Monday, April 11, 2011


Swampy Cree Naming Stories


When he came out, into the world,

the umbilical cord

was around his toes.

This didn't trouble us,

that he was tying knots THAT EARLY.

We untied it.

Later, he heard his birth


It caused him to begin tying knots again.

He tied things up near his home,

TIGHT, as if everything might float away

in a river.

This river came from

a dream he had.

House things were tied up

at night. Shirts, other clothes, too,

and a kettle. All those things

were tied to his feet

so they wouldn't float away

in the river he dreamed.

You could walk in

and see this.

Maybe the dream stopped

because it was no longer comfortable

to sleep with shirts tied to him.

Or a kettle.

After the dream stopped,

he quit tying things,

EXCEPT for the one night he tied up

a small fire.

Tied up a small-stick fire!

The fire got loose its own way.


Her name tells of how

it was with her.

The truth is, she did not speak

in winter.

Everyone learned not to

ask her questions in winter,

once this was known about her.

The first winter this happened

we looked in her mouth to see

if something was frozen. Her tongue

maybe, or something else in there.

But after the thaw she spoke again

and told us it was fine for her that way.

So each spring we

looked forward to that.


He knew a lynx has two voices.

There is one that is a growl

and can teach a baby pheasant to fly QUICKLY,

and frightens us too, sometimes.

And one other voice. It is when a lynx

scratches its claws on bark.

This boy would hear that scratching

and walk toward it.

If he was a lynx-ear

he could have heard it CLOSE UP!

Or a whisker.

Which is what

he wanted, I think.

I saw him climb trees where he'd seen

a lynx, and find the place

where the scratch marks were left.

Then he would rub his fingers over them.

One finger at a time, gently,

or all of them at once.

His fingers heard the lynx talk again

that way.


He knew how bears got away

with it. He watched one

stick her nose deep in a hive

and get good honey on the face.

He knew this way

from watching.

So he dressed that way too,

with an old bear skin all over him

and mud-leaves on his face and hands.



Got his feet stung.

But he got honey that way.

No one told him to use the wet

torch-stick smoke

to get out those bees.

No one told him this for a long time.

They liked watching his way

too much!

He took honey that way

a few times.

Then someone told him

how to use smoke.

Or he saw it done

from hiding.


She had large ears, and this seemed

to please her. Even the time a man

joked at her ears

and said they were BATS,

she chose to believe it!

She said to him, "Yes. You are right. They are bats!

I'm glad you came to tell me.

And I will send them into your house


and listen over your face!"

This quickly stopped

his joking.

Also, she liked to listen to large sounds

with those large ears.

Maybe the two things

went together.

Before storms, she would sit along the edge


to listen to thunder!

Sometimes she shouted back

to it, "Louder! I can hardly hear you!"

Even though the rest of us

had our hands over our ears, as we sat

inside houses.

Listening with our smaller ears.


One summer this boy chose to live

by himself. It was never a secret, no, he just

said, "I'm going to live

by the next lake, to the north."

We could tell he had thought about it

a long time. He built a dwelling there.

It had rain fall on it, and had sun fall on it.

And the foxes didn't try to move in,

so, then for certain, it was his home.

He lived there all summer. We seldom heard him,

or knew where he was, except some nights

we knew he was out on the lake

because the loons were quiet.

There also were nights we wondered

how well he was eating, and that's when we walked

to where he lived.

Walked out at night to see

the bending pole. It was a pole

he had stuck in the ground.

This came about because he fished with long

stick poles, and he had stuck one of them

in the ground near his dwelling. After each day's fishing,

he bent that pole to let us know his luck.

When it was bent low by the rocks tied to its string,

we knew he was catching fish.

When the pole was straight up,

we left fish for him.


I've always watched

turtles. One lived around here,

the one who caused my name.

At an early age I waited for turtles

to come up on their logs.

Everyone knew this

about me. I'd wait. Wait. And one turtle

would be the last out of the water. He had

moss, mud, sometimes sticks on his back

and he was a slow one.

Other turtle watchers gave up. But I would

wait until he came out

to tell me things

and no one else.

So, in that way he caused my name.

The last one to wait for.

Up on his rock or log.


Swampy Cree Naming Stories

told by
Samuel Makidemewabe

translated by
Howard Norman

Bear Claw Press (1976)


Two weeks travel on foot, northeast from Lake Winnipeg. Along certain stretches of one river here, Echoing River, trees come right down to the rocky banks forming acoustic corridors. You can echo your voice best here. The Cree call these places Mwoakoopawmiko tuskwi, or "Loon-wind-throats," for the eery vibratos that are sent out among the rock, air, water and trees. The sound of a duck splashing with its wings as it lifts from the river echoes a long way. So does a moose call, or the human voice.

There's a place near Split Lake, named Achewita hotoowuk, or "Their-horns-are-locked," after a stand of trees whose branches are intertwined high up. From a distance they look like great racks of antlers.

The whole of the country is in effect an oral map, for the specific place-names should be spoken aloud upon arriving at each one. This way you bring alive what happened, or still happens, there. When you arrive at a place, and live there in an attentive manner, you see where its name comes from. "Many-weather-place," "Place-otters-slide-to-the-left," and on.

* * *

In Cree the lynx is called Pi'sew, or "Wild Cat." But there is an older name. Sometimes it shows up during the telling of a Wichikapache ("trickster") story, about a time when only totem animals and Wichikapache roamed the earth. The language gets older during these stories. Often, when the lynx is mentioned, he is called: "Cat-who-nightly-screams-from-high-trees." Think, if you will, what this name encompasses in terms of the compactness of the Cree language, what specific knowledge it has gathered in, then how this knowledge it has gathered in, then how this knowledge places the lynx into thelarger realm of life: a classificatory system. We know it's a cat.* We know one of his voices. We know one time to listen, one place to look for him.

Now, if you want or need it to, comes a moment when this old lynx name leads you out into its world. You have the particulars preserved in the name: you can take them out into the trees. Then wait. Probably you will wait many nights.** Sometimes it works, you see a lynx. Or think you hear one. Most times the cat huddles quiet, or is padding around far from you. But by waiting there, in one place, you feel something of where the animal lives. You know the name better then. And that it came from others like you who waited, watched, recalled by telling you about the lynx.

* * *

The personal name-origins translated in this little book (selections above, ed.) were told to me by Samuel Makidemewabe, a Swampy Cree elder. He lived several places in northcentral manitoba Province, Canada. It's a vast lake, muskeg, dense boreal forest region. One of his jobs in the community he lived most often in, was to chronicle in stories how certain people earned their names during childhood. For the names included here are kuskatchikaos, or "earned" names. Makidemewabe wasn't present for all the incidences from which these names came from. He was right there for some of them. With the others, basic information was brought to him. These stories, then, illuminate every storyteller's option to embellish as long as the necessary core of historical fact is clearly presented. Every teller knows this about his craft. Some of these people whose names I was gifted to hear about are still alive. The youngest is many Talks who is about eighty. The woman named Quiet Until The Thaw is alive, and others. Some of these people I never was introduced to, except through these stories which certainly are intimate in their own ways. Makidemewabe said, "To say the name is to begin the story," which leads you into this book.



* Not to be taken for granted, as the Cree classification of animals is often complex. Bats are birds. Otters may be fish if, say in a story, they are talking underwater to fish, etc.

** Say the name over to yourself, in different voices, in melodies, and you have a lynx-song to wait with.

I share all of this from an original pamphlet, close to me, published by Bear Claw Press once upon a time in simple spool binding and now age-toned papers. Slowly but surely the book is moving back to the earth. (BA)

aurora: eco time