Introduction to my Iroquois “Holy Man” poem. 11-18-13, Robert M. Shelby.

This poem, as do many of my poems, reflects study of History and Anthropology. I have always tried to do more than express myself. I wanted to capture something universal, or at least broader and deeper than the self I knew, during most of my life. I wanted to impress myself and signal something of value to my audiences. I expressed it decades ago, as “becoming a river to my people.”

The Iroquois longhouse was the capacious if narrow Council Chamber, first of the Five Nations, later of the League’s Six Nations when the Wyandot tribe was admitted. The Longhouse was a democratic association. Our own Constitution embodies more than exemplary European sources. The unwritten constitution of the Iroquois figured into the awareness of our founding fathers.

All American Indian tribes had, in their societies and cultures, those “medicine men,” or women, we call shamans. But, there was another class of persons regarded as holy by their peoples, who were regarded as specially close to “The Great Spirit,” variously named by different tribes, as for instance the Wakondah among Dakotah and Lakotah peoples of the Black Hills and farther south and west on the central plains, or Manitou among the Iroquois. Manitou or Manito had a dark side as well as a light, benevolent side. Hence, people were leery and wary as well as respectful of such holy persons.

[I should make note of the shaman’s role. A shaman was sought for counsel or magical performance in matters of personal or tribal concern. He or she practiced rites for healing sickness and injury, for protection against harm from variously threatening persons or malicious spirit-forces or to lay a curse against such a person, force or group. The other sort, the holy persons, were looked to for leadership and wise advice of the heart or concerning a “spirit quest,” the search for new identity or a power-totem, an ally in the struggle for successful life. The quest involved effort, perhaps sacrifice, and a big dream. Distinction between shamans and holy persons was not always hard and fast.]

This poem is called, “Manitou Man Singing In The League’s Longhouse.” The typed draft of this poem was lost for some thirty-five years and found recently, with great joy, in a “slush” box of old manuscripts. Though I often recalled the poem, I could not reconstruct it from memory. Its strategy was too complicated. It began from the rhythm of its repeated refrain. Rediscovered, I was able to smooth it up and give it a stronger ending. Lastly, one should note in that ending that the word “rapper” means inclusively more than a kind of performance poet.

Manitou Man Singing
in the League’s Longhouse

In a sacred, secret way I come.
Wide water, wind and earth are mine.
To the Iroquois I bring the pine.
Across the sky I bring my drum.

The Huron knows where I journey from,
The Frenchmen well imbibe and dine.
In a sacred, secret way I come,
Wide water, wind and earth are mine.

What I need I take, then I bring some.
Any place I camp I leave no sign.
I bring my bow and strong fish-line.
I bring the quiet song I hum.

In a sacred, secret way I come,
Wide water, wind and earth are mine.
I give you them. Drink up your wine.
So many things make us feel fine.

Would that more made us act well.
Only a sacred way can tell . . .
Don’t tell me White heaven and hell,
All they know is, Ring a bell.
Bell be empty but for clapper
Leading empty headed rapper.

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