Memories of Minnehaha and her Morley connection

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 27, 2008

From Lake Okanagan to the shores of Gitche Gumee comes an intriguing – and very timely – response to my Jan. 30 column on English place names related to the Nakoda (Stoney) language spoken at Morley.

Westbank, B.C., coffee companion Angus McNee wrote:

“Warren, that was a very good lesson in linguistics. But you didn't mention Minnehaha. When I was young, that Sioux word from Longfellow's Hiawatha always made me smile. It was years later that I learned its meaning.”

Angus is referring, of course, to the 19th-century writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s greatest poem, The Song of Hiawatha. In celebration of Longfellow’s 201st birthday – he was born on Feb. 27, 1807 – we’ll revisit Minnehaha and her links to Morley.

The poem’s most famous lines point to the birthplace of Hiawatha, its First Nations hero:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.

The setting is the land of the “Ojibways” and the “Dacotahs” from the Great Lakes to the Prairies. As a young man, Hiawatha, an Ojibwa, is smitten with love for Minnehaha, “Laughing Water,” a maiden of the Dakota Sioux.

Her name is where we find the connection with the Nakoda (Stoney) language, one of the “N-dialects” of the great Sioux language family, so called because of the characteristic “n” that distinguishes it from the “D” and “L” dialects in cognate words, such as “Nakoda,” “Lakota” and “Dakota.”

Minnehaha, if written in the Nakoda dialect spoken at Morley, would be mînî îrharha. Translated literally, this means “water laughing,” and therefore her name, Laughing Water. (The circumflex over the vowels indicates nasalization. The letters rh in the second word represent a guttural-h sound not present in English.)

As the story develops (Chapter 10: Hiawatha’s Wooing), Hiawatha has become smitten with Minnehaha and says to himself:

"As unto the bow the cord is,
So unto the man is woman;
Though she bends him, she obeys him,
Though she draws him, yet she follows;
Useless each without the other!"

     Thus the youthful Hiawatha
Said within himself and pondered,

Much perplexed by various feelings,
Listless, longing, hoping, fearing,
Dreaming still of Minnehaha,
Of the lovely Laughing Water,
In the land of the Dacotahs.

Against his mother’s advice to take a woman from among his own Ojibwa people, Hiawatha makes the journey to the Dakota, where, within the sound of the waterfalls from which Minnehaha takes her name, he approaches her arrow-maker father and says:

     "After many years of warfare,
Many years of strife and bloodshed,
There is peace between the Ojibways
And the tribe of the Dacotahs."

Thus continued Hiawatha,
And then added, speaking slowly,
"That this peace may last forever,
And our hands be clasped more closely,
And our hearts be more united,
Give me as my wife this maiden,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water,
Loveliest of Dacotah women!"

     And the ancient Arrow-maker
Paused a moment ere he answered,
Smoked a little while in silence,
Looked at Hiawatha proudly,
Fondly looked at Laughing Water,
And made answer very gravely:
"Yes, if Minnehaha wishes;
Let your heart speak, Minnehaha!"

     And the lovely Laughing Water
Seemed more lovely as she stood there,
Neither willing nor reluctant,
As she went to Hiawatha,
Softly took the seat beside him,
While she said, and blushed to say it,
"I will follow you, my husband!"

     This was Hiawatha's wooing!
Thus it was he won the daughter
Of the ancient Arrow-maker,
In the land of the Dacotahs!

Thanks, Angus, for reminding us of this beautiful moment and its association with the rich heritiage of the Nakoda community at Morley. And happy birthday to you, poet Longfellow; thanks for sharing the story.

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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