to put something of the same spirit into my "Arrow Maker." even with the most noted of New York actors and all the resources of a millionaire theatre at my command, I sat in my seat watching Hiawatha and blushed for the American player's art at its most sophisticated.

Nothing could have been more delicately amusing than the courtship of Hiawatha and Laughing Water, (played by Tonita Duran).

The scene in which Hiawatha visits his father Mudjekewis, the West Wind, played by Guadalupe Fragua, would have done better I am sure if the Indians had been allowed their own interpretation of it. Longfellow himself was somewhat to blame here for his concept of the Nature god was inadequate, and the scene was cut more than necessary. I should have liked better to have seen Mudjekewis played with a mask after the fashion of the Cachinas, and the other Southwest gods of the Hidden Faces.

The character of Nokomis as interpreted by Isabel Montoya was a motherly quiet sort such as one may see today in the plaza of any Pueblo, while Carl Nickel as the Arrow Maker, Emiliano Archuleta as the Sweet Singer and as Iagoo the Boaster, were adequately rendered. But it was by the dancing that the audience was completely captured.

The audience was accustomed to Indian dancing, scarcely a member of it but had seen enough to make him a fair judge of dancing as a performance, but I have not heard anyone say that at any dance of adult Indians given with a serious purpose, had they witnessed anything more graceful and expressive, The Peace dance was new to me, and probably to most of the onlookers, therefore a line introduced into the dialogue explaining the rather curious regalia would have been appreciated. As dancing it reminded one of nothing so much as certain archaic figures of the young Initiates as one finds them on Greek tablets and vases. There was the same half crouching attitude, the movement contained and vigorous, and yet entirely free.

The music of the songs was presumably that prepared for the original performance of the play on the Ojibway reservation, but it is greatly to be regretted that here again the young players were not permitted the use of their own melodies. The songs were written in the White Man's scale instead of the native Indian intervals which are the same either in Ojibway or Tewa. The voices were pleasing, but with the exception of the Firefly song of the little Hiawatha, one was conscious always of the alien musical notation. It is to be hoped that when the play is given again, and it should be given again in some place with larger opportunities and larger audience, that this will he remedied along with certain un-Indian and conventional "elocutionary" gestures into which the players fell from time to time.

The costumes were surprisingly correct, considering how far removed we are from the Ojibway country. The introduction of the black note of the Priest's robe in the last scene, in which Jose Bernal as the first of the Catholic Missionaries appeared to take the place of the departing Hiawatha, was exceedingly effective, much more so than the highly colored costumes of the French or Spanish explorers of that period would have been, to give the needed solemnity to the climax of the play without introducing a single modern incongruity. Altogether the performance was a credit to the School and the teachers, and a promise of better things for the future.