A Potlatch for the Repatriation of Ancestor’s Remains from White Mans’ Museums

“The grave house at the end of the village was bursting with corpses. Gigantic cedar houses echoed with emptiness… During the desolate winter, the winds howled, and the ghosts wailed and wailed and wailed around the lonely village… Away from Haida Gwaii, white men heard of the smallpox epidemic; but they did not understand what a catastrophe it was. They did not realize that a great culture was dying from shock…. ‘Sdast’a.aas means ever-increasing, like maggots,’ the chief reminded his Eagles. Their very name was a promise that they would be great again, he assured them. Alone, he wept.”*

One-hundred-and-thirty-six winters later, in the depths of another winter, the winds still howled, and the winter night, shrouded in mist and rain, was dark and murky. Yet something was different. The cries of the ghosts were quieted, and in their place rose a new sound. In a gigantic new cedar house, different from those of the past, yet bearing the indelible imprint of its forebears, life overflowed. Eagle danced with joy, spreading his wings and soaring with pride. Raven, the Trickster, danced his peculiar hopping dance, dark eyes sparkling with curiosity as he clicked his bill and observed the creatures surrounding him.

Though clothed now in vivid crest-laden costumes of black and red, he recognized them. They were the Haadaa, the people. And as he danced, it was as if he were once again prying open the clam-shell, and the people were stepping forth, still a little bewildered, yet carrying their heads high with pride and joy in their rebirth.

In a cemetary nearby (a new kind of grave-house, yet it too bearing the imprint of its forebears), the wind echoed with the joyfulness of ancestors’ spirits. Once wrenched forcefully and painfully away from their resting palces by another people who did not understand, their grandchildren had repatriated them, had brought them home to Haida Gwaii, to the islands of their people, to be freed to take the next part of their journey in peace. And watching them come toward him, the old chief smiled.

In the great hall, the Haadaa celebrated as they always had. Seated by their clans, representing a thousand generations from many villages, they came from Skidegate and Massett and Alaska, and from far-off villages of another people among whom they sojourn. With them came native brothers from other tribes, and even the Yaahts Haadaa [white people], who by the end of this night would surely begin to understand.

They ate together, feasting on the foods of their people, the bounty of the sea and of their islands. They came for Yaghudangan – To Pay Respect. Their hereditary leaders spoke by turn, and their voices, while edged with grief at the suffering of their ancestors, were full of life, and joy and pride. Their young children stood by them, heads lifted proudly, the future hope of a nation reborn. The singers sang, quietly, reverently at first, in the language of their ancestors, a living language.

They sang the prayers that would free their ancestors’ spirits to move onward on their journey home. And then their voices lifted, joyously, exultantly, celebrating the victory of their own journey, the taking of another step in the healing process which leads to the wholeness of the people. And as the singers sang, and the drummers beat the rhythm of life reborn, the people came forward, clan by clan, and danced their own dances of victory, took their own personal steps into the future of their people.

Outside, the darkness and wildness of the winter night was penetrated by the light streaming from the door of the cedar house, and by the songs of the Haadaa. Although the night was large, and the beam of light small, one knew that the long night had been broken, and that the first sure rays of a new morning were breaking forth.

7idansuu “leapt into work again. He would lift shame and confusion by reminding people that renewal was the law of life… He found renewal himself in doing what the Haida had always done, in filling and enriching the blank areas of both time and space. His village caught his spirit. The law of life began working.”*

*”quotations” from *Raven’s Cry* by Christie Harris

Norma J Hill

January 1988