Administrative History
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The annual presentation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's classic poem, The Song of Hiawatha, as a dramatic performance has become an important link between Pipestone National Monument, the town of Pipestone, the surrounding region, and a public interested in history and culture. Each summer, the pageant recurred, bringing visitors, media attention, and a sense of vitality to the Pipestone area. The pageant provided a tremendous boost for the local economy. People from all over the northern plains attended, staying in town, spending money, and contributing to an enlivened cultural and economic environment. The park received thousands of extra visitors as a result of the pageant. But The Song of Hiawatha is a complicated endeavor that requires much cooperation and compromise and has entailed significant management issues.

The roots of the pageant predated the creation of the national monument. It was first performed during the 1930s by children from the Pipestone Indian School in an area to the east of Winnewissa Falls along Pipestone Creek. Mrs. Omar Rains, the wife of the principal of the Indian School who also taught in the school, served as director. The story was narrated by an older student, usually a ninth-grader, and to carry the storyline, the cast floated a crude raft down the creek when necessary. [1]

The first incarnation of the pageant was short-lived. After a few seasons of the performance, a drought dried up the creek. During World War II, the Indian School had no more resources than any other similar institution. The Rains family moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas, eliminating another catalyst for the performance, and as the Indian School became subject to closure after the Second World War, enthusiasm for the activity diminished. The pageant became a memory. [2]

But one local man carried the idea of the pageant onward. An avid reader of Longfellow since childhood, Robert S. Owens was determined to recreate the pageant. He selected a spot near the Three Maidens, purchased the land, and sought the support of his friends in the community. The founding of the local Exchange Club helped the project. It had been formed to promote the pageant. But national exchange clubs were dinner gatherings, a format that did not suit the needs of a community with a show to produce. The local club stopped having dinners, leading to a rift with the national organization. The local incarnation of the Exchange Club ceased to exist and was replaced by the Hiawatha Club, the sole purpose of which was to put on the pageant. [3]

The initial pageants were "weird," as Gilbert Backlund, who along with Lyle Linch was one of the first new members to join after the club was chartered, recalled. The stage was a narrow little strip in front of the Three Maidens. Owens remembered that the first show had "a basketful of mishaps." A narrative tape had been recorded in advance, and the day of the performance, Owens sat down to listen to it to make sure it would work. The tape was blank, necessitating a 45-mile drive to nearby Marshall to find another announcer. As Owens returned at the end of the day, storm clouds gathered to the west. On the night the show was set to debut, a cloudburst washed out the performance. [4]

Other problems were more mundane. At the beginning, there was no seating, and people brought their own blankets. The only place to spread them out was a long way from the stage. The audience used field glasses to see the activities. Many remembered the bugs as being awful, and insecticide became standard equipment. The first lighting came from car headlights. The crowds were small and mostly local, and the director rounded up people for the show. Often the audience consisted of family members and few others. At its beginning, the pageant was an amateur affair. [5]

Despite such travail, the pageant continued. Robert Owens and his wife, Mary, were instrumental in its growth, and the community rallied around the idea of the show. Many people contributed time and effort to keep the project going, and as in any similar production, the skills of nearly every professional and tradesperson in town were necessary. Newcomers also participated, as the pageant became a way to become part of the community. One such person was Kay Gillott, who with her husband, Chet, came to Pipestone during the first summer of the pageant. Gillott had been a teacher in Minneapolis and had an interest in poetry and literature. She was also close to the literary and theater communities in the state and became a valuable resource. Her contribution became evident the second summer, when she directed the pageant. [6]

Initially, the Park Service paid little attention to the pageant. Despite the involvement of Linch, NPS officials regarded the pageant as a largely local event. Linch's participation may have inspired more worry than confidence. By 1950, the regional office was well aware of his idiosyncratic sense of significance. Many regarded the pageant as a "stunt out of keeping" with agency objectives for the monument. In the first years of the pageant, no regional office personnel attended, prompting at least one typical outburst from Linch. "I was bitterly disappointed that even the added inducement of the unique and classic 'Song of Hiawatha' pageant failed to attract any of our supervisory superiors," he wrote with great sarcasm in the summer of 1950. "I strongly feel that the pageant is destined to be a rapidly growing Siamese twin attraction for this great grain basket area." [7]

In this respect, Linch was correct. During the following decade, tremendous growth in the pageant and its facilities occurred. In 1952, Philip J. Smith of the drama department at the University of Minnesota became director of the pageant. He was charged with making the performance professional. Smith retained the vocal solos by local performers and the gestures, pronunciations, and voice inflection taught to the performers by Charles Morrison, a teacher at the Indian School, but reshaped the rest of the program. He used music departments at universities to assist in finding appropriate music, selected the best voices among his students as narrators, coached local performers, and improved the staging. Although he stayed only two years, Smith helped shape the pageant into something more than a local event. [8]

Professionalization helped make the popularity of the pageant grow. Other faculty members followed Smith, and the pageant became a regional theater kind of performance. By the late 1950s, the club had more than $20,000 invested in a range of equipment and capital facilities. Bleachers and opera-style seating had been constructed, as had light towers and a building with communications equipment to run the show. In a decade, the pageant had become an important institution. [9]

Yet the pageant reflected only some aspects of the mythic past. Although the pageant and the poem on which it was based presented a positive if romanticized view of Native Americans, few of the participants in its activities were Indian. A number of people with close ties to the park and the town, most notably Bea Burns and George and Winona Bryan, were involved, but generally, area Native Americans avoided the pageant. The heritage they saw presented seemed foreign to their experience. [10]

Leaders of the pageant made some attempts to include more Indians in the pageant. In the early 1960s, club members drove to Nebraska to hire Native Americans to participate in the pageant. The Indians danced in costume at the festivities in what some remembered as a caricature of their traditions. But the lack of Indian participation remained notable. It was as if local Native Americans sought to demonstrate their discomfort by refusing to participate. [11]

During the 1950s and 1960s, the pageant had grown into a regional tradition that the Park Service had come to enthusiastically support. Linch's sarcasm piqued the interest of the regional office, and some from the staff visited the pageant. Regional Historian Merrill J. Mattes was the first; on his initial trip in 1952, he was "agreeably surprised." The pageant was far more professional than he anticipated. Throughout the 1950s, Pipestone remained an outpost in the park system, and with its new visitor center, the park had attributes the agency sought to showcase. Increasingly, agency officials believed that the presence of the pageant supported the objectives of the Park Service, bringing visitors to the area without the commitment of agency resources. It became a "real asset" for the monument, as Mattes noted in 1951. In the 1960s, the pageant took on a celebratory character, as Regional Office officials attended, accepting accolades for the role of NPS in supporting the project. [12] By 1970, the Park Service had become a major supporter of the pageant.

The change in the Park Service view of the pageant stemmed from a number of sources. The developments of the MISSION 66 program helped bring Pipestone National Monument more into the mainstream of the agency. After MISSION 66, the monument got more attention from the regional office than ever before, and events such as the pageant became worthy of notice. The growth of the pageant and its impact on visitation at the monument were also noteworthy. So was the effort to professionalize the presentation of a classic poem to the public. While NPS officials might not always approve of such an event, the Park Service understood the importance of good public relations and community relations. Agency personnel also recognized an asset when they saw one.

Nor was their confidence misguided. By the middle of the 1960s, the pageant had become a local tradition and a fixture of the cultural landscape. Foreign visitors became common, with Europeans, themselves overwhelmingly interested in the experiences of Native Americans, predominating. Local businesses anticipated the coming of the pageant in the way that merchants in a college town await homecoming. There was little to object to in the pageant. Everyone made money, the town of Pipestone had a unifying event, and the portrayal of Native Americans was benign, if a little patronizing. In an era that prided itself on an increasing liberalism regarding minority groups, the pageant fulfilled many socio-cultural needs.

But like nearly everything else in the United States, the changing cultural climate of the late 1960s affected The Song of Hiawatha pageant. After nearly two decades of trying to eliminate Indian tribal structure, the federal government adopted a policy that allowed Native Americans greater autonomy than they had since the beginning of the reservation system. In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, a spate of new legislation that formalized Indian control over their lives and customs continued for more than a decade. A cultural awakening seized the nation. For Native Americans, a movement that challenged the romantic view of native experiences closely followed. [13] In a time of increased militance, the pageant was vulnerable to charges that its very nature exploited Native American culture.

At Pipestone, this culminated in an incident at the pageant in 1970. Although the Native Americans who lived in Pipestone were generally conservative, Minneapolis became a center of activism. Urban Indians faced more bleak and trying conditions, and Native American support groups formed to help newcomers from the reservations adapt to city life. These groups became increasingly militant, spreading their message not only to other Indians, but to the larger world as well. At the 1970 pageant, a number of activists disrupted the performance as an expression of their discontent, stamping their feet, shouting epithets and briefly drowning out performers. Aggressive and strident, these groups temporarily focused their animosity on the pageant. [14]

Yet, as one former superintendent noted, such expressions were short-lived because of the genuinely benign nature of the pageant. The Song of Hiawatha shared little with the offensive stereotypes of Native Americans that permeated nineteenth-century American literature. The poem "did the Indian quite a bit of justice," former Superintendent Cecil D. Lewis, Jr., remarked, dispelling the fears of the militants. [15] Romanticized characterizations of Native Americans were the least of their worries, for they engaged in a form of romanticism tinged with direct action that differed more in degree than kind from that embodied in Longfellow. Their actions were symbolic, an effort to disrupt a symbol of that to which they objected. To many Native Americans, a pageant about Native American culture that included few Native Americans represented the worst side of American popular culture to Native Americans. In this, the pageant differed little from all the bad western movies of yesteryear.

Despite the fact that Lewis was called back to the monument to help diffuse the situation, the protests ceased before his return. Planning to continue their protest, the militants stayed in the area to observe the situation of Native Americans in the community, park, and pageant. By the next week, they discovered that Pipestone offered Native Americans many positive opportunities. The superintendent at the time, Clarence N. Gorman, was a Navajo, and the man sent in to help, Cecil Lewis, was Sac and Fox, Delaware, and Potowatomi. The two had gone to grade school together in Chinle, Arizona, and together made up a strong Indian presence at the monument. There, Native Americans had positions of leadership. The monument worked to convey a comprehensive approach to the history of the people of the northern plains, the Pipestone Indian Shrine Association created economic opportunity, the Native Americans of the town were generally positive about local institutions, and the pageant, at the very worst, was benign. Although the militants stayed in town, they ceased to protest. [16]

In the aftermath of the incident, relations between the Native American community in Pipestone and the pageant improved. The increased involvement started during Lewis' superintendency and continued throughout Gorman's tenure and that of his successor, Don Thompson. As a result of what Lewis characterized as a number of "misunderstandings," the local Indian community felt that the pageant had discriminated against its members. With Lewis's leadership and the close relations between the park and the local Native American community, the problems were slowly rectified. Bea Burns continued to play Nicomus in the pageant, and Chuck Derby and his daughter also participated. [17] New bonds were formed that furthered the goals of pageant, the Native American community in Pipestone, and the monument.

The outburst at the pageant in 1970 signified one kind of change at the monument, but other far more ominous forces have affected the pageant. The decline of American education and the subsequent lack of inclination to teach poetry or any other subject with real content to American school children has limited the potential for growth of the pageant. Poems such as The Song of Hiawatha used to be the common currency of anyone who graduated from eighth grade in the United States. By the 1990s, they were no longer part of the common experience, nor really was any other basic educational document. As the U.S. hesitantly embraced the concept of multicultural education, the presentation of Native American experience made Longfellow and his views anachronistic. The combination of these factors deprived the pageant of much of its younger audience, complicating the future of the pageant. Few young people were exposed to The Song of Hiawatha, and each year, the audience at the pageant became more gray.

The Park Service took an active role in the affairs of the Hiawatha Club, for the people of the monument had an investment in the public perception of the program. Visitation increased dramatically during the pageant weekends, and because of its themes, the public evinced a much stronger interest in the history of the quarries and the people that used them. The park also liked to keep track of the activities of the Hiawatha Club. In many areas with similar kinds of privately run events that reflected the themes of nearby park areas, the NPS found itself combating substandard interpretation, anachronistic and inappropriate costuming, and other problems that affected the ability to interpret within park boundaries. Close ties were essential.

The Park Service had no control over the pageant, but its officials were valued members of the Pipestone community. The boundary issue was still alive, and the Hiawatha Club needed the cooperation of the Park Service to assure the smooth operation of the pageant. Park personnel became a fixture on the Hiawatha Club Board. For many years, the superintendent and the chief of interpretation and resources management were members as a result of their position at the monument. Their presence gave the Park Service the opportunity to influence the decisions of the Hiawatha Club.

Yet administrative control and consistency in relations still escaped the Park Service. Following the incident in 1970, park officials sought to more clearly define the relationship between the club and park. In the middle of the decade, Superintendent Don Thompson negotiated a memorandum that governed the relationship. While this effectively established the parameters of interaction, there were a number of ongoing issues. At the end of the 1980s, the Park Service determined that the old memorandum no longer sufficed. Superintendent Vincent J. Halvorson sought a special use permit for the Hiawatha Club that more clearly delineated obligations and responsibilities. By the early 1990s, this goal had been achieved. [18]

The main point of potential contention between the monument and the Hiawatha Club was the uncertainty of physical boundaries between park and club land. Since the 1940s, the issue had been confused and convoluted; on more than one occasion, Park Service officials thought they secured the Three Maidens and the area around it, yet were frustrated by the lack of purchase money, city council decisions, inaccurate description of the land in question, and longstanding local custom. Superintendents recognized that the monument had little to gain from forcing the issue, and the loosely constructed relationship continued unimpeded, with people on both sides alternately chafing and chafed.

Yet by the 1980s, Pipestone National Monument had become a different kind of park. In response to the changing tenor of the agency, many of the informal procedures that long characterized the agency were clarified and formalized. Young park superintendents recognized that the future depended on their ability to execute the policies of the agency. When Halvorson arrived at Pipestone in 1982, he placed resolving the boundary issue at the top of his list of priorities. He researched the land descriptions, determined where the boundary was located, brought in a surveyor who marked the exact line, put up boundary markers, and made sure the boundaries were clear. Then Halvorson brought Robert S. Owens, recorder of deeds of Pipestone County as well as inspiration behind the Hiawatha Club and its pageant, to view the boundary lines marked by the surveyor. Halvorson demonstrated that the land had never been removed from the public domain, and Owens agreed. The Park Service in fact owned part of the land to which the club lay claim. [19]

This was a disconcerting reality for the members of the Hiawatha Club. Long used to autonomy and a sense of proprietary control of the land, they were compelled to face different realities. Although some of the members of the club feared that the NPS would use the situation to put the pageant out of business, park officials had little desire to do so. The pageant clearly expressed the interdependent relationship of the town and the park. Terminating the pageant would be "like committing suicide in this town," Superintendent Halvorson remarked in 1991. [20] The adjustment of formal boundaries reflected internal agency objectives much more than any relationship with the pageant. In the first decade following resolution, there was little impact on the pageant.

Close ties between the Park Service and the pageant persisted in the public mind. NPS officials at the park and regional office recognized that much of the public perceived the pageant as a function of the agency. In the early 1990s, Pipestone National Monument still received telephone calls from people who wanted to purchase pageant tickets or find out when it occurred. More vexing were the slow but steady stream of inquiries about the characterization of Native Americans presented by the pageant. While the performance had come a long way in its sensitivity since the days when Indians were hired to dance as a sideshow, the tone of militance and the growing trend toward multiculturalism assured that such presentations would be carefully scrutinized. Yet at the beginning of the 1990s, the Park Service remained committed to the pageant. Only serious and persistent objections from Native Americans could compel NPS to reconsider the relationship. [21]

The story of the Hiawatha Club pageant at Pipestone National Monument reflected much of the changing nature of Park Service administration. Like many remote park areas, Pipestone functioned more as part of the local community than the national park system during much of its early history. The result was the codification of practices that could not be initiated in an era of more strict adherence to the policies of the agency. Yet at Pipestone and many other park areas, these vestiges of a more fluid and less structured past remain, creating a number of management issues for agency administrators and compelling close and careful management.

Events such as the Hiawatha Club pageant add much to a community and lay the basis for close cooperation between park areas and surrounding communities. At Pipestone, the pageant also reflects the themes of the park, drawing the two entities closer than they otherwise might be. The result has been a complicated set of interactions that has helped both the park and the club, while simultaneously causing the leadership of both many sleepless nights. In the early 1990s, the relationship appeared to work well. In the changing cultural climate of the United States, maintaining that close and mutually beneficial interaction may become more difficult.

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Last Updated: 21-Aug-2004