From a 19th century literary tale attributed to Chippewa sources, retold by Fran Stallings.
When I first heard this story in childhood, there was no music: the chant was just recited. I have added the chant melody and the chordal accompaniment, but I also perform it sometimes without the music, and it still works. A good story is good plain.
This text is as close as I can get to the way I tell it in performance. I try to match my phrasing to the rhythm of the accompaniment, which is played not by strumming the strings but by patting with an open hand, at the pace of a powwow drum.
I recommend that you try reading the story aloud, so that you can hear its rhythm.
In performance, you can work the chant into the story as often as the audience seems to enjoy it. But what pleases the ear can bore the eye, so I did not repeatedly write out the words of the chant in this text.
Shingebiss and the North Wind
Long ago, the People could not stay in their northern homes all year round. It was pleasant in the summer, cool and breezy. But in the fall they knew they would have to go south like the birds, like the buffalo. Because of Old Man North Wind.
Old Man North Wind’s headdress was not made of feathers, but of icicles. His clothes were made of ice and snow. And the features of his face were fierce, twisted with hate for other living things.
When he came down from the far north country and blew his frosty breath — Pah! (I strike the strings hard here, rather than make a mouth noise) — everything froze. There was no more food. The animals who could not sleep through the winter had to go south. The People went, too.
But one year a young woman of the tribe, whose name was Shingebiss, said “It’s not fair that we have to leave our homes because of Old Man North Wind! He’s just a creature like the rest of us. I’m not afraid of him.” And she sang,
The other People said, “No, Shingebiss, you must not stay. You will freeze. You will starve! Come south with us.”
But Shingebiss refused. “I have ideas for ways to stay warm and find food. I want to try them. I’m not afraid.” And she sang,
The other people pleaded with her, but she was stubborn. So they said goodbye. They were sure that they would never see her alive again.
When they had gone south, Shingebiss began to work. She built a new kind of lodge, not open and breezy like the summer lodges of the People, but with double walls — which she stuffed with dry grass and moss, to keep out the cold and wind. Then she collected great piles of dry wood, so that she could keep her fire going at all times.
She waited. And she sang:
Then Old Man North Wind came down from the far north country. He blew his frosty breath — Pah! — and everything died. Everything was still… except for the smoke rising from Shingebiss’ lodge.
“What is this?” he asked. “Who is this, who dares to defy me? They can’t live without food.” He blew his frosty breath — Pah! — on the lakes and streams. Thick ice covered them.
But Shingebiss just walked out onto the ice and chopped holes. She went ice fishing! She took her fish home to her lodge, cooked them and ate them. She was warm and comfortable, and she sang:
Old Man North Wind blew around and around Shingebiss’ lodge, but she just built up her fire and was warm and comfortable.
“So,” said Old Man North Wind, “I will come inside.” And he stepped in the door.
Shingebiss was sitting by her fire, with her back to the door, but she felt the chill when Old Man North Wind came in. She added more wood to the fire and sang:
Old Man North Wind came closer. He sat down next to her!
But she just added more wood.
The flames rose higher, and higher …
Old Man North Wind began to notice that his headdress of icicles was drooping …
His clothes of ice and snow were becoming soggy, and full of holes …
Drops of water ran down his face.
“What is this? It can’t be tears, because I never cry. This can only mean that I’m — melting!!!”
Old Man North Wind ran out of Shingebiss’ lodge and rolled in the snow until he was cold again.
“This Shingebiss,” he said, ” she is too strong for me.”
In the spring, when the People returned, they were amazed to find Shingebiss alive and well. “We thought you would freeze and starve! We thought we would find nothing but your bones!”
Shingebiss said, “I have learned ways to keep warm, and ways to find food. I can teach them to you. But you can’t stay here if you’re afraid.”
So she also taught them her song.
During my childhood, my mother read this story aloud from the family set of My Book House. We read it to our children. But I didn’t think of telling it until one day when snow started falling as I waited to go into a first grade classroom during a school residency. The children were wild to get out and play in the snow (which seldom lasts long in Oklahoma). How could I hold their attention? I needed a snow/winter story quick. “Shingebiss and the North Wind” came to my rescue, and in the hall I improvised an autoharp melody for the chant so that they could sing along. The minor chords (Am, Em) had an wonderful calming effect, and the story itself gripped their attention. I knew I had a keeper.
“Shingebiss and the North Wind” is a soothing story which seems to work with all ages. Shingebiss helps us distinguish precaution from paranoia. She makes practical preparations against real physical dangers but refuses to be intimidated. Young children are riveted by the tension in the story, and elated when Shingebiss triumphs. But it gets an especially deep reception from the children at our domestic violence shelter: “I’m not afraid, and so I’m free.”
There’s research on the enhanced hypnotic susceptibility of folks with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Maybe that’s what I’m seeing when the shelter kids slip from frenetic activity into slack jawed trance within the first few seconds of “Shingebiss.” In a school auditorium I sometimes see faces like that too. I check with the counselors about those children; usually they already know.
“Shingebiss” is especially entrancing when performed with musical accompaniment (see below). The minor chord sequence seems to transfix even over-excited small fry, or teens so tense that they were having trouble staying in their seats — until the story began. Ancient Greek musicians claimed that the different musical modes (keys) had the power to put listeners in different moods. “Shingebiss” makes me want to know more about that. At any rate, my adult audiences in Japan may not follow the words in detail, but they love the sound of the story. I suspect there is more to storytelling than words.
For adults, “Shingebiss and the North Wind” can be a very powerful and comforting metaphor about facing the threat of death, on your own terms. At Hospice training workshops, it seems to be the most memorable and helpful of the stories I share. Even if the story content doesn’t fill someone’s particular need, listening to such a soothing story apparently provides a few moments of welcome respite. After a program for Alzheimer’s care givers, one woman told me that the stories refreshed her — not like a passive doze in front of the TV, she said, but like a walk in the fresh air.
Researching its sources, I located versions in several books prepared for children as early as 1897. (* See some sources below.) The various editors claimed that it was a Chippewa/Ojibwa tale, but none gave individual story citations. Davis’ introduction says her sources included U.S. Ethnological Reports, Schoolcraft, etc., but I haven’t found it in modern editions of Schoolcraft or any other ethnographic text directly quoting Chippewa/Ojibwa tellers. Furthermore, after Chippewa Elder Ron Evans looked at a copy of Pratt’s version for me, he denied ever having heard of it. I suspect that the tale may be “fakelore” composed by some well-meaning if condescending white Anon.
If it had been authentic, I would have faced the challenge of asking the Chippewa Elders for permission to tell it, perhaps with limits on what changes I could make. These concerns appear to be moot. That’s just as well… I don’t think traditional Native tellers used autoharp.
I have taken a greater liberty in presenting Shingebiss as female rather than male. I tried this once when my daughter requested female hero stories for her sister girl scouts, and we discovered that the story suddenly took on new levels of power. I have never changed it back.
Some of the books claim that “Shingebiss” is the name of a kind of wild duck, although I couldn’t find it (or the “Chippewa” words of the chant) in any of the Chippewa dictionaries to which I had access. While some illustrated versions show the character as a duck, others show a Chippewa Indian. Interchangeable animal/human identity is not uncommon in Native American tales, but my audiences seemed least confused by an Indian named “Shingebiss, which means Wild Duck.”
The villain is variously called “Big Chief North Wind,” “Old Man North Wind,” “the North Wind” etc. I chose “Old Man North Wind.”
I also exercised license in rewriting the chant. The various rhymed English versions ranged from awkward to atrocious but agreed on basic content: “You are my fellow creature; you can’t freeze me; I am unafraid and free.” I took it from there.
Mara L. Pratt, Legends of the Red Children pp11-16, NY: American Book Company 1897.
Susan B. Davis, Wisconsin Lore for Boys and Girls pp67-69. Eau Clair WI: E. M. Hale, 1931.
Olive Bupré Miller (ed) My Book House vol. II:96-100, various editions.
(I have the 1937.)
(Am) North Wind, North Wind, (G) fierce of feature,
(Am) You are still my (G) fellow (Am) creature.
(C) Blow your worst, you (G) can’t scare me.
(Am) I’m not afraid, and (G) so I’m (Am) free.
Some time after I first put music to the song, I tried adding a chord sequence of Am, Am, Em, Am behind the narrative. It is a Whole ‘Nother Trick to keep the beat going during the narration, and to make the words and chord sequence come out even, ending in time for the chant. But the effect is powerful, peaceful, and moving. I play through one or two chord patterns before starting the narration. As ancient Greek musicians knew, there’s nothing like an Am chord to chill out an audience.
I play mostly the lowest strings to get a drum-like effect. For North Wind’s blast, I strike once much harder (preferably on the first beat of the chord sequence), then skip one beat for an eerie pause. When Shingebiss builds up the fire to ward off North Wind’s closeness, I move to progressively higher strings to represent the rising flames. Then some heavy slow beats on the lowest strings go with his rolling in the snow to get cold again.
Audience Participation Notes:
Young listeners enjoy joining in on the chant, but I don’t teach it before starting. I just explain that the story contains many repeats of a song so simple that they will easily learn it, and they are welcome to sing along with me. The words “and she sang, –,” with an encouraging nod, serve as low-key signals.
Students from about 4th grade on may be too peer conscious to participate freely unless younger kids are present as camouflage. I generally skip asking an older group for participation, to avoid embarrassing them or their teachers. They enjoy just hearing the story; and sometimes I hear them humming the chant in the halls.
Use your judgment about inviting adults to sing. Musicians and experienced story listeners are often eager to join in, and gratefully accept the invitation they hear at the end of the story (“So she also taught them the song: –“). Other adults may be more comfortable as passive listeners.
I think we need to allow listeners to come out of this story’s trance at their own pace. Sometimes the silence that follows the story lasts for several seconds. At one July 4 outdoor festival in Pennsylvania, when heat and humidity were both in the high 90’s, I heard a plaintive voice in that silence: “I’m cold!”
Therapists and others who work closely with a client group may want to invite them to respond to this story with quiet, solo activities such as artwork or journalling.
The most common follow-up I have heard is, “Tell it again!”
If you are interested, the performance with full accompaniment is available on CD.
Also an early version on a teaching tape is available.
For further information please contact:
406 Macklyn Lane
Bartlesville OK 74006-5419