A Drum Ceremony for Dead Eagles and Ravens
By Cle-alls (Dr. John Medicine Horse Kelly)
Carry dead Eagles and Ravens
to Rose Spit;
place them high in the trees,
far away from government
agent and warden.
Under the beat of my drum,
let them go back
to cry to the wind
and to the moon;
and not to be preserved
in a museum
where curators say,
“This is the way
in Haida Dream Time;”
when in truth and in mythtime
they were and they weren’t
all at the same time.
“Jake, I just killed an eagle.”
“So, Roxanne, why’d you do that?”
“Why? Why? What do you mean, why? She flew up in front of my truck, that’s why!”
Now, raven-clan people say eagles are more noble than smart, but I hardly ever heard of an eagle flying up in front of a pickup truck. Power lines, not pickups, usually get them.
I didn’t quite know what to say.
“So . . . where is she now?”
“In the back of my pickup. I was on my way to Queen Charlotte City.”
“Where are you parked?”
“In front of the restaurant. You know, the Sea Raven.”
I kind of hoped nobody would spot that dead eagle in the back of her truck. Half the Haida are eagle clan people around this island; the other half are raven. Even if they said nothing, the wildlife people certainly would. Roxanne’s chance of survival was running about 50-50 for the day.
Later that afternoon, Roxanne drove up to my cabin. Muffler was dragging. Hard for her to sneak up on anyone – eagles or me. Her primered pickup snorted about five seconds after she turned off the ignition.
“Eagle’s under the blanket in the back,” she said. “I don’t want to drive around with her anymore. Take her for me, will you?”
“What am I going to do with a dead eagle?
“Well, I thought maybe you could handle this. Maybe hold a ceremony or something.”
“Ceremony? What kind of ceremony? Anglican, Methodist, Catholic or what?”
“Well, you should know what to do; you’re eagle clan. Don’t you have any dead eagle ceremonies?”
“We used to have secret societies for that kind of stuff. At least that’s what my uncles told me.”
“So do one of those secret ceremonies,” she said.
“I can’t do that.”
“‘Cause they were secret, that’s why not. That’s why they called them secret societies. Besides that, the last elder who knew any ceremonies died about a generation ago. The only people who ever touched the topic were a few linguists, and they didn’t get much; or at least they didn’t give much back.”
Roxanne didn’t seem to be following what I was saying.
“Like I said, you’re an eagle and there’s a dead eagle in the back of my truck,” she said.
“Look Roxanne, the only stuff I know is from Pine Ridge where I worked as a reporter. Just because I spent four years there and learned a few Lakota Sioux songs doesn’t mean I can do a dead eagle ceremony. Besides, that’s a Haida eagle, not a Sioux one.”
“So, what’s the difference between a Sioux eagle and a Haida one?” she asked, “For all you know, maybe she flew in from Pine Ridge.”
“Oh yeah? Maybe that’s why she flew up in front of your truck! She was lost.”
“So you admit she might be a Sioux eagle?”
Her green eyes locked on mine. I looked away, pretending not to notice. I hated it when Roxanne used her personal logic. She actually made sense. Sometimes.
I carried the eagle up the steps to my porch. Roxanne was right behind me.
”Maybe we could take her up north,” she said. “Place her high in a tree – you know – at Rose Spit, where the raven found the first people.”
“That’s a raven story,” I said. “This is an eagle.”
“Yeah, but they’ve got one thing in common.”
“They’re both birds.”
My old cabin was deep in the woods, so I wasn’t worried about wildlife officers. Just the same, when Roxanne brought a red towel I covered the eagle with it. Red was the right colour for protecting eagle feathers, at least that’s the way I learned it on Pine Ridge. Nowadays we borrow this kind of thing. Our own Haida ceremonies are much harder to find. We’ve got a few left, but the oldest ones are just hinted at in the Haida songs a gentleman named Eugene Arima collected years ago. So much of our history survives in those songs – and the old drums that a few of our families never gave the museums. I’m glad we’ve got as much as we do. I pray our younger people continue to pick up that chain where the last link was broken off.
It is us, those old songs and our drums. It is the us my uncles told me about and that my heart longs to experience more deeply.
The eagle’s brown feathers still had white patches. On Pine Ridge some say those spots are spirits. In the Lakota Sioux language the spotted eagle – wambli gleska – is lila wakan, especially sacred and powerful. The dead eagle, sadly, was just maturing, but too skinny; about half the weight she should have been.
“Must have been the fish,” I muttered.
“What did you say?”
“The fish. No fish; the eagles are starving. Everything is changing. Even the fish don’t run anymore like my uncles described. Maybe that’s the real reason.”
“For why she flew up in front of your truck. Eagles – Sioux or Haida — are too smart to do that accidentally. Maybe she was ready for the spirit world.”
“Yeah? Ravens are more practical,” Roxanne replied. “I’m a raven-person. But, there’s a dead one that’s been hanging off that fence over there. Rancher shot him. Ravens used to harass his lambs.”
“Sounds like a capital offence to me,” I said with a tinge of anger. In the old days, nobody, not even an eagle, would have shot a raven. Old timers – of both races – respected the clans. But now, well, I guess someone forgot to record the elder who talked about that, too.
“Anyway, the rancher doesn’t have lambs anymore.”
“So why’d he really shoot it?”
“Habit, I guess. He just wanted to.”
“Say, Jake. About that raven, you know some ceremonies. Do you think you could? . . .”
I could see the wheels turning in Roxanne’s sea-green eyes.
“Now wait just one gol-darned minute there, Roxanne.”
“Gull? You’ve got a dead seagull?”
“No. Seagull; eagull – what are you doing to me? You’ve got a Haida man holding a Sioux ceremony for a dead eagle – and that sure ain’t no Sioux raven. I’m not going to hold a Sioux ceremony for a half-gone raven!”
Must have been those green eyes again. The next thing I knew, the dead raven was sharing my porch with a dead eagle. Regular bird mortuary my place was becoming.
Problem was, the raven wasn’t just gone – She’d been gone for awhile.
“I’d do anything for you and the raven, Roxanne, but you’ve got to put him in a plastic bag.”
The rest of the day, I prepared everything until it felt just right. I spoke to the birds; not that they supplied much company, but that is the way the Sioux do it. Still, the cabin took on a feeling; sort of eerie, like I was being watched. Made me wonder where I fit in the pecking order. Right now, it felt sort of like eagle, raven, Roxanne and – last – me.
The second day, I brought the eagle into the cabin and put her on a big green plastic table near the foot of my bed. The eagle stayed with me all night.
The next day, Roxanne dropped by.
“So why didn’t you bring in the raven?”
“Are you kidding?” I said, scratching at what felt like a bug in my ear. “She’s too far gone.”
The eagle spent the third night inside with me too.
Each morning and night, as the Sun rose and set, I drummed and sang the Haida eagle song. The cabin didn’t feel quite right at night when I stopped, so I went to sleep with Sioux ceremonial drum songs on my cassette player. That seemed to help; the eagle seemed happier – and so did my dreams.
Something about my drum and the Lakota drums connected both Haida and Lakota. I used my own drum when I sang to the eagle and raven. That drum was special, adorned with a hand-painted hummingbird crest. It was my elder cousin Pearle’s favourite crest, and I had it painted in honour of her and our family, the Taas Lanagaas clan.
My drum, except for the hummingbird, looked a lot like the Lakota drums I used to play, except for one thing. This one was my own. This one held my heart.
I was thankful, and respectful, for both our peoples’ drums and ceremonies. Cassette or not, the drums held me together at a a time I needed them the most.
Maybe Roxanne was right. Maybe it was a Sioux eagle who got lost and came home to Haida Gwaii; lots of us can identify with that.
As usual, the third night, I put my drum to rest about midnight, then played my recorded Oglala music. At daybreak the cassette drums were still playing.
“Electronic Indians,” I thought. “It’s a good day to . . . listen to cassette recordings.”
Between the live and recorded drums, we bridged two cultures – in a good manner. On the fourth day, Roxanne came early.
I pulled back the eagle’s wing admiringly. First time I had looked closely.
“Enough feathers for a dozen powwow dancers at the least.”
“Don’t get any ideas,” Roxanne said. “I had a dream about those feathers.”
A flat-bodied beige bug bombed onto the table. It lay on its back kicking its legs wildly, then flopped over.
“What kind of dream did you have?” I asked absently, coaxing the bug onto a paper bag.
“Well, I saw two feathers. Just two, one for me and one for you. You wouldn’t want to take more feathers than she wants to give, would you?
“Wouldn’t think of it,” I replied, taking bag and bug to the front door. I blew hard, but the beige bomber clung tight. No way could I blow it off.
“Aerodynamic little guy,” I said. “Power dives at 200 clicks didn’t shake you, eh?”
“Jake, did you hear me about the feathers?”
Another beige bomber scurried between two eagle back feathers, ducking under the down.
“No problem,” I grimaced as another bomber popped onto the table. “She keeps her feathers.”
I burned sage in a coffee cup, passing the smoke over Roxanne, the eagle and myself. I remembered the raven on the porch. I sent Roxanne out to smudge that one. Later, I used cedar, local stuff, instead of Paha Sapa (Black Hills) sage. For that particular eagle, both seemed right. Both spoke to my heart.
I sang the Lakota Four Directions Song, instructing Roxanne to turn with me toward each direction. A kind of power filled the room as I “loaded” my Sioux pipe in the proper way by inserting the wooden stem into the pipestone. Next I mixed tobacco and kinnikinnic from two green plastic bags, as Grandpa Sydney Keith had taught me.
“Nowadays, some people store it mixed,” I said. “A Sioux wicasa wakan, holy man, told me to do it the old way. Keeps it separated until the right time.”
Next, I sang a Haida eagle drum song. I was thankful to have them both; thankful that at least that much could be shared between our cultures. I know I am Haida. I also know what the Lakota have meant to me: Two strong communities, each have survived in its own way.
And, I am a survivor, too. The drums and my heart, we are both alive.
“Ahh, what’s that on my wrist?” Roxanne asked.
A tiny red bug, no bigger than a speck, tried to scurry up her sleeve.
I caught it on my fingertip.
“Some kind of an eagle mite,” I replied.
Roxanne frowned, then started to scratch.
I began filling my pipe. I offered a pinch first to the west and then to each direction in turn. I tamped the rest into the bowl; then plugged the top with sage. I explained to Roxanne that sage protected the mixture.
I prayed; then offered the pipe to Roxanne. We completed the ceremony the Pine Ridge way, then, again, I sang a Haida song.
Some might not agree that this was right: The mixing of two great drum traditions. I didn’t have the time to spend thinking about that. To the Creator, I was indebted to both.
Chantay washtay, my Rapid City mentor, Tunkashelah Sydney Keith used to say. Good heart. And, at that moment, alone with the eagle, the raven, Roxanne and my drum, my heart was good.
Nothing, not history and not the residential schools, could stop us. Chantay washtay. Good heart.
Roxanne seemed really touched; I felt blessed and thankful, except . . . I itched a lot.
Roxanne itched too. On her belly, one of those beige bombers was crawling around in circles looking for a hole in her sweater.
“Uh, Roxanne, I think you better take it off.”
“What? Take what off? My sweater?”
“Yeah. I think eagle bugs like the fuzz.”
Roxanne dunked sweater and bug. The problem was that it was her eagle – and my washing machine.
A bomber was crawling on my bed blanket.
She dunked it too.
Meanwhile, a pair of red mites watched it all, obviously amused, from my pillowcases.
We dunked them too.
“How about your sheets, Jake?”
“You need to ask?”
I think the sheets could have crawled to the washer by themselves.
As for the eagle, I gingerly helped her to rejoin the raven – outside – on the porch.
“Next time you ask me for a drum ceremony, Roxanne,” I said. “I think we’ll do it at your house.”
I wanted to take the birds to Rose Spit in Roxanne’s Toyota, not that it had anything to do with keeping bugs out of my Bronco. Her pickup weighed half as much as my truck.
Rose Spit was at Haida Gwaii’s northern tip, where the rich blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and Hecate Strait crashed head-on into each other and piled a thin strip of white sand upward from the bottom of the sea.
“Aw c’mon, Roxanne, your truck floats in four wheel drive like an eagle feather over sand. Mine sinks in.”
I was feeling downright poetic!
“You took your Bronco to Rose Spit just last week, Jake. My truck’s getting too old for stuff like this.”
“Ah, look Roxanne, okay; if you don’t mind sharing the inside of my Bronco with those bugs, we can do it your way.”
She raised her eyebrows at “inside,” “Bronco” and “bugs”.
“Tell you what, Jake. We’ll take my pickup.”
I was pleased. Roxanne seemed unusually agreeable that day. She was driving as we rattled past the turnoff to Massett, headed toward Tow Hill and North Beach.
Both eagle and raven rode in the back in separate plastic bags.
The rain forest was dark, green and cool. Off to the left Alaskan mountains dotted the horizon at the edge of a blue misty sea.
Next to Tow Hill two eagles flew across the road into the tall trees of Hiellan, the site of my ancestral village.
“Look at that!” Roxanne exclaimed excitedly. “They’re coming with us!”
I didn’t respond. Lost in my thoughts about Hiellan. Nobody remembered much about the old village site. I learned to pronounce its name when Reverend Johnny Williams told me. Without him, I would never have known.
“Hello, Nunni,” I said, glancing off into the deep rainforest.
“What did you say?”
“I said ‘Hello Nunni.’”
Roxanne knew a little Haida. She stopped the truck. The hush was unsettling.
“That’s your dead grandmother, Jake!”
Roxanne said nothing more, but her sea green eyes spoke volumes. I looked away, pretending not to see them.
We walked through the village site, retracing the outline of a vanished longhouse in the soft green moss.
“Post hole,” I replied. “See over there? One at each corner. The house was big enough for forty people. We lived in one of those, my uncles said; all our families in one house. My grandfather, Peter Kelly, was one of the last Haidas born in a longhouse.”
“Some kind of white stuff down that posthole, Jake.”
“Yeah. Toilet paper. The old time Haida used the beach instead, or so my uncles told me. The tides gave us the first Haida flush toilets, but the tourists seen to like the post holes better.”
Near the site of Hiellan, the road headed out onto the beach. I drove. The first stretch of beach was smooth, packed sand – hard as new pavement. The truck didn’t even rattle. We zipped along at a hundred clicks.
I kind of liked Roxanne’s old truck. I’d seen lots just like it on Pine Ridge. Indian trucks: tough and unstoppable as the land itself. Spare parts here and spare parts there; Indian trucks live forever.
I wish I could say the same for our older drums songs and stories.
“The last time I was at Rose Spit I rode in on horseback,” Roxanne said. Her words brought me back.
“Yeah? Sioux like horses,” I said. “So does that make you a Sioux?
“Or maybe,” I teased, “that just goes for picking up eagles and asking for drum ceremonies.”
“Haida prefer canoes,” Roxanne teased back. “And, you’re in a pickup truck!”
“Maybe that’s my problem,” I muttered softly.
But, she was right about Haida canoes. I loved them! Haida canoes: 30 meters long and hollowed out from a single cedar log. Haida canoes: painted and hand carved with eagles, ravens and killer whales. Haida canoes were our pride and the envy of the entire Pacific Coast. In the old days, my uncles said, our ancestors paddled the 16 kilometers between Hiellan and Rose Spit, taking the elders up for fresh, wild strawberries.
Then along came Toyota and Ford. We run the beach instead of the breakers now. I would love to see the old ways come back, but pickups and Land Cruisers will have to do: Even at Rose Spit.
“So, tell me Jake, if you like canoes, why are we in a truck?” Roxanne asked, reading my thoughts.
“A Haida canoe would seem more natural,” I observed. “I can almost see one out among the blue, sparkling breakers; headed for berry picking at Rose Spit And, those were the smaller, everyday craft. My uncles say our huge ocean-going ones could carry people as far as Mexico, Hawaii and back.”
“Archaeologists say the Haida couldn’t have made it that far,” Roxanne said.
“Shows how much they know,” I replied. “Hawaiians look Haida. More than that. Their name, Hawaii, shares every letter in our name – Haida Gwaii – but the i-d-a-g.
“Mexicans look Haida, too,” I said. “When I lived in L.A., people kept talking Spanish to me. I wanted to talk Indian, so when I went to Pine Ridge, I learned some Lakota.”
“Well, I learned Maori songs,” Roxanne said. “We had some New Zealand Maori drop by the high school. Those Maori look Haida too.”
“Yeah. Even their canoes are shaped like ours. My uncle Reg used to talk about Haidas going to New Zealand, but no one put him on tape. Maori have totem poles; they rub noses when they greet; just like we used to do.”
Roxanne’s green eyes sparkled mischievously.
“We? You and me? When we rub noses, Jake?”
“In your dreams, Roxanne. In your dreams.”
We lurched sideways. Sand turned abruptly into loose cobbles. Truck dug in hard. So much for anthropology. Rose Spit, just past the tree line, was still two miles away. I floored it. Roxanne’s old pickup spewed rocks. I fought back, swerving around logs, rotted planks, fishnets, choker cables and plastic milk crates lurking behind the washboard mounds. The old mythtime raven would have had a real problem spotting that clamshell with the first people inside, I thought.
I winced, thinking about what would happen to us in the coming high tide if we bogged down in the cobblestones.
“If we get stuck, Roxanne, we’re done for!”
“Uh, Jake. Why don’t you try the road up there?”
She was kidding, I thought.
“Yeah right. Where? I’ll just pull over at the corner gas station and ask directions.”
“Men never ask directions.”
I didn’t try to hear. Just as well. We lost her burned-out muffler back where the deep cobbles started.
“Jake! You just passed the access off the beach to the road!” Roxanne shouted.
I just kept ploughing ahead. Wrong time to think about turning around. Besides, just up there was Rose Spit; tip of the Haida world. Arriving below Rose Spit, I spun the truck nose-upward, wheeled around until the back end was high on the beach with the nose pointed downhill and sand flying in all directions. The truck ground to a halt. I was quite proud of myself.
Ignoring my self-assured look, Roxanne patted the dash. “Good truck,” she said.
We climbed the drift logs piled at the high-tide line. I carried the eagle and my drum. Roxanne took the raven.
On the other side of the logs, Roxanne spotted the sand road she was talking about. I looked away, pretending not to see.
“Look at that!” Roxanne said.
“You look. I’ve got better things to do.”
“No, look! Up there!”
Two eagles were alighting in a tall tree.
“Looks like the same two from Tow Hill,” Roxanne said.
“Nah. Couldn’t be. How’d you figure that?”
“Well, how’d you figure my dead eagle was a Sioux eagle?” she asked.
“That’s right, you didn’t. So maybe she was.”
“So what’s that got to do with anything?”
“So, maybe those are the same two eagles and they flew here from Tow Hill to watch us.”
That logic again. And, her green eyes.
Those two eagles watched us closely. As we approached they stayed put, obviously not afraid.
“I think they want us to put the eagle up in that tree and for you to sing the eagle drum song,” Roxanne said.
“Now, how could you know that?”
“Well, for one thing they’re not moving. They should be flying away by now. They want us to put the eagle up in that tree.”
I knew better than to argue with someone when I couldn’t win. Besides, it was her ceremony.
“Old-time Haida used to leave their dead up in the trees,” she said, “so, that is a natural place for an eagle.
“Sometimes that’s how I feel these days,” I muttered: “Left up in a tree.”
“C’mon Jake. What do you mean by that?”
“Okay, okay,” I said. “We’ll put her up there.”
We climbed the low rise into the tree line. The spot was perfect; sheltered from sight and the wind.
The eagles kept their vigil.
I tied the dead eagle to my arm and carried the drum in my hand. With the free arm, I began scaling the tree. I slipped on a mossy branch, but caught myself using my untied arm.
I didn’t have to look at those two eagles in the nearby tree. I could feel them watching me.
Branch by branch, I fought my way. Halfway up, I found a broad flat of green that could support the dead eagle’s weight.
Carefully, I took her from the green plastic bag and wedged her among the branches.
I began the slow-beat part of the Haida eagle drum song, then picked up the pace where the song called for it.
I glanced up at the two eagles. For a moment, their image blurred and shifted like a mirage.
Perched on the impromptu mortuary branch, I rubbed my eyes. I looked again. I could swear the eagles’ eyes were sparkling.
“That can’t be!” I rubbed my eyes again.
I hesitated, then began drumming and singing the Haida song again. Instantly, my whole body shuddered, then tingled with warmth. I continued singing. My arms prickled, then transformed into wings; my voice into eagle cries.
The watching eagles sat motionless. One extended her wings. I did the same.
A sudden wind, rustling through the branches, caught me. I felt released. Rising slowly, circling high above the trees, I could see Rose Spit curving outward to the north, submerging itself in a thin sliver of sand in the blue Pacific.
In the rushing wind I heard a piercing cry. Beside me flew the dead young eagle, home at last in the endless sky. To the east, far, far away, the Black Hills of South Dakota rose in silhouette over the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation; directly underneath me was the place to which my own ancestors had come so long ago.
On the beach, far below, an emerald-eyed raven was pecking at a clamshell. I floated down. The raven cooed and coaxed softly. The shell opened a tiny bit. Dozens of bright almond-shaped eyes peeked out timidly. The shell opened wider. Tiny naked human beings emerged, one carried a Haida drum painted with a hummingbird crest. Another, with brownish hair and algae-green eyes, created vague memories; like a distant past – or a distant future.
The song ended. My wings were arms again. The dead eagle lay motionless at my side. I had returned.
The two eagles were still watching. Obedient to Roxanne’s dream, I took just two feathers, giving thanks in Lakota, “Pilamiya,” and in my language: “Howa.”
I could feel my heart beating, slowly at first, then as I inched downward, I could feel my heart picking up the pace – where my spirit called for it.
Inching my way to the ground, I handed Roxanne a feather. Suddenly, I knew. No longer did I question whether it was a Sioux or Haida eagle. It was an eagle. It was a feather and – it was alive in its own right.
“What happened up there?” she said. “I heard you singing, but I couldn’t see you.”
“Yeah. Maybe some day I’ll completely understand it myself.”
I muttered to myself a prayer in words I didn’t really understand, except that the prayer also seemed to come from very, very far away:
“Howa, Nunni. Howa, Chinni. Hello Unchi. Hello Tunkashelah. Thank you Grandmother, thank you Grandfather. This is dream time: the end is how it was in the beginning.”
Roxanne said nothing, but her silence was like words unspoken.
Finally, she said, “Let’s take the raven over there, on the other side the hill.”
The moment we turned, the two eagles flew off.
“Guess they don’t want to hang around for a raven funeral,” I said.
Roxanne’s sea-green almond-shaped eyes sparkled mischievously. For the first time, I didn’t pretend not to notice.