From 'Technicians of the Sacred, Expanded': 'The Shaman of the Yellowknives, A Chipewyan Talk-Poem' (by François Mandeville)



There was a man called Sinew Water.


     He was a shaman.

     This is what they say.


     He dreamed about what was good

     and through his dreams he taught the people.

     He also told people about the future.

     He knew songs about the things which upset people

     and he was able to calm them down with those songs.


     Because of these things

     people felt he was very useful.

     This is what they say.


[scene i]


One spring the people left the fort where they had been staying.


A large group of them were crossing the great lake

where the crossing was wildest.

There were many of them, women as well as children,

crossing in many canoes.


Besides the many large canoes,

there were some men alone in small canoes.


When they had come into the middle of the lake,

it suddenly started to blow very hard.


It still had not blown for long,

but the waves had already started to swell.


In time the waves began to swamp into the canoes.

Women and children were bailing out the canoes,

but the water on the inside was rising nearly to the top,

and people were nearly drowning.


Suddenly the shaman called out to the people from behind.


He said,


“Wait for me.

  I’ll go on ahead of you.”


So they stopped to wait for him to pass by.


When he had passed by them

and pulled out in front of the first canoe,

he began to sing.


Immediately the wind stopped.

As soon as he began to sing,

it became calm.


And so that way he paddled along ahead of the people, singing.


The people continued to cross along after him.


When they had come among the islands,

he led them to where a river flowed out.


He said,


        “We’ll make camp here.

          We’ll put up on shore right here.”


So everyone went up on the shore.


Then he spoke again,


“Be careful when you put up the tepees.

 Make them good and strong.

 Also bring the canoes up on land.

 The wind is not yet finished.

 When it starts to blow again

 it will be very strong.

 Put some weights on the canoes.

 Otherwise they might be blown away.”


All of the tepees were put up quickly.

and all of the canoes were put up on land.


When the shaman saw that it was done, he said,


“Okay, let it blow now!

  My children are all up on land.”

Immediately it started to blow among the woods on the hilltop.

It roared like thunder.


And so the wind blew among the people.

The strong wind nearly blew the tepees apart.

It blew like that for a long time.

Then the wind became more moderate.


It continued to blow for three days.


Because of the way the shaman stopped the wind,

the people were not killed by the water.

This is what they say.


[scene ii]


The shaman Sinew Water said,


“If I die

  there will not be a shaman here among the people.


“There is only one other person who sees what I see.

  Once, I met him.

  He was rising as I was coming down.


“That other shaman said,


     ‘I haven’t seen any people around here until just now.

      You’re the first person I’ve seen.’


“Then he said,


     ‘I’m a Beaver Indian.

      What are your people?’


      ‘I am a Yellowknife.’”


Then the Beaver Indian said to Sinew Water,


“I am pleased that we have seen each other here.

  Let’s not let our meeting be in vain.

  Let’s give each other two songs.”


So they gave each other two songs.

Sinew Water sang two songs.

The Beaver Indian himself sang two songs,

a Beaver song and a Yellowknife song.


The Beaver Indian said,


“Now I have seen a Yellowknife while I was rising.

  He gave me two songs.”


This is what they say.


[scene iii]


Once Sinew Water was sick.


    He spoke to his relatives,


“My relatives,

  I am sick.

  But I am not sick with an illness.

  I am sick with the mind of the people.

  I will not be living,

  but you people will go on living.


“I am told that

  if you say so, I will live.

  You are in control of it.

  I don’t want to live here on the land

  after my children have died.”


One of his relatives said,


“We want you to go on living with us.

  Because of the way you speak to us,

  the children know what is right.

  You are very important to us.”


Sinew Water said,


“If only one person loves me,

  I cannot go on living.

  But I have been told that

  if many people think about one another,

  I will live.”


At once all of his relatives told him,


“Please go on living.”


At once he revived.

He did not feel at all sick.

This is what they say.


[scene iv]


In that way he lived for a long time but finally became sick again.


Once again, he said to his relatives,


“I have become an old man,

  but I am still alive here on the land.

  This is not pleasant for me,

  but I will go on living.


“Again I am told that if you think about me

  I’ll go on living.”


But the people said nothing to him.


Thus he became very sick.


In the winter he said,


“They have told me

  that when the leaves come out to a good size in the spring,

  then I will be called.

  I’ll leave at that time.

  Now I am living but

  I have also died already.

  It doesn’t matter if you urge me to live,

  I will die.”


In the spring when the leaves had grown to a good size,

he died quietly as if going to sleep.


This is what they say.


(Chipewyan, Canada)




Source: François Mandeville, This Is What They Say, trans. Ron Scollon (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009), 179–84. 


The poem-as-narrative and “talk-poem” (D. Antin’s term in a contemporary setting) emerges clearly through the Chipewyan storyteller François Mandeville (1878–1952), as passed along to the Chinese-born linguist Li Fang-Kuei and translated in its present form by Ron Scollon. The opening beyond that is the presence of an actual poetics that underlies a whole range of speech acts and enlarges the field of poetry both in tribal/oral cultures and in the ongoing orality of the literate and postliterate world. Of Mandeville’s works in  particular — over twenty in Scollon’s  gathering — Robert Bringhurst in his introduction describes them as “Athabaskan metaphysics incarnate,” but along with that there is also an exquisite sense of everyday Chipewyan life and of the actors, large and small, who inhabited Mandeville’s world. In the attempt to bring this across, Ron Scollon returns to the Mandeville text and, as Gary Snyder describes it, “tells it again as oral performance (traditional accuracy).” And Snyder again: “You can read these stories for their gritty amorality balanced with etiquette, their fierce hunger and generosity, and their sudden senseless death … The unvarnished tales of a tough people in a tough land.” In this Mandeville’s authorship is without question.