Smithsonian magazine hired me to write this story about a Native American man named Andrew Callicum who had helped revive the language and culture of his Nuuchalnuth people, and then died suddenly and tragically at a young age, taking much that rare knowledge with him. It was a parable of what's happening to so many native languages. I traveled to Andrew's homeland on the northwest edge of Vancouver Island, where I met his brother and sister, and to the Makah home in northwest Washington, where his son went to a school that emphasizes learning the language. (He has since become a tribal leader.) The Nuuchalnuth and Makah are closely related by blood and shared traditions. This story has taken on new relevance for me now that I live in northwest Washington.

  Edward Curtis, A   Makah Maiden,   1916  , courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Edward Curtis, A Makah Maiden, 1916, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

DYING WORDS

Among the native people of Vancouver Island, your name, especially if you descend from a line of chiefs, tells a story. You learn to sing your name and dance the family legends, correctly, at the many feasts held in winter months. If you dance as Bear, you fatten your swagger. You sniff the air. You jerk your terrifying eyes toward your prey.

Your name often recalls an ancestor’s encounter in the woods with a supernatural being such as Kwatyat, the trickster, or Tl’ihul, the Thunderbird. (Although they would never be called “supernatural”; to you, they are as real as your grandma.) The name may tell a joke or boast great feats (“Ten Whales at a Time”), or both (“Always Copulating”). A name can only be given to you if it is part of your chief’s hupuukwanam, his treasure chest, and only in a potlatch—a feast in which the chief lavishes gifts upon his guests and cements political alliances in an orchestrated display of songs and dances that can go on for days.

To hear old people sing the old names in the old language, now a rare thing, it is easy to imagine the words emerging from a land of mountain forests whose rocky shores are beaten and smoothed by seawater. Long waves of vowels crash against consonants with glottal stops abrupt as spit from a cedar fire.

Andrew Callicum had owned one of the great names of the Northwest. His Indian name, Galagwame, means “The First One.” His namesake, Chief Callicum, sparred with Spanish explorers and traded sea otter skins with Captain James Cook two hundred years ago. Well before that, Andrew’s ancestors hunted whales. They prayed and ritually cleansed themselves for a year, and then rowed cedar canoes into the Pacific Ocean armed with sealskin buoys and harpoons tipped with sharpened mussel shells. Immediately after a kill, one man dove under the sea with rope made of bark to stitch up the giant animal’s mouth before it took in water and sunk the whale to the ocean floor.

Andrew inherited a challenge more tenacious, elusive and modern—to resuscitate the dying language and culture that guided those whale hunters for thousands of years. The Canadian government outlawed potlatches in 1894 and severed native children like Andrew from their families, shipping them to residential schools that strapped or shamed them if they spoke their language. “If you get the Indian out of the child, you’ll have no more problems with Indians,” one government official wrote. In Canada, all but three native languages—Inuktitut, Cree and Ojibwa—are now endangered. Of the three hundred languages once spoken in North America, linguists predict all but twenty will grow silent within fifty years.

By 1970, Andrew’s tribe had been relocated from its ancestral home in Friendly Cove on the west coast. Its traditions were atrophied and its language moribund. Andrew was working for United Airlines in San Francisco. When his elders called him back, he seemed an unlikely savior. He enjoyed the Bay Area’s libertine lifestyle of the time. He liked fast cars. He was already starting to put on the weight he carried most of his life, but his warm brown eyes, gentle manner, and measured and mesmerizing voice (which he had been taught to cultivate as the son of a chief) made him popular with women.

Yet in many ways Andrew remained the studious and spiritual child who sat at his grandmother’s knee at potlatches, achieving an unrivaled fluency in his language and its legends. He still fasted and prayed for days at time on the sacred mountains of his homeland, carrying a plastic bag for his toilet. “Andrew was a very traditional yet enigmatically contemporary person,” said Jay Powell, a Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of British Columbia who worked with Andrew to create a cultural dictionary of Nuuchahnulth, the native tongue on the west coast.

For the next thirty years, Andrew held several jobs but only one vocation—to act as a missionary for restoring native languages and traditions. “He was always teaching someone else how to get back to their roots,” said Chief Bill Cramner of the Namgis nation in Alert Bay. (Cramner also owns a revered name. His father, Douglas, worked closely with anthropologist Franz Boas to record native songs and ceremonies. Doug Cramner held perhaps the most famous potlatch on the island in 1921, which the government decided to make a test case by prosecuting the participants, sentencing them to prison terms, and seizing their sacred objects.)

Andrew made a special effort to reconnect with his Namgis relatives, traveling to Alert Bay with his mother in the early 1970s carrying research that showed the historic link among their families. “He went right back to written journals of Spanish explorers,” said Cramner.

Cramner claimed Andrew probably held more potlatches than anyone else, at a pace of about one a year (every potlatch takes months of preparation and can cost $20,000 or more). Andrew promulgated his message of cultural healing beyond the island, too, among his Makah relatives, to the Hoh and Quinalt of Washington, and among urban Indians at the Native American Health Center in Oakland, California, where he moved in the autumn of 2001 to work as a family counselor.

Only a few months later, on December 13, 2001, Andrew stepped into a crosswalk in Oakland and was struck and killed by a car. Archeologists working at Friendly Cove have uncovered five-thousand-year old artifacts of Nuuchahnulth culture. One of that culture’s best hopes for survival had suddenly perished on the asphalt at 29th Street and Telegraph Avenue.

 “Andrew practiced native medicine and stayed in the right relation with his ‘spirit powers,’ doing daily rituals that did not differ in assumptions from those of his distant ancestors,” said Powell. “And he potlatched. Man, did he potlatch, telling the history of his name and dancing the songs that had been given to his ancestors since the Time of Beginnings, and distributing wealth to his chiefly guests. No Nuuchahnulth man of his time could boast the potlatches Andrew gave. He was a great mountain. And probably no one will ever get as high as he was again.”

 

ANDREW CALLICUM WAS BORN to a band called the Mowachaht, who belong to a tribe, or “First Nation” in Canadian parlance, that the English named the Nootka. Recently, the Nootka renamed themselves the Nuuchahnulth, which means “people along the mountains.”

The road from Campbell River on the east coast to the Mowachaat’s home in the West climbs rapidly on its way across a range of peaks that form Vancouver Island’s spine, north to south. The black highway twists alongside a tumbling river surrounded by moss-covered birch trees interspersed with cedar and fir. A year after Andrew’s winter death, snow ghosted the trees and ponds, where decaying gray logs broke the delicately laced layer of the ice. Earlier winds had splayed clusters of saplings, now coated by a ubiquitous frost that fused with the fog to create an ethereal white beauty and blur the line between land and heaven. The Nuuchahnuth honor a god of the horizon as well as one of the sky.

At the pass, Lake Campbell stretched for miles. Created when engineers dammed the river during World War II, the lake’s striated cliffs of dark and light granite are cut into a Z-pattern, as if by a giant cleaver. At noon the sun lit the rock below the fog, while the moon shown above it like a round, flat beacon. As the mist burned to blue, snow-capped mountains hovered over the descent to the town of Gold River.

The Mowachaat’s Tsaxana Reserve lies a few miles beyond. Were it not for the surrounding forest, lack of fences and rangy dogs, the new A-frames at reserve might look like an average suburb. Andrew’s older brother, Jerry Jack, and his younger brother, Ben Jack, live just a few houses apart.

Jerry shares Andrew’s broad facial features. His gray hair and eyebrows bush out above his aviator-style glasses. For emphasis, he repeats his sentences in a steady cadence, emphasizing certain words in a near-whisper. Pulling up in his pickup, Jerry offered to guide a trip to Friendly Cove, which lies at the end of Nootka Sound where it meets the Pacific Ocean. He said that Max Savey’s water taxi could make the journey in an hour, just enough time to get there and back before nightfall.

The launch is several miles downhill from the town, and dominated by a giant pulp mill, now silent. At the dock, a baby Orca rolled over gently, rubbing against one of the boats. Her pod swam a few miles away down the sound, chasing the herring. At different times during the year, these waters are replete with salmon and halibut—not like the days before factory fishing and pollution from the mill—but still plentiful.

On the trip to Friendly Cove, Max, who has a weather-beaten face and thick, swept-back hair, kept his eyes on the water ahead. Jerry explained over the engine roar that every part of the sound belongs to a chief’s hahotly —basically his territory. Historically, the hahotlys were frequently raided and fiercely defended. Everything in the hahotly is the property to the chief: birds that fly over, fish that swim through, and elk that wander there.

Max and Jerry are two of the Mowachaht’s fourteen chiefs. Max descends from Chief Maquinna, who greeted Captain James Cook when he anchored at Friendly Cove in 1778. Drawn to land by snowy Konoma Mountain to the east, Cook made the cove his first stop in British Columbia. Maquinna's number two chief was Callicum, Andrew and Jerry’s ancestor.

The British had Spaniard, Russian, and American rivals in the area, who all pursued shifting sets of alliances with each other and the tribes. Several clashes turned violent. In 1789, a Spanish captain named Estaban José Martínez, claiming that Callicum had insulted him, shot and killed the chief. Fourteen years later, Mowachaat warriors boarded an American schooner, the Boston, murdering all but two aboard. One of the spared, the blacksmith John Jewett, wrote a dairy that described his three years as Maquinna's slave. Walking on the beach, Jerry pointed to the spot where Maquinna’s son approached Jewett and forced him to trade his jacket for a sea otter hide. When Jewett unrolled the pelt, his captain’s head tumbled out.

Friendly Cove’s circular harbor is protected on three sides, with a beach full of driftwood and a grassy flatland above that Jerry says his grandfather helped level to create a soccer field. The sea roars on the opposite side of the cove. Once, dozens of cedar plank houses stood on the grassland, but only one home remains, as well as a lighthouse and the old Catholic church. A dark forest to the north hides a lake where the chiefs fasted and prayed for strength before a whale hunt. In 1905, collector George Hunt removed their sacred whale shrine, a series of 88 human figures and four whales carved in wood, and the skulls of sixteen ancestors to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The grand home of Captain Jack, Andrew’s grandfather, no longer stands at Friendly Cove, but the totem pole that chronicles his marriage remains, by tradition, on the ground where it fell. Like kings, chiefs often married other chiefs’ daughters, who brought family wealth, including the rights to songs and names, into the marriage. A few years ago, tribal members carved replicas of Captain Jack’s totem, as well as a giant eagle with moving wings and a whale in its claws that once stood in front of Chief Maquinna’s house, and erected them in place of the Catholic altar in the church.

Nuuchahnulth elders believed in reincarnation and would sometimes single out children with a birthmark or other sign of a chiefly ancestor to teach the traditional ways. From a very young age, Captain Jack and his wife recognized that Andrew had a special gift for his culture and language, and kept him close, teaching him the old ways. As a boy, he watched his great grandfather Immish, who lived to be over a hundred years old, rise early each morning, take off his clothes, and fill an aluminum tub with water to perform a cleansing ceremony in front of his house. Andrew told a friend that his family hid him under a canoe when the Mounties and Indian agents swooped into the village to collect the children. When he was eleven, he was found and forced to go.

 

JERRY PUNCTUATES EVEN HIS harshest remarks with a laugh, but the laugh barely masks his bitterness towards the years that he and Andrew, like their parents before them, attended a Catholic residential school on Meares Island, several hours south of Friendly Cove by steamship. Jerry recalls the nuns taping his mouth shut, standing him in the corner for hours, or putting a wooden block in his mouth if he spoke Nuuchahnulth.

Ironically, the schools intended to impart a moral education, but robbed whole generations of parenting skills and values by severing children from their families for most of the year. “My parents didn’t really know how to love us,” Claire Newman, Andrew’s younger sister, said. “I always wished my father would hold me in his arms and say, ‘You’re precious to me.’ He never did. In residential school, you’re never taught that.”

At school, Andrew was quiet and studious. While he shared Jerry’s antipathy to the school that separated him from his family, he was also drawn to ideas and books, later leaving the island to earn college degrees, and even teaching for a year at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

By the time that Andrew left in the late 1950s, his Mowachaat band was headed towards extinction. The last whale was captured at the end of the 1940s, and the band’s livelihood, their fishing fleet, was repossessed by commercial banks in 1957. Without jobs, many left for Victoria or Vancouver. The Department of Indian Affairs negotiated a lease favoring the pulp mill owners occupying Mowachaat land at the mouth of Gold River, and then moved the tribe from their ancestral home to a nine-acre plot adjacent to the mill. The mill polluted the sound and discharged toxic smoke over their hastily built shantytown. They paid the tribe $19,000 a year in rent.

Andrew’s father died in 1968 from complications of liver disease. When he returned home for his father’s memorial, elders took Andrew aside and reminded him of his spiritual training.  He was chastened by the tribe’s condition—alcoholism, family problems and early deaths were common. Much of their oral tradition had disappeared forever as elders died. While Andrew learned Nuuchahnulth from his grandparents, most of his generation did not, including his younger brother Ben and sister Claire. “It’s really hard to understand the potlatch and culture, to truly understand, without the language,” Ben said.

Like his ancestors, Andrew and other members of the nation decided to call on the power of the whalers’ shrine. They flew to New York and prayed over the carvings now housed at the American Natural History Museum. Andrew led his group in song, interjecting yells and punctuating them with a closed fist. Chief Max Savey claimed that being in the presence of the shrine turned his life around. He got clean and sober and, with tribal help, purchased his water taxi.

Working in the 1990s with his linguist friend Powell, Andrew brought elders from up and down the coast to compile a cultural dictionary of Nuuchahnulth that is still a primary reference for those, like Jerry, who are now teaching the language. For his many potlatches, he conducted fasts, prayers and ritual cleansings before the ceremonies. Andrew was very strict, several people said, but also a brilliant improviser and healer. He held a potlatch for his sister Claire when she was burned badly by a coffee urn and another for Ben when his marriage was troubled.

Polly McCarty, a Makah and relative of Andrew, lives on the reservation in Neah Bay, Washington, at the northwestern tip of the continental United States. Her hair is dark and thick. She wears black boots, a red sweater and the melancholy demeanor of someone who has lived through too much in her young life. A few years ago, when her brother was dying, she rushed between her job and children, and her shift at his bedside. Andrew, she said, insisted she take the time to come up to the house where he was staying in Neah Bay for a cleansing ceremony. Andrew brushed her down with boughs in the bathtub. “If someone close to you dies, you cut your hair out of respect,” she said. “I didn’t want to cut it, but Andrew kept stroking my hair, without saying anything. He just kept stroking. I realized, oh my god, he knows. It wasn’t my hair but my brother that I didn’t want to let go.”

“For Andrew, the spirit world was just as real as the one we see,” said Powell, the UBC professor. “Once when he was involved in negotiations with timber managers over logging around the Hoh tribe’s sacred sites, he was telling the legend of the Southeast Wind, who became irritable after the North Wind ran off with his wife. While he was talking, an enormous gust came up from the Southeast and blew down three immense trees. It really got the attention of the timber managers and began to change the whole mood. That was the kind of thing that happened when he was around.”

 

WITH HIS LATE WIFE, ANDREW had two sons. He took the boys to his potlatches and taught them their songs. Aaron, a math whiz, remembers his dad carrying him on his shoulders during the dances. He now attends high school on the Makah reservation where his father once worked and where the last two fluent native speakers died recently. Last year, Aaron took Makah I, a language class of the type now springing up in many native communities. The director of their cultural center expressed an increasingly common sentiment, “We’re not willing to give up. There’s no way we can—there’s so much embedded in the language.”

Aaron’s older brother, Andrew, Jr., attends college, and plans to become a lawyer and treaty negotiator. He is studying Nuuchahnulth, and fasted and prayed in the woods for four days before the memorial potlatch held, by tradition, a year after his father died.

Andrew’s sister Claire and her husband spent the full year preparing for the potlatch, harvesting and freezing Herring Roe, catching and smoking salmon, sewing beaded vests, and practicing their dances. The family held the potlatch in a giant community house in Campbell River near a mall with a Starbucks and Office Depot. Two massive totem poles depicting bears, thunderbirds and other figures support the forty-foot ceiling. While a brisk winter rain fell outside, a giant cedar fire burned in the arena through the day and night. People gradually filled the wooden bleachers until by nightfall there were over a thousand.

Bill Cramner, who wore a crown made of cedar bark, ermine fur and abalone shell, led the Namgis dances for the morning and afternoon ceremonies. Men beat on a log drum, while women who had lost relatives in the previous year gathered in the front wearing beaded blankets of black, red and green. When Andrew’s elder brother Jerry sang a mourning song, all the native women stood and shook, symbolically shaking off the sorrow and letting the spirits go. With that, Cramner explained, the one-year period of official mourning ended, and Andrew’s treasures, his songs, could again be heard.

Four chiefs then entered with the Imas, a figure with a giant sun mask who represented the ancestors. Eagle feathers were spread to bless the floor and hall, and preparations made for the highest dance of all, the Hamat’sa. In the legend of the Hamat’sa, four sons go into the woods on a hunt, find the Cannibal at the North End of the World and kill him. The experience transforms them into Hamat’sa, a man-eater. The Hamat’sa initiate enters the floor a wild creature, cracking the air with his yell.

On this day, Andrew, Jr. became the Hamat’sa. He wore a cedar necklace and anklets, crouching and snapping at the crowd, screaming the man-eaters yell, “Hap! Hap!”

His Aunt Claire led him around the fire, while four men grabbed and held him as he tried to jerk away. Women in the crowd spontaneously stood up, their hands extended and shaking from side to side, as if patting him down. Together with the bird dancers who hopped around the floor—the Raven’s mask had a beak at least six feet long—the women gradually calmed the Hamat’sa. The dance has many meanings. One is the civilizing force of culture, taming our wildness and violence.

During the long night, while the sacred smoke filled the hall, many chiefs came forward to pay tribute to Andrew, praise his great deeds, and offer gifts to Jerry and the family, which were, by custom, to be given away to everyone when the potlatch ended the following morning. Some concluded their tribute with a traditional saying, La ‘man ‘s gwal’ alila’.

It translates, “Those are all the words.”

 

© 2018 Kerry Tremain, all rights reserved