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In Pipestone, an era ends

After 60 years, town says goodbye to 'Song of Hiawatha' pageant.

Audience for Song of Hiawatha pageant from stage

© Beth Gauper

A crowd gathers to see Pipestone's "Song of Hiawatha'' pageant.

For at least half a century, white men in blackface have been considered tasteless. But white men in red face? They were part of a popular outdoor pageant that brought busloads of tourists to a small town in southwest Minnesota.

But "Song of Hiawatha'' was performed for the last time in 2008, not because locals considered it an anachronism, but because it was too much work.

"It's in the middle of summer, and it's gotten hard to find people willing to participate,'' said lifelong Pipestone resident Eugene Hanson. "I hate to see it go.''

The audience had fallen off, too. Many younger people never have heard of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and fewer still can appreciate an 1855 poem that's set to the meter of a Finnish epic, based on third-hand Ojibwe legends, filled with Christian imagery and bloated by Victorian romanticism.

The pipestone quarry of which Longfellow wrote is far from Ojibwe lands and the poet never visited, though he was invited repeatedly.

But never mind. Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha'' was good to Pipestone. Inspired by the poem, Iowa pharmacist Charles Bennett visited the quarry in 1873 and decided to found a town there.

Soon, an equally romantic young woman in New Hampshire heard about the new town and wrote asking for a piece of the soft red pipestone, which Bennett sent; they corresponded, married, then promoted Pipestone together.

"Good, bad or indifferent, this town became what it is because of Bennett,'' says Bud Johnston of Pipestone's Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers, which hosted a small powwow during the pageant and continues it on the last weekend in July. "The world wants to see it.''

The pageant first was performed through the 1930s by the graduating class of the Pipestone Indian Training School, one of the boarding schools to which children were sent to ''unlearn'' their own language and customs.

Starting in 1949, it was staged by townspeople, mostly white people in fringed buckskin and braided wigs, but a few of Dakota or Ojibwe descent.

For many years, the pageant brought 10,000 spectators to Pipestone over three summer weekends, and in 1997 was named one of the American Bus Association's Top 100 Events.

Held along the shore of a small pond, part of an old quartzite quarry, it was a spectacle, with colored lights playing among a row of white tepees, a cast of 200 and a voiceover provided by a man with the sonorous intonation of Rod Serling in "Twilight Zone.''

I went once and found it excruciating. I couldn't listen without envisioning the Yankee poet hunched over his desk in Boston, writing about "the mountains of the prairie'' and the "savage bosoms yearning for a good they comprehend not.''