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Friday, November 5, 2021

Schoolcraft - Shingebiss - Keeping the Public in Public Domain

November is a month to focus on Native Americans.  It can't begin to cover enough, but I propose to take the four directions -- a sacred concept that probably spans the many Native American nations -- and give a story for each.  

Of course my love of the Anishinaabe means I must open with the north and our Great Lakes people.  Commonly called the People of the 3 Fires, they are composed of the Ojibwa (also called Chippewa), the Odawa (or Ottawa), and the Pottawatomi.  The third group, the Pottawatomi is mainly on the west side of Michigan and I've never had any opportunity to know anybody there.  They also are in Canada and called the First Nations (the Canadian name for the first people; here in the U.S. we say Native American).  I'm uncertain how their First Nations sisters and brothers might differ as again I'm limited to only what I find online and in print.  I've been taught by both Odawa and Ojibwa elders who have now gone on the Long Walk and I miss them immensely.  I have a fellow storytelling friend, Robyn Henry from the Saginaw Chippewa Band, who used to be in the Flint area.  Since she moved away it's been harder to stay in touch, but she's the one I'd always turn to for verification.  I know she resents the way many of the legends belonging to her people are supposedly now unavailable because outside writers tell and copyright them.  

Robyn also is aware of the way stories in the few anthologies available are either incomplete or contain errors.  Certainly Henry Rowe Schoolcraft  reveals his 19th century roots, but we are blessed with the knowledge that his wife, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (whose name translates as The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky), told him Anishinaabe stories she knew.  By the way, that hotlink for her name is also the title of a 2008 book edited by Robert Dale Parker of  all her writings, including poetry.  I believe this story reveals her poetic nature.  Project Gutenberg includes it in the book attributed to H.R. Schoolcraft, with the unattractive title of The Myth of Hiawatha, and Other Oral Legends, Mythologic and Allegoric, of the North American Indians.

Photograph by Scott Suriano
Don't let any of that stop you for many have found this to be a story worth knowing.  Sometimes it's about a duck living alone in the winter, but I've also heard of people telling it as if Shingebiss was a woman.  Some people debate which type of our ducks who winter here it could be.  Again, don't let that stop you.  You can also substitute Northwest Wind for Kabebonicca. I'll say more after the story, but for now let it speak to you.  I'm confident you will be glad you did. 




There was once a Shingebiss, the name of the fall duck living alone, in a solitary lodge, on the shores of the deep bay of a lake, in the coldest winter weather. The ice had formed on the water, and he had but four logs of wood to keep his fire. Each of these would, however, burn a month, and as there were but four cold winter months, they were sufficient to carry him through till spring.

Shingebiss was hardy and fearless, and cared for no one. He would go out during the coldest day, and seek for places where flags and rushes grew through the ice, and plucking them up with his bill, would dive through the openings, in quest of fish. In this way he found plenty of food, while others were starving, and he went home daily to his lodge, dragging strings of fish after him, on the ice.

Kabebonicca observed him, and felt a little piqued at his perseverance and good luck in defiance of the severest blasts of wind he could send from the northwest. "Why! this is a wonderful man," said he; "he does not mind the cold, and appears as happy and contented as if it were the month of June. I will try whether he cannot be mastered." He poured forth tenfold colder blasts, and drifts of snow, so that it was next to impossible to live in the open air. Still, the fire of Shingebiss did not go out: he wore but a single strip of leather around his body, and he was seen, in the worst weather, searching the shores for rushes, and carrying home fish.

"I shall go and visit him," said Kabebonicca, one day, as he saw Shingebiss dragging along a quantity of fish. And, accordingly, that very night, he went to the door of his lodge. Meantime Shingebiss had cooked his fish, and finished his meal, and was lying, partly on his side, before the fire, singing his songs. After Kabebonicca had come to the door, and stood listening there, he sang as follows:—

Ka Neej Ka Neej
Be In Be In
Bon In Bon In
Oc Ee. Oc Ee.
Ca We-ya! Ca We-ya!

The number of words, in this song, are few and simple, but they are made up from compounds which carry the whole of their original meanings, and are rather suggestive of the ideas floating in the mind than actual expressions of those ideas. Literally, he sings:—

Spirit of the Northwest—you are but my fellow man.

By being broken into syllables, to correspond with a simple chant, and by the power of intonation and repetition, with a chorus, these words are expanded into melodious utterance, if we may be allowed the term, and may be thus rendered:—

Windy god, I know your plan,

You are but my fellow man;

Blow you may your coldest breeze,

Shingebiss you cannot freeze.

Sweep the strongest wind you can,

Shingebiss is still your man;

Heigh! for life—and ho! for bliss,

Who so free as Shingebiss?

The hunter knew that Kabebonicca was at his door, for he felt his cold and strong breath; but he kept on singing his songs, and affected utter indifference. At length Kabebonicca entered, and took his seat on the opposite side of the lodge. But Shingebiss did not regard, or notice him. He got up, as if nobody were present, and taking his poker, pushed the log, which made his fire burn brighter, repeating, as he sat down again:—

You are but my fellow man.

Very soon the tears began to flow down Kabebonicca's cheeks, which increased so fast, that, presently, he said to himself: "I cannot stand this—I must go out." He did so, and left Shingebiss to his songs; but resolved to freeze up all the flag orifices, and make the ice thick, so that he could not get any more fish. Still, Shingebiss, by dint of great diligence, found means to pull up new roots, and dive under for fish. At last, Kabebonicca was compelled to give up the contest. "He must be aided by some Monedo," said he. "I can neither freeze him nor starve him; he is a very singular being—I will let him alone."


Do a search for Shingebiss and you will see, among other things, a picture book retelling the story by Nancy Van Laan.  You can use this to judge how close to its origins it is, but don't believe the story is locked up under copyright and can't be retold.  It's too important for that.

Friend and fellow storyteller, Fran Stallings is a member of National Storytelling Network's  Special Interest Group, Healing Story Alliance.  When I went looking for more about Shingebiss the search led me to the Wayback Machine and her very thorough telling and teller's notes about the story dating back to early in this century.  I strongly recommend it.  It even includes her version of the music in the tale.

Back in 2011 Canadian songwriter and recording/audiovisual artist, Ellsie Kay, wrote a song for Shingebiss.  She's not a member of the First Nations, but her song and brief form of telling the story on YouTube is definitely worth viewing and seems to capture the spirit of this story.  I've too little knowledge of pronunciation of  the language to guarantee it's correct, but love her translation:

North Wind, North Wind, fierce in feature

You are but my fellow creature;

Blow your worst, you can't freeze me;

I fear you not, and so I'm FREE!

Whether you feel like telling the story & trying to sing what either she or Fran offer for the song, or just as appropriately, chant the words Kay offers, I believe you and your audiences will remember that last line and maybe even join you in it: 

I fear you not, and so I'm FREE!

By the time you read this, I will have been able to tell this story twice as part of the Jackson Storyfest.  What a privilege to bring Shingebiss and other Anishinaabe tales.  I wish they were being told by Anishinaabeg tellers, but will do my best to represent them as faithfully as possible.  

Let your love of the wisdom found in our Native American stories keep you reading and telling them.  As Shingebiss would remind you, "I fear you not, and so I'm FREE!"  At the same time do it with respect and honor the original tellers and their intent to keep their wisdom for all of us.

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