Memories of Minnehaha and her Morley connection
COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
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:
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:
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:
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