I hold a grudge for a long time. For example, I have never forgiven Major League Baseball for the players’ strike of the 1990s. So, when Robbie Robertson left the Band—that quirky and marvelous rock ensemble who once backed Bob Dylan and reminded me of old men jamming on a porch during the Civil War—I was prepared to give him my best cold shoulder, too.
Then, he released an album called Contact from the Underworld of Red Boy in 1998. It was not the kind of album that garnered critical acclaim since it utilized traditional native singers, imprisoned activist, Leonard Peltier, electronica soundscapes, and noir-ish narratives. However, it featured a song called “Stomp Dance (Unity)” that Robertson went on to perform at the 2002 Winter Olympics with Walela(Rita Coolidge’s family of Cherokee singers) and a cast of hundreds of native dancers representing most of the 500 Nations of North America. If you want me in your corner again, just welcome the world to the Olympics by chanting, “this is Indian country, this is Indian country.”
So, what is the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer up to these days? He has written a stunning children’s book, Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, from Abrams Books, illustrated with oil paintings by Caldecott Honor Winner, David Shannon. As a child of Mohawk and Cayuga descent, Robertson learned the story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker with his family on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reservation. In the “Author’s Note” section at the end of the book, Robertson describes the thrill of hearing the story from a tribal elder on one of their many visits to the reservation. He also shares his confusion when later in school he encounters Longfellow’s poem about Hiawatha. “I think I was the only one in the class who knew that Longfellow got Hiawatha mixed up with some other Indian. I knew his poem was not about the real Hiawatha, whom I had learned about years ago, that day in the longhouse,” says Robertson
The book begins with the horror of a burned village, screams, and the realization that Hiawatha’s whole family has been killed by Chief Tadodaho’s raids. Bitter and alone, Hiawatha plots his revenge. Then a stranger comes in a white stone canoe. Since the stranger seems to have a speech impediment, Hiawatha agrees to help this Peacemaker carry his message of the Great Law to the land of the Mohawk. As the story unfolds, Hiawatha mouths the Peacemaker’s message to the Mohawk, transmitted through him by some kind of spiritual power, that “All nations will become one family.” The clan mothers agree.
As they move on toward the Cayuga people the Peacemaker tries to convince Hiawatha that he will be healed by the power of forgiveness. But when Hiawatha sees the devastation caused by Tadodaho’s latest attack, Hiawatha remains bitter. The plot continues with Hiawatha and the Peacemaker visiting every tribe, delivering their message, and each time gaining more support for the idea of peace. if you know the history of the Cayugas, the Senecas, the Oneidas, the Mohawks, and the Onondagas, you know that they formed one of the oldest democracies on earth, influencing the likes of Ben Franklin, John Hancock, and Thomas Jefferson. Later, the Tuscarora joined them, forming the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy.
The events of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker amplify this factual story with the conflicts between individuals like Hiawatha and Tadodaho who are also on inner quests for redemption. I thoroughly enjoyed the rhythmic nature of Robertson’s story telling rendered in Shannon’s beautiful paintings.
Robertson includes a one-song CD with Hiawatha and the Peacemaker that could be used to sum up the story for young readers or to invite further discussion of the book’s themes of cooperation, forgiveness, and peace. I just enjoyed listening to Robertson’s song craft again, which now includes distinctive elements of both the Band and Redboy.
You can find a link to Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson and David Shannon at WVXU.org