Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Shingebiss, A Story from Chemaywe’ya, the Way-back Time

By Sage Passi

"During the Moon of the Freezing-Over-of-the-Earth when Winter Maker blows his icy breath across the land, all but the bravest birds fly south.”
-Shingebiss, An Ojibwe Legend retold by
Nancy Van Laan with woodcuts by Betsy Bowen.

Shingebiss, the merganser duck and WinterMaker, two puppets created by Urban Roots youth, spar at the Phalen Freeze Fest on February 7.  Colin Wesaw (left) narrates the story.

Under the spell of Spirit Moon (December), a group of us gathered around the amphitheater at Lake Phalen to envision a celebration to “take back” winter. We wanted to create an experience that would challenge the blustery cold elements we would likely encounter during Stingy Moon (February) when this community event would take place.

Phalen Creek - before the restoration.
The destination for this event is one of my favorite places. Phalen Creek, with its picturesque shoreline restored last year, runs through a beautiful lagoon that connects it to Lake Phalen. This creek is part of a channel system upstream that the Watershed is starting a four -year “journey” to restore this spring. The beautiful “island” and stream that meanders under its bridges and through the adjoining land are charged with the good energy and happy memories of WaterFest held there for the past 14 springs.

A team gathers by the Lake Phalen amphitheater to plan the
winter celebration, Phalen Feeze Fest.
At the backbone of this winter wonderland outdoor event, Phalen Freeze Fest is a Legacy funded education program run by St. Paul Parks and Recreation. Faith Krogstad, the program’s coordinator was responsible for the original vision for the event and much of its direction. The dedication and creativity of Faith and her teammates, Debbie Koenigs and Mary Henke-Haney who led puppet workshops, wrote the script and directed the puppeteers were the core ingredients that made it a true success.

Faith had previously been involved in an annual winter celebration that North House Folk School in Grand Marais puts on with In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater. She wanted to create a similar gathering that would draw families to a location where they could transform their own perceptions and fears about winter. In essence, participant would be invited to “reimagine” winter, experience its beauty and in shorthand, have fun with it!

That December afternoon when we met at Lake Phalen there was no snow on the ground. There was only a slight chill in the air and a light drizzle. I looked around at the setting. I could already see infinite possibilities.

What was the inspiration for this rebel attitude toward winter?

A duck.

The celebration would be based on the Ojibwe legend of Shingebiss, the defiant merganser who stood up to winter. After our meeting I immediately called up Steve Johnson, the Audubon volunteer who, for many years has taught kids how to identify birds during our shoreline restoration projects.

“What do you know about mergansers?” I asked him. “Do you see them on Lake Phalen?”

I knew Steve would have a lot to say about this plucky bird. I plied him for information and learned that three species of mergansers –the common, the hooded merganser and the red-breasted mergansers spend time in various seasons around Lake Phalen, stopping by during migration in the fall/spring or nesting in the back waters. I recalled my college years of peering through binoculars at mergansers.

Two of Minnesota's most common mergansers - Common Merganser (left) and Hooded Merganser (right).

After that first rendezvous, I wasted no time and immediately dove in. I went to the library and checked out the book, Shingebiss retold by Nancy Van Laan with woodcuts by Betsy Bowen. 
Pages from the storybook Shingebiss  with woodcuts
by Betsy Bowen marked the path for the StoryWalk. 
They were lit by ice candles made by Great River
Montessori students.

I sent an e-mail to Kate Swensen, a teacher I work with at American Indian Magnet School. She called me on Christmas Eve while I was driving to my son-in-law’s parents’ house for dinner. You have to admit that’s dedication. Over the years she and I have developed a connection that always seems to draw out the element of synergy.

“That’s our book of the month for fourth graders in February,” she announced.

I could feel her diving in like the Shingebiss, the merganser bravely does into the icy unknown. Little did I know then, that before long we would be helping three science classrooms make 67 Shingebiss merganser sock puppets for our Phalen Freeze Fest storytelling. I also was not aware that the AIM fourth grade teachers would use them again to film their students telling the Shingebiss legend from the book for their Friday cultural gatherings in February. But I did know if those teachers got involved with this event there would be a good chance that they would be back for WaterFest.

American Indian Magnet fourth graders making Shingebiss (merganser) puppets.

So where did the story come from anyway?

"Once during the Spirit Moon, the first moon of winter and of deep snow, the chilling breath of Kabibona’kan froze the waters of Great Lake Superior. Even a moose could now cross the vast lake without breaking the ice. It was as solid as stone.

In his lodge, Shingebiss had but four logs to keep him warm. Four logs, one for each cold winter month. He did not want to starve during this harsh season as so many others might. What he needed was a way to fish through the thick ice. So, fearlessly, Shingebiss ventured outdoors to face the great wind of Winter Maker."
-Shingebiss, An Ojibwe Legend retold by
Nancy Van Laan with woodcuts by Betsy Bowen. 


Stephanie Schroder, Harding High Ojibwe teacher assists a
student in puppet-making.
Long ago the Ojibwe had to learn how to adapt to the harsh climate of the north. They stayed alive by closely watching birds and animals to see how they survived. Their legend of Shingebiss carries the lessons they learned about conservation, perseverance and resourcefulness, lessons that are equally useful today.

It didn’t take long for those merganser puppets to become our teachers. Aeysha, a young actress and artist was recruited to come up with a vision for the puppets and a method for teaching kids how to make them. It turned into a rather complicated art project, to be truthful, that was a bit arduous for fourth graders. But, I now have gratitude for the lessons we learned in the process and for the friends we made along the way. When we came back up for air, we really had something to be thankful for!

Three Harding High Ojibwe classes took a day to assist us by taking over the step of hot gluing the merganser duck bills to the socks for the fourth graders and making some marvelous animal masks. This turned into a delightful opportunity to get acquainted with their Ojibwe teacher, Stephanie Schroeder who brought the story to life for her students with her personal knowledge of the culture and the genuine flavor she added to the storytelling.

Natalie Campbell, a Watershed District intern decoupages 67
Shingebiss puppets before the day of the performance at
Phalen Freeze Fest.

At the eleventh hour, on the day before the event, it was a Watershed District intern’s dedication and perseverance (thanks Natalie Campbell!) that helped get the job done of modge-podging those 67 puppets so that we could deliver three tubs of magical merganser Shingebiss puppets to the stage on February 7!

That duck has a way of drawing people in.

So Who Jumped In?

Harding Earth Club gets into the spirit of making star hats to help the audience dramatize the character of WinterMaker.

It’s only been a few days since that enchanted evening. Now Stingy Moon (February) with its icy winds has put us under her spell, so I’ve been reflecting on the magic that happened along the way. When groups with overlapping missions come together to put on an event like Phalen Freeze Fest, the outcomes grow in magnitude.

David Rittenhouse, Urban Roots Conservation Manager, helps youth interns
prepare puppets for Phalen Freeze Fest.
Teens from Urban Roots, a St. Paul-based organization that focuses on food, conservation and youth development, built larger than life Shingebiss and WinterMaker puppets and used them to act out the story. They also helped with much of the set-up for the event. 

Families and youth came to Duluth-Case and Hancock Recreation Centers in multiple sessions to add a cadre of paper mache props and puppets to the storytelling.

Teachers, Shannen Lachemaya, Andy Jones and Has Sinthaug and Master Naturalist Bev Blomgren engaged the Harding Earth Club on three Friday afternoons to prepare for Phalen Freeze Fest.

Earth Club volunteers crafted an illuminated fish puppet and a giant LED-lit moon, created fanciful Winter Maker puppets and shaped life-like imaginative animal masks.

Harding Earth Club created animal masks to be worn
by the audience.
Sherry Brooks involved Farnsworth’s extended day program third graders who contributed star and moon hats and animal masks. Great River School created a large collection of paper mache animal hats for the audience that represented animals that hibernate in winter. They also made the beautiful ice luminaries that lighted the StoryWalk and lanterns that hung at the top of the amphitheater.
Great River Montessori School created
lanterns and animal hats for the event.

East Side elder storyteller, Colin Wesaw, narrated the legend of Shingebiss with drama and enthusiasm.

Jim Levitt, DNR Fisheries Specialist, brought FiN (Fishing in the Neighborhood) to the event and set up an ice fishing tent on Lake Phalen in the dark where many families had the opportunity to get out on the ice and learn how to fish in winter.

The Watershed District’s CAC members, Hallie Finucane, Jill Danner, Karen Wold and her daughter Anika along with other watershed supporters, Sherry Brooks, Peter Zeftel and Angie Hong helped pass out masks, hats and puppets to audience participants.

The DNR's Fishing in the Neighborhood (FiN) program led by
Jim Levitt helped teach about ice fishing on Lake Phalen.

Winter was being pretty gentle with us that night and blessed us with warm temperatures. I have a feeling “Winter Maker” was going easy on us during our first round of test-driving this outdoor celebration so that we would be tempted to come back and try it again next year. 

Hopefully in years to come Phalen Freeze Fest will become an annual event that can grow and become even more magical! In the meantime, stay tuned and join us in Budding Moon (May) at this captivating location for WaterFest 2015 on Saturday May 30. The theme is Water Wonderland, a fitting title for an event at such a special place.

Those 67 mergansers, led by Shingebiss the Great will be back to lead the parade!

Phalen Fest participants take on WinterMaker with their Shingebiss puppets that
will be used again at WaterFest (May 30th, 2015)

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