Equilibrium is the mother of creativity and innovation her child. As humans, we are continuously making attempts to invent ways of doing things to make sense of our lives. This sometimes takes great effort, especially when the situation we might find ourselves facing is one of life's hardest tests--death. How one faces this inevitability is affected and impacted by the culture one has been raised in. In First Nations cultures, there is an acceptance that death is the beginning of a new journey, from this earthly existence to the spirit world. One can deny this inevitability and be only concerned with a worldly existence that is no more. So often we have seen those that slip into such great sorrow at the passing of their loved ones. Perhaps this is why we welcome the cultural practices that focus on the celebration of life through storytelling, feasting, singing and offering food to the fire, for the person who has died.
Traditionally, the First People of the Yukon looked and accepted death as the inevitable. We embraced it with humility and acknowledge that we all come from and return to our Creator. During our lifetime we would be given a spirit name and this is the name called out to us when we take our last breath. My Grandmother spoke only in her mother tongue when she was preparing to leave this world. She insisted that my eldest aunt, Rose, hurry home from down south, as her father was waiting for her on the other side. She spoke firmly to my other aunt, Maizie, who sat quietly crying at her bedside, 'Don't cry, May, you know I can't swim!'
This was the same grandmother who had labored for almost two weeks, making a pair of mukluks as a special Christmas gift. Beading the tops and tongues, measuring, cutting, trimming and measuring again, to make sure they were cut and sewn perfectly to fit the footprint given to her by the young man who had ordered them for his girlfriend. It was Christmas and she had many grandchildren and children to sew for, but this sale was important, as money was tight that winter. She wanted to have all the trimmings for the Christmas dinner, including a big turkey, mandarin oranges, nuts, shortbread, eggnog, fruitcake, and ribbon candy. An extra hundred and fifty dollars could go a long way.
She had made sure to invite her best friend over for Christmas Day, as her children wouldn't be arriving until Boxing Day. Her friend had recently been widowed and Gramma knew that being invited to spend Christmas with her and her family on Christmas Day would lift her spirits. 'It's hard to cook turkey just for yourself,' she muttered as she got ready to go visit her.
The man who had ordered the mukluks thought it strange that my grandmother asked him to get his girlfriend's footprint. 'Just have her put her foot on paper for me!' Observing his look of puzzlement, she took a brown paper bag and a pencil and demonstrated the instructions. 'Phone her. Tell her to send it by airmail so I can make it before Christmas.'
My Gramma worked long into the night and the mukluks were readied a couple of days before Christmas. Her arthritic hands were stiff and swollen. Her eyes were tired and bloodshot from lack of sleep and strain from sewing on the tiny beads, but she had pressed on. Upon completion, she neatly folded them, wrapping the beautifully braided ties of matching colors around the footwear.
Although the price had been discussed beforehand, I overheard the guy telling her that he only had two fifties and a twenty dollar bill. 'Can you sell them to me for one hundred and twenty?'
I saw my Grandmother wince, but immediately compose herself to give the dignified response, 'This is Christmas time so I guess I can be more giving. That's okay! One hundred twenty is good! Thank you. hope her feet be warm this winter. Edmonton is a cold place. I know 'cause I was in the hospital there one time. I see outside, people cover their face when they walk in the wind!' She placed the beautifully crafted mukluks into a bag, took the money and gave him the precious gift.
He sniffed the air. 'What's that smell? Did you just load the stove?'
She shook her head, and smiling, responded with a chuckle. 'No, that's how all mukluks smell. That is how we tan that moose skin. We soak it in moose brain and smoke it, for making it brown. That make it soft and it can breathe when you wear it.' He left quickly, as his ride was waiting in the driveway, ready to take him to the city where he would fly to his loved one, bringing with him this special northern gift.
After New Year's Day, this same man arrived on my Grandmother's doorstep to return the footwear. He looked a bit sheepish, but bluntly told my grandmother that his girlfriend thought they smelled bad, like an Indian. They smelled too smoky and she was embarrassed to wear them because people might make fun of her. In her noble, mannered way, my grandmother took the mukluks from him and placed them on the table. She beckoned him to come into the little cabin.
'Come in, it is cold out there!' I could see from where I was sitting that my Grandmother was digging into her little stash, from the money she had set aside for a trip to the city to see a friend who was very sick. She came back with a stack of twenties, tens and five dollar bills. She counted out one hundred and twenty dollars onto the table.
'Here you go. I hope you can buy her a nice watch or something with that! Let me turn on the light now, so you don't slip on my porch.'
My grandmother laughed as she closed the door. 'Huh! How he think we gonna smell? We Indians, not Whiteman! That's a good smell, that one!'
Spring arrived early that year and Gramma got real busy with tanning several of her moose-skins. They had to be de-haired, fleshed, soaked, and thinned down to a uniform thickness. She was a master at this process. Hair flew off the hide as the sharp knife moved upward revealing the whiteness of the skin. I would watch with amazement at the strength of this elderly woman wringing out the heavy, wet flesh. After it had been soaked, it would have to be wrung out and hung to dry. The hide would be lifted and folded carefully into the center after being tied on one end to the wringing post and, held with a sturdy stick on the other, would be wrung out. Water would gush out at each turn, wringing and stretching it again until it was almost dry. She used a tub to catch the escaping 'brain-water' to be used again at the next soak. The dried brain of a moose was used as a tanning agent. After a kill, the brain would be cut out of the skull and placed in a cloth bag to dry over the winter. By spring, it would be completely freeze dried and transformed into a powdery gray substance.
'You know how to measure how much?' She had asked me. 'When you put it in the water and you dip your hand in, palm up, if the water is too cloudy to see your hand, then it's just right!' This instruction remains emblazoned on my mind, some fifty years since the first instruction was shared. The gray water made one's hands very soft - soft like my grandmother's hardworking hands.
The pre-tanned hides were flung over clothes-lines strung low enough for her height. The stiff parchment had to be completely dried out and scraped again and again to break down the fibers. Soaked, stretched out, scraped, wrung out, dried, scraped some more and soaked again. In the final stage, the hide is smoked to give it that brown color.
Later that summer, with total confidence, I told my grandmother that I would smell all the smoky smell out of the moose skin, so nobody else would complain! I could tell that she was happy with my offer to help. 'Okay, let me roll you up in it!' she laughed. And she did. Swaddled in this bush cocoon, I was totally immersed and overwhelmed by the scent of the earth and overcome by a pungent smell of smoke from the rotten wood we had gathered from the forest floor. This was the special wood my grandmother instructed us to fetch. It gave off a cold smoke once it was ignited; cold and slow smoke was necessary for the final stages of tanning hides. Heat could ruin a hide, burning it, making it hard and stiff. After all the work required for the tanning process, a little fire could cause a whole hide to be ruined!!
It was nearing spring when I attended a National Convention of the Baha'is of Canada, in Toronto. As the elected chair, I noticed how people were moving in and out of the venue. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an old friend of mine approaching. She asked me to step into one of the side rooms off the convention hall. 'Please sit down. I have some bad news. Your husband just called me on my cell phone.' My heart starting pounding and the blood rushed to my head and I broke into a cold sweat.
I tried to speak but the lump in my throat blocked my voice. 'Who is it? Is it my mother?' I croaked.
'No, it's your brother, Lawrence. He was killed in a car accident early this morning on the Mayo road. Bob wants you to call him right away.' My husband had somehow gotten hold of Suzie's cell number. I began to cry, uncontrollably, sobbing into the shoulder of my dear friend who had shared this tragic news with me. Speaking later to my husband, he expressed his sympathy and cried with me over the phone. My brother was like his brother, so he, too, had lost a brother and a good friend. The rest of the morning went by in a blur. The airlines were kind and considerate and allowed me a reduced fare as part of their 'compassionate' rate. As I boarded the plane to fly home to the north, I felt only numbness. People were all around me but unaware of my pain, my loss. Lawrence was the baby brother that I had asked for as a little girl. He was the closest to me of all my siblings.
I was met at the airport in Whitehorse and wanted to go immediately to my Mother's home, but found out that she had already gone north to be with my sister in-law and her children. Being the eldest, they were awaiting my return before making any of the funeral arrangements. She would be back in the morning with my other brother to pick up Lawrence's body, which had to undergo an autopsy to determine the exact cause of his death.
"How could someone so full of life be gone? How could he, being a trucker with a spotless record, have driven off the highway? Yes, it was spring and the shoulders on a gravel road could get pretty soft." Shock set in when my sister informed me that he had been drinking the night before and had left Dawson after closing time. How could his drinking buddies let him go down the highway in that condition? Anger welled up in my mind and I had to fight off the desire to scream at the injustice of it all.
What would his young son do now? Maybe this was the reason that he had taken him out in the bush at such a young age, to teach him things that he would not be around for: how to hunt, how to butcher a moose, how to fish, and how to set a fishnet and traps. All of this had been taken care of.
My heart went out to his two daughters, who thought the sun rose and set on their father. He had raised the three of them single-handedly when he and his wife had been separated for three years. Life is so complicated, especially when there is a death in a close -knit family. Everyone has to pull together, to forgive, to help out, to forget past hurts. I knew of my brother's suffering and how he had tackled being a Mom/Dad not only to his own, but also to other children in the village. 'The weekend orphans,' he had called them. My brother made a point of driving around the town on Friday nights with his son to pick up the children whose parents were partying and who would not able to give proper care to their children. He would bring them home and give them shelter, food and a place of safety for the weekend.
Driving down to the funeral home now, I was not looking forward to seeing my mother, whom I had spoken to the day before. Our conversation had been cut off, as she was unable to speak without crying uncontrollably. My heart went out to her, as this was her first-born son, her eldest, on whom she always depended.
The funeral home had several familiar vehicles in front of it. The suburban that was to transport my brother's body back to the village was parked in the back. The undertaker had been so kind to our family, staying open so that those who wished to visit him could do so, late into the evening.
My mother's strength was being tested for a second time by death. I recalled her words when my younger brother died. 'Now I know what your Gramma meant when she said, "I hope I go before any of my kids". The words rang in my head when I approached her to hold her in my arms. We cried and held each other in our grief, but then she pulled away and exclaimed, 'Why don't we do what the Tlingets do? Why don't we have a blanket to place over the rough box, one of those nice blankets? This must be why they have them.'
I nudged my daughter and gave her my car keys. 'Go up to the house and get my healing blanket. It is my closet in the bedroom.' I had had this colorful, wool Pendelton blanket for a number of years. It had brought healing to myself and others. Being a cover for my brother's coffin, it would now achieve its highest duty. It would accompany him on his last journey home. Anyone seeing it would be comforted, solaced by its beauty and design: its purpose of healing would be fulfilled. My two brothers unfolded the blanket and placed it gently over the rough box and replaced the wreaths.
'Now that's better. Now he is ready to go home!' My mother wiped the tears from her eyes as my younger sister led her to car that would follow the suburban. I gave my brother and brother-in-law a big hug. 'See you guys there. We're going to get the groceries now.'
It has never ceased to amaze me to see how my people can pull off a funeral. Once there was news of death, it would instantly become a total collaboration between all family members and close friends. The food for the potlatch feast had to be purchased, enough to feed a small army. The chief cook would be selected by the family as well as the cook's helpers, the servers, the clean -up team, the gravediggers, the poll bearers, including an Elder to be the honorary poll bearer if the deceased was also an Elder. Someone would be asked to shoot a fresh moose if meat was low in the community. The word would go out in the community for whatever the needs were and people would spontaneously show up at the home of the deceased with sandwiches, bannock, cookies, coffee, tea and big pots of soup to feed those who came to give their condolences to the family. Grief has to be fed and we eat together to ease the pain of the loss of our loved ones.
The funeral pamphlet would be arranged with a special photo, sacred spiritual writings or a poem and the eulogy becomes a family collective writing exercise. Everyone would have their say in this process, but the eldest in the family always had the final word.
The singers, the speech makers and the person who would drum during the collection at the potlatch to cover the costs, would spontaneously come forward as if they had read the long list of 'things to do' held in my younger sister's hand.
Shopping for approximately five hundred people is a chore in itself, but there are always the main staples, such as potatoes, macaroni, tea, coffee, sugar, salt, flour, lard, baking powder, milk, apples and oranges, tin foil and small plastic bags for leftovers, which everyone attending the feast would be encouraged to take home with them especially for those who were unable to attend. Paper table cloths, plates, cups, cutlery and yes, cigarettes! These would be placed in paper cups, on all the tables! It was a spiritual ritual to smoke for the dead. The cook's helpers would place them on the tables just before the meal was to be served, as youth just starting to smoke would take cups of them out the door!
Special tables were set for Elders into Wolf and Crow clans, making it easier for the ushers to seat the people. My brother was Crow, so that meant that all our family would not eat until all members of the Wolf clan had eaten and taken what they wanted. The tables were all set up ahead of time and once all the people from the 'Wolf clan' were seated, the servers would begin serving up their portions, making sure not to give too many vegetables but more meat to the Elders, who preferred meat and potato salad to the 'rabbit food'. The officiating minister would also be seated at this table of honor, as well as those who had travelled the longest distance or did not have a clan. These friends would be fed first. This was our custom. Children were warned not to run around the hall but that never seemed to calm down those cousins who just wanted to have fun. Lawrence would have certainly condoned that!
Making our way down the aisles in the grocery store, my sister and I talked about how we should make a blanket for Lawrence's coffin. We both knew to make one that might involve sewing on thousands of shell buttons was out of the question! 'Hey, how about we make one out of that big moose-skin that I gave Mom last fall? I have a bunch of feathers and you have some bugle beads, don't you? We could make some holes on both sides and use some sinew to tie down the feathers, beads and whatever else people want to place on it. We could have it set up at his house and have everyone that comes add their creation to the blanket'.
My sister's eyes lit up. 'Sis, you are so smart! That is the best idea yet. I got a hole punch. I'll make the holes on both sides so it is easier for everyone to tie on their piece. You go get the skin! Once I get to Mayo I'll get it ready. Bring all your feathers and I will see what I got, too!'
Owl feathers, eagle feathers, crow feathers, flickers, and some other more exotic feathers from a tropical country--we had everything necessary to make a funeral blanket on that spring day so long ago. It was just the perfect way for everyone to do something collectively to honor my brother's life. It was a good way to give one last thing to Lawrence, a son, a brother, husband, father, friend. Now I understood more deeply how tradition had a way and power to bring the whole community together. As humans we are meant to share in our grief with one another and not to be alone during these times of distress.
Everyone that came attached a feathered ornament of love on to the hide for my brother. Each one of these ties brought us some healing and some comfort by doing it altogether. It would have been what my brother wished for us. The smell of the hide allowed memories of our childhoods to seep into our minds and empowered us throughout this tender activity. It broke my heart to hear a little friend of my brother say, 'Aunty what we going to do now? Who's going to pick us up to go fishing and take us swimming on the weekends?' The little boy's big brown eyes looked mournfully up at me. All I could do was to hug him and assure him that someone else would take over for Uncle Lawrence!
The funeral blanket was completed around midnight, with my second eldest brother being appointed as the 'Blanket-Keeper'. He took this responsibility seriously, folding it carefully and wrapping it in canvas. 'I'll bring it up to the hall tomorrow, Sis.'
The following day, under the watchful eyes of our mother, we gently laid it over the coffin. She quietly stood there looking at it for a few moments before speaking. 'Now that's befitting for such a good man!' The fire-pit outside of my brother's house was lit and campfire tea was continually being made for the guests that dropped by to offer condolences to his wife and children.
Lawrence had cast his net way out there. There were so many of his family, friends and acquaintances that arrived in our community, that some only could attend the funeral and the potlatch feast, but then had to leave town. Every home was filled to capacity, including the one motel and hotel in the village. The funeral service was moved to the community hall from the church, where my brothers had been keeping vigil for two days and nights, as there was no morgue in town and there was no heat on in the church. Card playing, drinking beer, smoking, laughing, and sharing hunting and fishing stories—all this while Lawrence lay in wake. An eagle feather and spruce boughs adorned the coffin. The church had never hosted such a motley crew but it was all good! The minister realized that this behavior was to be expected, so simply turned a blind eye. Mostly men stayed throughout the night. Their faces were shining by the light of the candles burning in the little church, that same church where many of our relatives had been baptized, married and had their funeral services held. My brothers would make sure they cleaned up all bottles and butts in the morning, leaving it all good in the world! They had been well trained by our mother.
The community hall smelled like my mother's homemade buns; despite the situation, she was able churn out over two hundred, both wholewheat and white. Keeping busy was her means of coping. Moose roasts were being delivered and huge pots of caribou-rib soup were simmering on the stoves on the only burners that were working. Several boxes filled with jam preserves from the fall arrived to smear on the freshly made bannock now being fried, in the midst of gales of laughter, in the kitchen. Workers set up the last of the chairs. The tables would have to be set up immediately after the service. A small army had already been organized for this chore. Every plug-in in the hall was attached to a large urn of perking coffee, their repeated rhythms ending with sounds of exasperated breaths of steaming coffee. Tea would be the preferred drink of the Elders. A pungent fragrance of Hudson Bay tea filled the kitchen A few dried rosehips would also be thrown into the pot, to suit the knowledge-keepers of the community.
Family and friends kept filing in with roasting pans, full of pink salmon, white fish and even porcupine. Tub-sized bowls of potato, tossed green and bean salads and, my brother's favorite: macaroni salad, were delivered through the back door to avoid the crowd out front. The chief cook kept her eagle eyes on her crew: the cutters, the fryers, the soup stirrers. Everything had to be prepared and ready at the same time and kept hot for the guests. Nothing could be overlooked, 'Have you got the fruits and candy in bowls for serving? Make sure everyone gets a bag to take home potlatch food and make up a nice container for those who don't have a place to stay tonight to take with them on the road.'
All the chairs were taken and children sat on their parents' laps. People also sat around the sides of the hall while others spilled into the foyer and out on to the steps leading into the building. All the workers had a job to do and this they had carried out in a spirit of joy without hesitation or any signs of hardship.
More meat was being sliced for frying. Someone had brought some sheep meat from the Tahtlan country and caribou from Old Crow. Fresh frozen blueberries from Dempster were thawing in the sink. Every guest would enjoy a bit of this delicacy despite the limited supply. No one would leave a potlatch with an empty belly or a heavy heart.
Everyone was waiting for the oldest woman from the community to arrive, our Gramma's cousin. Lucy was so sorrow stricken at the news of my brother's death that she had not left her house for three days. The question fluttered through the crowd, 'Is Lucy Cho going to make it?' A commotion at the other end of the hall gave us the answer. Lucy Cho, meaning 'Big Lucy', had arrived with her grandchildren. Everyone cleared the way for her entrance. A comfortable chair had been set up at the front for her - a place of honor. She wore a dark scarf for the occasion, covering the red printed one beneath it. Grief was etched on to that beautiful aged face. She had had such a close relationship with Lawrence. He was like her grandson.
'That's because your Gramma, Ellen, she tell me take care of her grandchildren. She gonna pass away that time and she tell me that time. That's why I like your brother, like that.' Sitting down now, Lucy stared at the coffin with a look of surprise coming over her shadowed face. She beckoned to me from the front where I stood to welcome everyone on behalf of my family. I was struck with trepidation that I done something wrong.
'Who tell you to do that?' she asked pointing to the coffin covered with the adorned moose hide. 'Why you do it that way, you kids? Who make it like that?'
I gave her an immediate response, assuring her that I not made this decision alone. 'My sister Buffy and me'. I could see everyone in the front row, including my mother, turn their attention to what was being said and to hear how this would be handled.
'That's good what you do! That way is old fashion. That is the way we make it long time ago for hunters when he die. You did good, you girls! I like it that one! That 's the kind, Lawrence, he going to like it like that, too'.
Honor comes to those who serve selflessly and he had certainly mastered that in his short lifetime. I whispered a little thanks to my brother for helping us, for assisting us to find the way back to what was truly ours.