Friday, December 5, 2008


My latest story-craze is - no surprise to those who know me and my cell phone ringtones - a duck. Not just any duck, mind you: a merganser duck, called Shingebis.  
                      (This one is a hooded merganser.)

It should come as no surprise that I like ducks.  They are cute, waterproof, and they make great noises.  What's not to love?  But Shingebis takes waterfowl to a whole other level.  

The tale of Shingebis is Ojibwe (Chippewa) in origin, and it is set by the shores of Lake Superior during winter time.  Shingebis - typical of animal protagonists found in folk tales and legends around the world - has both bird and human traits.  He goes diving in the frigid lake water for fish, like any self-respecting merganser - but then he takes his fish to the snug winter lodge he has constructed himself, and eats them there, seated by a roaring fire.  

Shingebis, through no real fault of his own, has a formidable nemesis: the North Wind, known to the Ojibwe as Kabibonooka or Kabibonokka.  The North Wind - an irascible curmudgeon of the worst sort - takes pride in his ability to freeze water into ice, bring snow, and drive away all the birds from the Lake for the duration of the cold season.  All, that is, except Shingebis! Looking down on this cheerful and mildly anthropomorphic duck going about his business with no concern for wind and weather, North Wind feels stimied and disrespected.  A battle of wills ensues, with Shingebis emerging as the unlikely victor.

Like so many of my favorite heroes, Shingebis is an underdog (underduck?) who does not conform to the classical heroic mold with which we are accustomed.  He is not big or particularly powerful, in fact, his strength lies in his ordinariness and his authenticity.  He triumphs simply by being true to his essential nature, and by refusing to be bullied.  

When the North Wind blows snow on him, Shingebis ruffles his feathers and shakes it off. When the North Wind freezes the Lake, Shingebis makes a hole in the ice and keeps on fishing. When the North Wind blows his way into his lodge - rather like the Big Bad Wolf! - Shingebis merely sits by the fire and waits.  The North Wind beats a hasty retreat when he finds himself melting - à la Wicked Witch of the West - in the heat of Shingebis's fire, and the little duck returns to his routine, unruffled.  
                              (The Wizard of Oz is perhaps my favorite movie of all time.)

In the battle between the Duck and the Blowhard, it comes as a relief when the duck prevails and emerges from the conflict unscathed, shaking snow off his well-oiled feathers "like water off a duck's back!" as my mother always says.

1 comment:

swans007 said...

Naturally, we Minnesotans love the "Shingebis" story. (And, point of fact, the Merganser is my favorite duck - a seasonal visitor here on Lake Minnetonka).
Check out the volume illustrated by Duluth artist, Betsy Bowen. Betsy does fabulous woodcuts - a medium employed by few artists today. You may enjoy looking around her website:, where she sells calendars, as well as illustrated books.