The Shaman - Poem by Edward Hester
In the Land of the Bear in the Year of the Long Winter, the Sun returned at last to the Land
And the People gathered to celebrate the coming-through-of the hard-times.
In the evening, the men gathered around the campfires to tell the their stories
Of fierce winter hunts and bloody raids on their enemies to the south
While the women cleaned the day’s game and cooked bear and antelope to feed the People.
It was the time of rising bounty, when the antelope came back up the valleys.
It was the time when the old people talked sadly of the passing of friends during the long winter
It was the time when wives widowed during the fierce winter hunts watched the Earth turn green
And as new life began to fill the Land, began to look thoughtfully at eligible men,
And lonely men, tired of the loneliness and cold winter beds, began to look back.
At dusk, the boys and young men would watch secretly as they did their chores
To see who might be coming to the campfire, for the best stories would be told
By the warriors who always competed for the bravest, most preposterous story
While young women would steal peeks through the tent flaps at the warriors
And whisper to one another, or else stroll by disdaining to notice the bold comments
Each one making their plans, as were the men, but enjoying the game nevertheless.
But the eyes of even the bravest of the youths would gleam white in the shadows
When came the Shaman, and some would whisper and move away in fear
If the Strange One saw them there in the shadows, lurking in the shadows.
For it was whispered that the Shaman was not really there at all,
For the Shaman had been taken by a Great Bear two years before.
In a snow storm of blinding fury, the Bear had come without a sound,
And in the morning, the tent was found torn open and empty, and the man gone.
The Elders told that It was a Holy Animal, One whose name must not be spoken
Who had come that night and taken the Shaman, into the Land of the Spirits
Where walked the Star People, the Ancestors, and the People of the Dawn of the World.
But the youths heard their parents whisper stories of the “Old Man of the Mountain”
And “Master of the Forest, ” and looked uneasily into the darkness beyond their campfires.
But all knew that the One who came that night wintry night was a Power of the Moon,
And quietly they called it “One Who Prowls the Night” so as not to attract its attention.
No tent there was in the camp set aside for the Strange One, yet the Elders said nothing.
No tent for the Shaman in the camp, yet silent were the Chief and warriors all
And loud the prayers were given, and respect given to the Sacred Ones.
And no one ever saw him come. No sentries gave alarm. He was just suddenly there.
Then came the Shaman, walking with his long strides through the shadows of the camp
Then came the Shaman with his shoulders black with the fur of the bear
Then came the Shaman, long silver braids down his chest and eyes in shadow unseen
And everyone wondered who, or what, it was that walked through their camp at night
All through the lengthening days of the Gathering, he never spoke, but only walked the perimeter
Or stalked through the tents, watching the women as they worked
Or stood watching as the men spoke quietly around the campfires or laughed at a jest or a boast
And yet every man and woman was aware of the Silent Listener
Every man and woman felt the heaviness in the air, like a thunderstorm over the mountain
And every man and woman knew that the Shaman was there for a reason.
Came finally the last day of the Gathering, and the women were busy
Packing away things within the tents for breaking camp the next day.
The men were saying their good-byes around their fires, as usual.
The wind spirits were uneasy and blew fitfully at the flames, and dust devils boiled,
While on the horizon, the skies grew dark and lightning danced among the mountains
And clouds descended onto the meeting grounds so that the sentries grew uneasy
For they could not see to protect the camp, could not guard against what they could not see.
The Elders looked uneasily on these Signs, for each Knew and recognized the coming of Power
And they grew apart and spoke quietly under their breaths, took out the Sacred Pipe, made prayers and offerings, and sat down to await the coming of the Thing that Would Be
Then came the Shaman, through the cloud into the firelight, eyes ablaze in the firelight,
Teeth bared and hands clawed. Now spoke the Shaman, voice rasping and guttural
As though speaking through throat not made for human words.
“I speak for the Great Mother, and for her Sister, the Moon.
They say the People have lost their way and have become a nation of warriors.
The men fight and kill their brothers, while the women do the work for the men.
The Wise Women—who hold the secret knowledge of the Earth and the plants —
Sit not at council and are not heard, and the children are not taught the Old Ways.
Now men kill even their brother, the bear, to eat around their campfires
And forget the covenant with the Land and the Animals as though they were gods.
Gods you may be, in Time, but not yet. Now, you will learn again the Old Ways
And honor your covenant with the Land! It is the Law. I have spoken! Owanestaka! ”
And then the Shaman c-h-a-n-g-e-d. The People cried out in fear. But the Elders sat still as stone.
Taller and taller grew the Shaman ‘til more than twice the height of a tall warrior
Broader and broader and more powerful the frame, long grew the fingernails
Into long white claws, and longer still grew the teeth into terrible yellow fangs.
‘Til before the People stood One-Who-Prowls-the-Night, terrible in the curling clouds,
Calling with Voice of Thunder the lightning from the skies, dancing in the sky overhead
The People all crowded close to the fire and fear awoke in the hearts of the warriors
When out of the night, out of the cloud, came the voices of hundreds of Bears
Roaring in the night, adding their voices to the Thunder
And their agreement with One Who Prowls the Night.
And there, on the perimeter, around the People appeared a Ring of Bears, a Ring of Power
Facing the People, their coats silver and midnight black in the pale light of lightning flashing,
And above them all, through the clouds and through the storm, was the Blood Moon
To give Her judgment on the People.
Came forward ten from among the circling bears, silver gray in the firelight and grizzled.
Ten who Changed as they grew close, becoming smaller, slimmer, but bent with age.
Ten Aged and Terrible Women, wildness and wisdom in their eyes and grim justice in their faces.
“We take the women, ” said one Old One, “to teach them the ways of their Power,
And to teach men to respect the wisdom of the Feminine.
Teach your male children the Old Ways, and these will be returned to you in time.
But to remind you of this teaching, some will be taken each year, as was the Shaman,
So that some of the People will always walk among us unrecognized,
And you will know that when you kill your brothers and sisters of the Bear Nation,
You may be killing your own wives and children. Mitakuye Oyasin”
And then One-Who-Prowls-the–Night rose and gave a great roar,
And a great clatter and crying arose from out of the tents as bears came running
Black Bears, Brown Bears, and Red Bears, small bears and large bears, old bears and young,
And the lightning danced in the skies above, while the Moon shown down on the People
And the Elders sat unmoving with tears on their faces and sadness in their hearts
As the warriors and boys stood and looked at one another in shock and grief.
The warriors ran into the mist, calling, but the bears were gone without a trace
The skies rumbled distantly as Power departed into the mountains
And the clouds rose from the Gathering place towards the Moon shining high in the sky.
But in the days that followed, the Word went out to honor the Bear Nation.
Prayers were said for the women and girl children, and the Old Ways returned.
And once a year when came the Gathering, and the People would sit around the fire,
Men and women together, then would come the Shaman, striding out of the darkness
Moonlight on his silver hair. And with him, the Elders of the Bear Nation
Would come and sit in Council with the People. And Peace was again upon the Land.
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