Os-sa-pah-chi-kan / Shapeshifting in the Matrices
by James Nicholas
As a special addendum to this article, James has
provided image works from his collaborations with his wife Sandra
from the coyut and baba series
1335 x 480 px
Poundmaker's Garden, shown
at the Godfrey Dean Art Gallery in Yorkton, Sask. in August curated by
    
As an exercise and out of sheer curiosity I decided to look
up the word “shamanism” in various classic books of knowledge, which my
father-in-law had left me when he went to the world of the shamans.
The books include, The World Book of Organized Knowledge
(1922); The New Teachers and Pupils Encyclopedia (1910) and the
Harmsworth Universal Encyclopedia.
The Harmsworth edition simply grants itself the peerage,
“written by the leading authorities in every branch of knowledge.”
According to this group of imminent scholars and “brilliant
company of specialists”, shamanism is a Sumerian form of demonology and
ancestral worship practiced exclusively by aboriginal and primitive
Aboriginal Asians, Eastern Europeans, Tunguses, Turks,
Finns, Norwegians, Mongolians, North American Indians.
These include witch doctors, sorcerers, oracles, and
soothsayers, performing exorcisms of ancestral ghosts, spirits with
rattles, fetishes, dances, weird feasts and demonic ceremonies.
A sacred society of cults and idol worshipers who would
perform incantations, magical rites, spells and sacrifices to ward off
evil spirits of the lower world.
Apparently these guys worshipped everything from dead
ancestors, fetishes, demons, carved posts, animals, the sun, rocks,etc.
And finally shamanism is a religion practiced by Northern
American Indians with there
“uncanny rites” and “medicine men.”
Of course one cannot (should not) dismiss off-hand the
dedication and immense contributions of such scholars/anthropologists as
Robert Brightman, Franz Boas, Levi-Strauss, Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski,
My favorite is surely Robert Brightman because he goes
through 396 pages of written text in Grateful Prey without
mentioning the word, shaman, even once.
And his mastery of the Cree language is astonishing, in its
near preciseness of literary form, considering its oral tradition.
I can only say, “Good for you, Robert, because to define is
Shamanism from the perspective of a full-blood Cree
Indian is a non-linear, de-globalized, anti-hybrid post-modern society,
at once ma mah ta wi si win and matrices. But to enter the matrix you
have to be aware and knowledgeable of the portals which may or may not
avail themselves to you.
Shamanism from the perspective of a full-blood Cree Indian
is a non-linear, de-globalized, anti-hybrid post-modern society, at once
ma mah ta wi si win and matrices. But to enter the matrix you have to be
aware and knowledgeable of the portals which may or may not avail
themselves to you.
I don’t know who picks shamans or indeed how they are
picked, but this much I do know, you know.
One must begin at the beginning, in the womb, the genetic
code, the double helix, the strand of DNA which determines the why and
what and where of…
One must be a child of the earth, of the land, in order to
understand the simple, the profound, the sacred, the spiritual.
The inner world vis-à-vis the world as it appears when you
look up at the stars on a dark night.
One must sacrifice for knowledge and dare to go where no
human mind or spirit has dared to venture.
One must see through and around the time/space/earth/self
continuum, with the added ability to bend it, harness it, or bring it to
One must not only understand and discover the portal to the
matrix, one must also be the matrices.
One must know intimately and communicate with stone, tree,
plant, medicine, duality, fire, rock, water, good, opposites, balance,
polarity, pebble, change, static, beginning, life, death, in-between,
boulder, bark, moss.
One must hear and understand the thunder, the bear,
waterfalls, wind, laughter, tears, sorrow, joy, the big people (mis-ta-pe-wuk),
the little people (mi-mi-quiss-e-wuk), love, compassion, silence
Above all one must hear and understand the language of
Some of my most vivid recollections, gowing up as a
trappers son as I did, were “Kiyass-achemoyena” or old stories; the ones
told late at night, in that space between the conscious and the abyss of
“le petite mort”.
Some of my most vivid recollections, gowing up as a trappers
son as I did, were “Kiyass-achemoyena” or old stories; the ones told
late at night, in that space between the conscious and the abyss of “le
These old stories encapsulated the incredible power of my
people, and their immense beauty.
My ancestors, Asiniskaw Ithiniuwuk were and are an amazing
When you hear about men whose vision quest was the duration
of a season; fall to spring, immersed under the ice, in a river or
musket, enclosed inside a box, you know where you are from!
When you are told of your relatives on vision quests being
amid the elements, on a reef in the middle of a lake for weeks or
months, you know who you are.
Brightman, Robert. Grateful Prey: Rock Cree Human-Animal
Relationships. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft0f59n6tb/
The World Book: Organized Knowledge in Story and Pictures;
W.F. Quarrie and Company; Toronto, 1922
Harmsworth's Universal Encyclopedia; The Educational Book
Co. Ltd.; 17 New Bridge St.; London, E.C.
The New Teachers' and Pupils' Encyclopedia; The Holst
Publishing Company; Chicago, Boone, Pittsburg, Toronto; 1910
They say that in the spring my grandpa would abscond into
the forests of the boreal north, carrying with him the meager provisions
of a bible and a small steel axe.
No one would see him for the whole summer, until late fall
on a calm and windless evening, they could hear him calling from across
the lake for someone to come and get him.
A group of women berry pickers would then take a canoe and
go rescue nimosom!
Having gotten him to the campsite shore of the lake an all
night ceremony would begin where they would have to rub his whole body
down with bear grease.
One other occasion, meaning other autumns, he would simply
reappear in the community his body covered entirely in rabbit skins,
still carrying the bible and his little axe.
People would be curious as to his summer travels, and would
ask him about some of the places he had been to.
He would thus recite his vast and diverse itinerary, citing
numerous communities and great distances traveled between them.
And if you’ve ever been to northern Manitoba, you’d soon
realize the impassibility and precariousness of such travel.
But you’d be especially struck by the great number and vast
stretches of lakes, rivers and bodies of water one would have to ford or
circumnavigate to accomplish this fate.
People would be naturally curious and want to know how a guy
could cross the lakes and rivers without a canoe.
His answer would be simply, “I flew”.
According to Esther Linklater who told me the story, the
reason my “gramps” had to be rubbed down with bear grease was to
“re-humanize” him; because having spent so much time in the animal
world, he had begun to assimilate some of the mode and physicalities of
the four legged world.
James is full blood Rock Cree, an actor, video artist and
writer. His work "Land, Relationship and Community" is reproduced in the
book of the same name (published by Presentation House Gallery). Recent
videos include "To the living, the dead and those yet unborn" an
intertextual dialogue in Cree with Taras Shevchenko and 19th Ukraine and
Peuk Nepi Meeting Waterwoman.
Sandra Semchuk and James Nicholas,
husband and wife, are collaborative artists who work with photography,
video, performance and textual narrative to create dialogue between the
indigenous and the non-indigenous.