Written in May 3, 2007
“I heard the owl call my name” by Margaret Craven
The 27-year old Mark Brian was sent by the Bishop to be the vicar at a Native American village of Kingcome in the remote Northwest region of Canada, close to the Arctic Circle. The physician has confided to the Bishop that Mark has barely three years to live and less than two years for active life.
Jim, the boat driver and a native of Kingcome, stops the speed boat and they contemplate hundreds of salmon swimming stealthily on their final journey before they die. Mark recites the Kwakiutl prayer on salmon: “Come swimmer, I am glad to be alive now that you have come to this good place where we can play together. Take this sweet food. Hold it tight, younger brother (hook)”.
The female salmon swimmer digs the seed bed with her torn tail, her sides deep red and blue, her fins battered and worn. The waiting male covers the eggs with milt and the female will linger, guarding them for several days before the current carries her dead body, tail first, as it had swam the current when it was hatched several years ago.
The white man who promised marriage to Keeta’s sister showed up at Kingcome and, after getting the men drunk, he purchased the traditional ceremonial mask for $50 from Keeta’s uncle and left swiftly with his girl.
The antique dealers had offered $3,500 for the mask and the family had refused a few years ago. The next day, the old members of the family packed in a canoe and left to a remote village in shame for the selling of the traditional mask.
When Mark wrote the Bishop about this event the reply was: “An Eskimo was ordained priest. A white man told him that now Tagoona, the Eskimo priest, can help them with the Eskimo problems. Tagoona asked: “What is a problem?” The white man replied: “If I dangled you by the heels from a third-story window, you would have a problem” Tagoona said: “If you drop me it is you who would have the problem, as for me nothing would matter.”
Keeta’s sister was left in Vancouver; she had never seen a paved street, or a train, or a telephone. She frequented the beer parlors and barely survived three months before she died of overdose. Now Mark discovered the cause of the deep sadness in the Eskimos’ eyes.
The Canadian government forbade the great dance-potlatches where families gave all they had based on a chief’s desire to shame his rival, even if it meant his tribe and his children went hungry. In these magnificent potlatches each dance recounted a story of a myth and lasted for three hours and food was abundant, then the host would distribute refrigerators and washing machines. The guests were billeted in the houses of Kingcome, twenty or thirty to each house, to be fed and cared for.
The boats came up the inlet, and the canoes brought the guests up the river. Each night, one of the relatives gave a great feast of seal, duck or salmon, and a tremendous quantity of gifts purchased from Alert Bay city. These potlatches were like the coronations of a king but now the meaning is gone and the gifts turned miserably cheap.
In late March, the tribe prepares for the coming of the oolachon or the candlefish; the male is dried on V-frames and the oil of the female fish, richer in fat, oil is extracted and rendered into gleena for dipping food into and is heated in huge wooden vats over small slow fire; it is the month where the atmosphere is reeking with fish smell.
In May, all the men ready the boats, freshly painted, and leave to gig for halibut (the old woman).
June and July are salmon (the swimmer) fishing months using gill-netting in River’s Inlet. Cedar bark is removed to prepare blankets for newly born.
Autumn is hunting season for deer and bear.
Winter is reserved for hunting small animals like rabbits and wolves.
Around May, the chief of the tribe announced to Mark that they are ready to erect a new vicarage because he shared their sadness and sorrows for a year. When someone dies, the tribe has to notify the RCMP to investigate and give permission for the body to be buried.
When young Gordon’s mother died Mark arranged for him and his four younger sisters and brothers to get an education in Vancouver. Keeta joined Gordon but he managed to fit well with the white men environment; Keeta returned to the village to stay. She would not go see Mark because she thought that he would not approve of what she did; she made sure to get pregnant by Gordon so that he may have someone to continue his presence in the village.
On Christmas time, Mark and Jim would set out early each day to take gifts to the hand-loggers and their families, to the remote camps, and to the other villages. The old priest Caleb visited with Mark and said: “The young will follow Gordon. Very soon only the old will be left. The tribe is going to trade its simplicity for the shiny gadgetry of our complex world and the outside world will not accept it easily.” Mark replied: “The wrong people in the complex world will use the natives for the wrong reasons, for publicity, politics and greed. These natives will still have men like you to stand by them; in life you have been to this tribe what the Cedar-man was to them in the myth.”
Old Martha realizes from the pallor in Mark’s face that his days are numbered and sent a letter to the Bishop to visit quickly. The Bishop arrives and lingered for three days before getting the courage to tell Mark: “I will begin at once to seek a replacement for you. Your work in the village is almost done. When you come out, you will come to me.” Mark answered: “Yes, my lord.”
Martha has spread the word and Keeta met Mark and told him: “Stay with us. We have written the Bishop and he agreed for you to remain because this is your village and we are your family. You are the swimmer who came to us from the great sea.”
During an emergency outing Mark said to Jim who is to wed Keeta: “When I am no longer in the village, take care of Keeta. When you want coffee don’t bang on the table but say “please’. When you build Keeta a house, let her plan it with you. Take her and the children with you sometimes on the fishing, and each year take her outside until it is familiar to her. Someday, when the village is no more, you too must cross the bridge.”
When Mark died in an accident many from the neighboring villages and outposts came to the funeral. The young matrons asked Mrs. Hudson: “What meat shall we prepare for the guests?” “Roast beef”, and “What vegetable?” “Carrots, he never liked mashed turnips and I made him eat them.”
Peter, the old mask carver would not sleep during this night and he dressed and sat on the top step of his house waiting because it would be most inhospitable if Mark’s soul returned and no one was awake.