The "coming of age" ceremony was scheduled for the Thursday evening at 6 p.m. — at the Capilano Longhouse, in North Vancouver. I had been invited to attend as an "outside witness" by Barbara Charlie — a member of the Squamish Indian Band, on the West Coast of B.C. I had met Barbara in April of 1994, when I acted as the lawyer for the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, in a 79-day trial before the Federal Court of Canada, which began the previous September. The trial was about the constitutionality of certain sections of the Indian Act — and boiled down to whether an "Indian woman" would loose her status permanently, by having married a non-aboriginal. Along with Mary Two-Axe Early (a Mohawk witness from Kahnawake), Barbara had been a witness at the trial and after it was over, we kept in touch. When I was in Vancouver to give a talk at a legal conference and called her for lunch, she asked my companion and I to dinner — to a "coming of age" ceremony at the Longhouse.
What is important about Barbara Charlie is what she represented, personally and culturally — what her personal heritage and her personal life experience has to say about the wider issue of aboriginal peoples' place in Canada, and Canada's role at making them feel at home, in their own home. And what she — as an aboriginal woman who "married out" could bring back to her people — culturally and economically. Barbara now works as a housing manager for the Vancouver Native Housing Co-Operative.
As we left the downtown Vancouver area, our (East) Indian taxi driver did not know where the Capilano Longhouse was. But after he drove up several mountain roads (from what I had learnt of the Squamish, I knew that it had to be near the water) it turned out to be only half a mile from the Lion's Gate Bridge. When we entered the Longhouse, the air was strongly scented with wet — and still burning — cedar. The main entry lead into a smaller portal area, next to which was a kitchen. The building ran some 150-feet deep and 50-feet across, and was two or three stories high. It was built completely of logs, without windows. The cedar-shingled roof pitched steeply, on both sides, to ensure an easy shedding of the rain or snow. Two raised openings at either end served to let in the sunlight, and also permitted smoke to pass up from the small bonfires on the ground directly beneath. In the centre of the Longhouse, the floor was bare earth, circled on both sides by raised, wooden benches.
There were already about ninety people there when we arrived — from children in baby chairs, to Elders on folding chairs. Barbara greets me "as a friend" and accepts my gifts — two wool blankets — one from the Hudson Bay Company, the other a Scottish tartan. Tom, who acted as my informal translator, had suggested them as the most appropriate of gifts for such ceremonies since traditionally, a blanket is symbolic of generosity and togetherness. After introductions to her children, her grandchildren and many of her friends (for which I am referred to as her "personal lawyer from Ottawa" which draws laughter from everyone — just as well I don't take myself seriously), she directs us to use a blanket to reserve our place.
Home-made dishes are brought by the community (about 100 are there) and laid out banquet-style, on tables placed in the centre of the earthened floor — seafood soup complete with octopus tentacles (which I never eat fearing that the little pads will stick to the roof of my mouth), corn-on-the-cob, potatoes, roasted chickens and plenty of recently-deceased salmon — smoked or poached. The prayer for the meal was spoken partly in Salish — the language of the Squamish Band — and partly in English. It was an appeal to "keep the heart and mind strong" and to thank those friends "who had journeyed so far", to witness this ceremony.
After dinner, I volunteered to help Barbara's sister Sally with clean up, prior to the actual ceremony. After half-an-hour of dishwashing in a single tub of water (the other was still occupied by many more of those freshly-caught salmon), we are summoned back from the kitchen to the main Longhouse. In the dim light, the Longhouse continues to smoke with the pungent scent of the burning cedar. Everyone but me sits comfortably, many with their legs crossed, but I am not that flexible. All but the small internal door is physically barred from outsiders. In the middle of the room is a pile of the blankets — 25 or more — that had been brought by the guests as gifts to the four "intiates". Two white ones are spread out on the floor and the four 13-year-old individuals — two girls and two boys — who are to be given their adult names and spoken to by the Elders — stand together. Each wears a blanket, folded and draped diagonally across their shoulders, and pinned at their waists. On the other blanket that is spread open over the floor, four adults face the four young people — and each holds another of the gifted blankets, pinned with the money that had been gifted by the attending guests.
The drumming starts suddenly — loud and rhythmical. A line of six women standing off to the side join in — their chants and their clapping on wooden, spoonlike instruments in time to the beating of the drum. A Salish man stands off-centre, on the earthen floor. He is about 30 years old and speaks loudly in Salish, also in time to the rhythm of the drums. The hair on the top part of his head is cut very short, but a sleek black ponytail flows from the middle, and down his back.
Every one jumps as a masked and fully-costumed dancer literally jumps out from the internal door, with a guide just behind.
The dancer's mask (about 18" long and 12" across) is carved from wood, and painted in red, black and yellow. Two painted eyes protrude on wooden sticks from eye sockets on the mask. Two eagle heads perch atop the mask, looking forward. Symbols are carved into the mask, and the mouth is carved into a fierce smile. The mask partially extends over the back of the head, and from which about 15 pliable wands varying from 18 inches to 3 feet extend backwards behind the dancer, and on the ends of the wands red-tipped feathers are attached, with the wands mirroring each rhythmic movement of the dancer. The mask also has wooden "flanges", or wings, on each side, in to which feathers fan out to the side, so the whole face appears to be about 2 feet wide from side to side. The shoulders of the dancer and upper torso are covered with a woven blanket which is attached to the back of the headdress, and is made of thin strips of cedar bark, held together with what looks like roots. The dancer wears white breeches, with what looks like white rabbit fur (Tom later told me it was ermineskin) tied to the front of each foreleg. The feet have elk hide moccasins with elk hooves tied to each of the outside feet. Both arms have various leather cords tightly tied, both upper and lower arm, as if tourniquets. The right hand holds a branch, bent in the form of a O-ring, and through which about 15 clam shells are threaded, which is shaken to produce a long clashing in time and rhythme with the drumming and dancing. A (blanketed) guide goes in front of the dancer (the guide has charcoal lines drawn out to the side from each eye and the sides of the mouth) — the dancers dance almost blind, as they can only see the feet of their guide — and guides are needed to chaperone the dancer, who is capable of transforming himself into a trance-like state as the tension and beat and activity increases — a hypnotic frenetic frenzy is understandable, and has occurred.
Four more dancers jump out one by one as the chanting and drumming increase in loudness and rhythm. Children cling to their parents — and some parents cling to each other. Barbara's grandchildren's eyes are as big, and as fascinating, as "sand dollars" at low tide.
The dancing is difficult to describe for this non-aboriginal. Athletic, powerful, masculine, strong yet delicate movements — of arms, legs, feet, head, torso. Each dancer moves around the initiates' blankets counterclockwise, seemingly challenging them, head-on, and side-on. Challenging them in a emotional battle. To this uninitiated it is a cross-cultural cacophony of animal behaviour (eagle, bear, deer, salmon) and samurai martial manoeuvres, blended in with the athleticism of Scottish highland dancing and the come-hither-to-me-and-I-will-kill-thee machismo of a Spanish bullfighter. Not being there as a witness is not fully knowing — words, my words, cannot ably describe the scene.
An elder on the opposite side, with a weathered 80-plus-year old face, a shock of vibrant white hair, and with a knuckles-only hand holding a walking cane, looks off in the distance to seemingly distant memories — and sways to the rhythm.
The details of the other four dancers' masks and garb are lost to me now, though I do remember eagles, wolves, serpents, orcas (killer whales), and what Tom called "thunderbirds", all being represented.
How long this went on for I'm not sure. It all passed so fast, so slow. Half an hour, maybe. Maybe an hour. As quickly as the dancers appear, they are gone, each seeming to menace the four initiates before they depart. Or maybe they menace and threaten the forces already at play inside the initiates which may place them at risk in the future.
The man in the middle proclaims (in English):
"You are no longer children, now young women and men".
A man in his mid-forties is called down (Tom told me later he was Chief Joe Matthias, and I remembered Barbara telling me in Ottawa of her closeness to him, as he was her nephew). He speaks some Salish, but mostly in English, and what he says in English, simply, strongly, and slowly in a seeming soliloquy — but also looking directly to each initiate — is difficult to forget, and an honour to remember that which I am capable of:
"The sun rises and sets. Rivers flow down from the mountains to the ocean. Flowers bloom and wither away. Old people go away. Young grow old and go away.
Change is everywhere.
But our traditions and our People are posts which guide us.
When your great grandparents, and your grandparents, were born, they were thinking of this day.
Hold your parents in your heart, now that you have your own responsibilities.
We are all here to watch the beginning of your great journey, your great quest.
Dancers have cleansed you to go on your journey.
Understand your responsibilities as a human being, to yourself and your family.
Sometimes anger can be as powerful as love. Take that anger and not let that terrible black horse hurt you or someone else. Take that anger in the morning and put it away.
In any situation open your mind to learn and put it in your heart.
Meet people greater or lesser than you, and learn from them both.
Be careful in your walk.
Today is to give you strength and hope.
Honour your grandparents and parents — those who brought you up, and brought you here today — as they had you in their minds all your lives, to bring you here.
You have an exciting beautiful world.
Today a tree has been planted in your heart. Nourish it, so beautiful birds will come and sing on your tree.
You are caretakers of what took place tonight.
You are messengers.
One day we won't be here.
One day you won't be here".
The ceremony ends with the family of each initiate approaching them in turn, taking their blanket and headband and hugging them. The gifts and blankets which have been piled up are distributed by Barbara and friends. I go back to the kitchen and make some rough notes of what I saw and heard, and also help Sally finish off washing the dishes. When done, the salmon is given away. Three were left, and Sally couldn't take them, and as I am one of the last ones there, I am told I have to take them.
When I get back to the hotel, I am up until 4 a.m., alternately watching the activity in Vancouver harbour and jotting down further notes of what I'd seen and heard — much more interested in what I've heard than in what I'm going to say at the legal conference in a few short hours time.
A few days later we are on our way back to Ottawa and I look out the plane and back to the Longhouse ceremony. I remember walking up the only road (which was unlit and dark) on the Reserve back to the main municipal road (Marine Drive, which was very well lit) in North Vancouver to catch a taxi back downtown (and wondering what I'd do with the three salmon that Sally gave me), thinking of Barbara's invitation to return next Spring for her grandchildren's naming ceremony.
Looking down onto the Alberta Prairies below, the area peopled by the three Indian Bands in the Federal Court litigation mentioned at the beginning, I think of Barbara's invitation.
I know I'll be back.
There's more to be done, if only as an observer.
Maybe being able to do practically nothing is no personal excuse for doing nothing at all.