It was the summer of his twentieth year when the son of the Great Chieftain died. He had been injured in a hunt-of-the-bear and the stone blade had broken deep inside his leg. Summer times are a good season for bear meat, but this one had outsmarted the trap the warrior had set – it had fought back.
The old shaman with the white hair that hung in strings down his back had removed the blade and rubbed paste onto the broken flesh as it gushed life blood. For many days and nights, near the glow of a fire smoking with herbs, the shaman called out to the spirit of the young warrior to keep him among the living but the spirit of the young man traveled between this realm and the one of those long gone. For as long as the Shaman chanted, a fever raged within the young man until, finally, one morning his breath had stilled and he did not rise from his sleep.
It was shortly after the death of his son that the Chieftain of the Wolf Clan of the Haida tribes came to visit me. It was the summer of my seventieth year in the Rich Green Northwest. The song of a great blue heron pierced the silent air when the chieftain laid his sacred hands on my skin. We spoke without words. He told me about his oldest boy, He Who Would Have Become the Next One. He told me how the spirit of his heir walked between two worlds and would no longer return to the body he departed from.
The Chieftain needed me. His people needed me. His boy needed me. I must help send his boy to the spirit world. Without me the soul of the young warrior would remain among the living. Restless. Wandering. More could die if the spirits of the dead did not pass onto the next plain. Too many had died that year already. They would all have to be released from this plain into the next.
I am Cedar, towering and indestructible, one among many. I am sacred to the peoples of the Northern Island. I do not belong to the Haida and the Haida do not belong to me but we are connected through the spirit of life, one with each other. I was ready to do my part in keeping the balance between the two worlds of the living and the dead. And so my own journey into the next life had begun.
When the Great Chieftain returned he brought men, painted, dressed in just enough skin to cover what needed to be covered. Surrounding me, they gazed up into my crown, reverence in the deep brown pools of their eyes.
It was time, the chief told me.
With his men, he called out the names of great sky spirits, the ones who connected us all. Slow and deep was their chanting. Like the movement of water during a strong rain.
I would not call it death, what happened next. With a stone knife my skin was pierced at the bottom, where I stood. And then strong hands held it firm and peeled me. All around me, the hands worked, until I stood naked and bare. Nothing but my inner flesh exposed. Soon I would connect this world with the spirit world. Soon, I would help send the Next One to his Other Home.
My skin was not left to rot on the ground. It would be used. The tribe depends on me but they never take more than what they need. My skin would make clothes to be worn during the death ceremony. They took my skin away and silently promised to return soon.
They returned, one again, with the passing of three mornings. This time they began with a deep cut at my feet. I was not scared. Strong hands and a stone ax worked. It was rhythmic work, this sacred work set to the deep bass of a prayer.
It would take many days to prepare me for the ceremony of the dead. After I had been separated from my skin and cut at my base I was taken into the village of the natives where I rested on the ground. I laid there with two others. They too had been brought from deep in the forest. They too were being prepared to aid the journey of the dead to the next realm.
The Chieftain’s son, The Next One, had seen a bear on his vision quest, his father told me. He did not have to share this knowledge with me. I already knew. The Next One had been a young boy of thirteen when he had rested with his back against me. It had been spring and he had been searching alone in the deep green for many days. He had fallen asleep that afternoon when the spirit of the bear came to him. He had left his village as a boy and had gone back home as a man. The Shaman gave him the name Sleeping Bear.
It was the image of a bear that was carved where my crown once was. Using stone blade tools, the chief made the teeth, paws, and claws of the bear with his own hands. The bear looked ahead with wide eyes, his paws raised, his claws extended as though waiting to defend the Wolf Clan from the roaming spirits of the dead.
Below the bear was the carving of wolves. This was to represent the ancestors that have passed. To honor them as the Next One is sent off to join them in the other realm. And below them was a carving of Tsooda, the spirit of continuance and transition. Tsooda is important in sending the dead onwards. He is an important part of healing. His look is not that of an animal but of a little man.
When I was fully carved I lay on the ground. There was a large ceremony. The elders came dressed in their skin capes and walked around me. They blew breath into me as they chanted prayers to the sky spirits. I was no longer just cedar. I was Totem of Mortuary.
Finally, I was ready to stand. Strong ropes of sinew were wrapped around me and the men of the village surrounded me. In his booming voice, the great chief called the men to stand strong. Together, slowly they lifted me and then with a rush of energy I was pushed with hands from behind. I stood tall and proud, sacred and holy, in the village of the Haida people in front of the chief. I was left unpainted in mourning.
The other two that had come from the Rich Green were made into side posts fixed into the ground. A small ornate box was fixed in the middle. The head of a wolf was carved on one side, painted with red, yellow, and green ochre. It represented the Wolf Clan. It was a square tomb box. Inside, the young warrior was laid on his side with his knees up under his chin, his arms wrapped around as though he were back in the womb of his mother, the head wife of the great chief. He would forever lay there in the womb of the box for the villagers, his relatives, to come speak to him, to share stories of the past and their dreams of the future.
A great potlatch was held. The people of the Wolf Clan wore their wolf skins and donned their painted masks. The Great Chief wore his great head piece; the head of a wolf still covered in fur, its upper jaw resting on the crown of the older warrior, with its sharp teeth still intact. The Chief wore a necklace of wolf claws and teeth around his neck and wrapped a similar string around both of his wrists. He stood tall and proud like the Great Cedars. He painted his face in with the same red, yellow, and green ochre used on the tomb box.
Many clans of the forest came to remember He Who Would Have Been the Next One, Sleeping Bear, who was now moving on to the next realm. He who would never wander this world as a spirit but would be a great warrior in the next. The Great Chief thanked them with many gifts, some made from my skin.
They all sat around me in a wide semicircle. I was the main guest of honor.
The ceremony began with songs of mourning and the head wife of the Great Chief, dressed in a long-fringed shirt made from my skin, cried. Allow the tears to cleanse your spirit of sadness, I told her.
The bear that had injured He Who Would have Been the Next One had been tracked and killed. Otherwise the spirit of the young warrior could remain behind, attached to the spirit of the bear. A young native dressed in the skin of the bear swooped in to attack the Great Chief in a performance of how the Next One had died. The Chief played the role of his son and as he pretended to fall he pointed with both arms to me, the Totem of Mortuary.
The spirit shall move on. The spirit shall not remain wandering here I reassured the tribespeople. The Tribespeople were comforted and a new Next One was announced that night. The younger son of the Great Chief, Sly Eagle, would be the next leader of the Wolf Clan of the Haida.