Last Saturday night, a crowd of hundreds sat in folding chairs on the shore of a small lake in Pipestone, a southwestern Minnesota town named for a nearby redstone quarry that for centuries has yielded prime pipe-making material for a number of Native tribes. As the sun set behind the trees, the lake reflected the images of a dozen white teepees on the opposite shore. My girlfriend and I settled into our assigned seats beside a woman from a neighboring town who shared her acrylic blanket with us as the evening chill set in. Emma and I were there to see the Song of Hiawatha Pageant for the first time, while the woman beside us was returning for her second show—her previous viewing having taken place during the Carter Administration. An announcer welcomed us all to the pageant, extending a particular greeting to a number of “special visitors”: a Boy Scout troop, two visitors from Germany, a busload from Bloomington. We applauded as the spotlight was turned on each group in turn. Then the spotlights swung to the lakeshore, where the gentle Nokomis was seen cradling her infant grandson Hiawatha. Thus began one of just five remaining performances of a small-town spectacular that is about to close after 60 summers.
You can maintain it, but you couldn’t build a new one. It’s a common saying in classic-car circles, but it also applies to the Song of Hiawatha Pageant. The Hiawatha Club of Pipestone has staged the sweeping historical drama several times each summer since 1948, with Pipestone residents donning bright costumes and enacting an adaptation of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic Song of Hiawatha.
Performances of the pageant begin at dusk. The show unfolds to a recorded soundtrack featuring a deep-voiced narrator intoning passages from the poem over the swells of a canned orchestra. As the sun disappears behind the trees, spotlights follow Hiawatha back and forth across the lakeshore. He hunts wild game (producing a deer corpse prop from the bushes), battles fire-breathing serpents (amidst great quantities of dry ice), assaults his faithless father with a hail of (hollow) boulders, tosses the trickster Pau-Puk-Keewis off a cliff into the lake (longtime cast member Dennis Hansen has hit the water over a hundred times), and canoes over to the Dakotas (“the land of handsome women,” we are twice reminded) to woo the lovely Minnehaha.
The Song of Hiawatha Pageant has been preserved nearly unchanged as a beloved local tradition, a living time capsule of a bygone era. The heyday of the civic pageant is now long gone, as is the time when it would occur to anyone that it would be a great idea to dress several dozen European-Americans in headdresses and enact a Native American legend as told by a white New Englander.
Even if the pageant’s view of Native American life is in some ways hoary and Eurocentric—the end of the show features the arrival of a missionary priest whose Gospel preaching is seen to be received sympathetically if not immediately embraced—it was a progressive impulse to mount such a sympathetic account of Native lore in the 1940s, when memories of bloody conflicts were still painfully fresh in the minds of southern Minnesota communities and when insultingly stereotypical “cowboy and Indian” entertainments were common. Over the years a number of Native performers have appeared in the Pipestone pageant—including Peoria tribe member Bea Burns, the pageant’s first Nokomis, who led a local group of Native schoolchildren in a dramatization of the poem years before the official pageant debuted.
Though changing attitudes have doubtless affected pageant attendance, the most significant reason for the pageant’s impending demise involves simple demographics. The population of Pipestone is 4,156—and declining. It takes an extraordinary civic commitment for a community of that size to mount an annual pageant with a cast of 125; as attendance has slipped and echoes of the pageant’s glory years have faded, pressure on the Hiawatha Club’s stalwarts has mounted. “You have the same few people that do it every year,” stage director Gary Olsen told journalist Chantelle Pritchett. “It’s really demanding.”
The pageant’s departure leaves in question the future status of the 40-acre pageant grounds, which over the decades have sprouted multiple buildings (souvenir stand, spotlight rigging, bathrooms) and a grand arch marking the grounds’ entrance. 30-year Hiawatha Club member Mick Myers insists that whatever happens, the club will not allow the land to be developed for commercial or residential use. “It will always be used for pageant or park-like grounds,” he told Pritchett.
The remaining four performances of the pageant will take place over the next two weekends. After August 2, the hundreds who have participated in the pageant’s production and the thousands who have sat in the audience will be left with memories, props, and souvenirs such as the official pageant program, which I purchased for three dollars. The program includes photos, a pageant history, recipes for adobe bread and stewed wild rabbit, and the sheet music for the pageant’s theme song “Minnehaha, Laughing Water”—written in 1953 by “enthralled” pageant-goer Edith Gilmour of Mitchell, South Dakota.
In the key of F: You will be my only starlight, shall be my moon and firelight too / Be my love, my Minnehaha / My heart is calling you.