Standing firm and facing Sisiutl
Andrew Wright

Close your eyes. I am going to describe something of what you see.

You are standing, alone, on a strange beach. Turn with your back to the sea. In front of you are rocks and trees. The trees are like thin, twisted arms and fingers, pulling away from the sea but held by their roots. The roots are half wrenched out of the ground. The rocks writhe as if wrung like a wet towel by a giant’s hands.

Both trees and rocks tried to flee from Sisiutl. Their roots and their weight held them. They screamed silently but with the power of thunder and the agony of lightning. They had seen Sisiutl, the monster with two heads coming from the sea.

People and animals run, run, run, blind with fear, when they see Sisiutl. They run and run to the end of the land.

Now, turn slowly round and face the sea. Move your feet to plant them solidly on the beach. Look out to sea. There, far away, is something, something in the sea. It is coming nearer. It is Sisiutl. You can see the two heads, one at each end of a long neck. The head’s eyes have seen you. The waves are breaking white foam around them. The eyes are hard. The teeth are razored and long.

You want to turn. You want to scream and run and leave that place. You stay. Your feet are solid on the beach. If you went you would flee forever, always running, your mind always frozen with fear, finding no haven, no home in yourself.

Sisiutl is coming nearer. The two heads rear up against the twisting clouds. Sisiutl’s hard eyes never leave yours. The stink from the two gaping mouths makes you want to vomit. The stink turns your hair dark yellow and the ends of your hair drip in front of your eyes.

You want to turn. You want to scream and run and leave that place. You stay. Your feet are solid on the beach. If you went you would flee forever, always running, your mind always frozen with fear, finding no haven, no home in yourself.

Sisiutl is there, standing at the sea’s edge. Sisiutl is rising above you, coming closer. The two long necks are beginning to open to wrap around you. The teeth seem longer and the purple tongue’s pulse in anticipation of swallowing your flesh.

You stand firm. Your feet solid on the beach. You are terrified but you do not move. There is nowhere to go. You face Sisiutl.

Sisiutl’s two necks come closer. Sisiutl’s two heads come on either side of you…then they see each other and Sisiutl is frozen with fear. Sisiutl writhes and twists and turns to run and run and to plunge into the sea and frothing the water, twists away into the depths of the ocean.

There was nowhere to run.

You have found yourself within yourself.

Now you are no longer alone on the beach. Children are playing around you.

You can leave the beach or you can stay, just as you wish.

A few comments

This is my version of a story about Sisiutl which I found in Elida Gersie’s wonderful book: Reflections on Therapeutic Storymaking, (page 52) published by Jessica Kingsley Publishing. Gersie attributes the story to the oral tradition in the Cameroon.

Before you read the story (or learn it to tell) make sure you have one way of pronouncing the same, Sisiutl. I pronounce it, Sissiootal with the stress on oo.

I suggest that the students do as the story asks them…they close their eyes. When I ask students to close their eyes I usually say, ‘If you do not wish to take part then all I ask is that you do not disturb the other students in any way. Let them concentrate, you remain silent and still’. Then, normally, I close my eyes while I tell the story. No class has ever taken advantage of my vulnerability. Of course it will happen one day but it has been worth the risk so far!

Gersie uses the story in therapy giving a model of what we all have to do sometimes in our lives, face the truth, face ourselves, find the self in us that is best able to cope with experience.

It is important, when working with this story, for the listeners not to be distracted by words which are important for the meaning but unknown to them. In this case, it is better not to give meanings during the telling but to pre-teach key unknown words.

Activities

I have written my version of the story based on Gersie’s version. She says that hers is her re-write of a story from the Cameroon. It is therefore very reasonable to ask the students to write their own version creating their own place, their own monster and their own feelings. The students should retain the thread; the important aspect of the story is that a person faces fear and doesn’t run away and finds strength and identity within him or herself.

Having written their version (give and keep to a strict time for everyone…students who have not finished read what they have written) the students divide into pairs and take it in turns to read to each other their story. Do this several times so that each student reads their story and listens to others each time. I usually find that the students want to re-draft their story having read it aloud. I give them time for this.

Stop them reading to other people before interest begins to flag.

Finally, all the stories should be written and published either in a book or on the school website. Illustrations can be added.

I never select, ‘the best ones’, but always publish the whole lot.

15 Responses to “Standing firm and facing Sisiutl”


  1. 1 Nichole Messier September 20, 2008 at 1:33 am

    The Sisiutl is a mythological creature of the Pacific Northwest of North America, who features in the cosmology of several coastal tribes, including the Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Coast Salish. It is a common motif, used, for example, in monumental carving on houses, on ceremonial carved dishes, and totem poles. It is also a major part of the ceremonial winter dances of the Kwakwaka’wakw, and traditionally the dancer wears a particularly fabulous transformation mask. The same form is used on the bear-bone amulets employed by Tsimshian, Tlingit & Haida shamans as soul-catchers.

    The story came to the attention of the non-native world with the 1981 publication of a book called Daughters of Copper Woman. This book was received with acclaim by the non-native world, as a wonderfully authentic telling of west coast native myths. The native world was more ambivalent, and it was a book which especially ignited the debate about the Cultural Appropriation of Native traditions. The book was written by a white woman, who had had traditional stories shared with her by Nuuchah-nulth women elders. She understood that she’d been given permission (instruction, even) to share the stories. This was, however, not the understanding of some members of the native community, who were unhappy not only that their private legends had been shared, but also that it was done through the filter of a white, feminist woman, writing in the voice of a native woman. There were murmurings, also, suggesting it was unjustly easier for a white author than for a native one to get such stories published.

    Whatever the political ripples caused by the publication, Daughters of Copper Woman remains a wonderful book and has been a source of great inspiration to many people all over the world. The Sisiutl story (my personal favourite in the book) is actually a bit of an oddity amongst the other stories, which are mostly segments of a female-centred cultural creation myth.

    As for the “Cameroon” connection, it probably comes down to this: the author of Daughters of Copper Woman is called Anne Cameron.

  2. 2 Andrew Wright October 17, 2008 at 10:49 am

    Nichole
    I do hope you will see this response from me!
    What a wonderfully informed addtion to the story. I am so grateful.
    What a fascinating question: the notion of intellectual and cultural copyright of a traditional oral story.
    I find myself lurching from respectful acceptance of this ‘possessiveness’ to protest..we are fellow human beings and through sharing come so much closer.
    Andrew

    • 3 Beverly Boke May 25, 2012 at 4:29 pm

      But sharing is usually a mutually-agreed-upon action. If you told someone your private story and then read it in a book…well, your reaction tells you what this is really all about…

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  4. 8 #hartson23[IPIIGIIPIIII] June 3, 2011 at 2:50 am

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  5. 10 Sonny Keating January 14, 2013 at 7:44 am

    I am but a half-breed, not raised in my Native family or tribe, given over to the State and foster families, yet I was blessed or cursed with a terrible vision of Sisiutl when I was turning 18, in 1980. This vision has haunted me ever since and I am declared; Schizophrenic, by the white man for even telling of my visitation of a light coming from the North. Even though I did not know of my Native heritage growing up, I saw something that did not have to be believed in to be seen. I know not the meaning of my vision, but it has wrapped itself around me in my life, just as it did in the vision. I have been told not to make known my story, even though it has become the central foci of my life. How does one such as myself find others to share meaning if this if Hamatsa is extinct because of Christian persecution?

    • 11 Andrew Wright January 14, 2013 at 9:18 am

      Wow! You have faced Sisiutl! I am just a storyteller and can only be astonished and concerned for you rather than advise you. The implication in the story is that if you can face Sisiutl and make it turn away then you will be liberated. Maybe you have to face Sisiutl again? I wish you well. Thank you for writing to me. Andrew

  6. 12 curacao breezes May 12, 2013 at 12:34 pm

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  8. 15 astrobuss June 23, 2014 at 4:45 am

    The name Sisiutl comes from the BC Coast. The theme is universal.


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