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As I Remember It: Teachings (Ɂəms tɑɁɑw) from the Life of a Sliammon Elder

He Got His Spirit Back

“Although he went hunting, he never caught anything. He was so absorbed in his grief.”

So going from talking about the teachings of how to keep well, how to let go of grief, how to deal with grief, and taking care of yourself, I’ll use an example. And this was not all that long ago that this happened, in my grandmother’s time, actually. And this was a brother of my grandmother’s. He lost his only son. I’m not sure how old his son was, but he was probably around ten, twelve. He was young. When he lost his son, he lost the will to live. Up until then, my grandmother’s brother was a very good provider. He was a good hunter, he was a good fisherman, he brought food into the home. He was always out being busy and doing things. He was just starting to teach his son to do all these things, taking him with him wherever he went. His son got sick and he died. And for a long time, he wasn’t able to do anything with his life. He was grieving. He just kind of fell apart: everywhere he went, he was mourning, he was crying. Although he went hunting, he never caught anything. He was so absorbed in his grief. And wherever he went, if he was hunting, there was always the owl that was ahead of him, wherever he travelled in the forest, in the woods. And the owl will chase animals away, warning the animals away? – that is the belief. So whenever he went out in the boat to go fishing, he would see the sea lion instead, or the whale, or blackfish. That also chases the fish away. So he’s not able to catch anything, or bring home anything. And this went on for quite a long time. He grieved so much.

“He said: ‘Something’s not right in this home. Someone is very ill. And I’m gonna go away and I’m going to meditate on this. And I will come back and I will tell you – identify who it is that is very sick in this room.’”

And one day, my great-great-grandmother’s husband – that was her second husband, his name was Felix – they lived up in Theodosia, and he was one of two healers that was recognized in our community. He was a very powerful man. He was a twin, this man. And the belief was that twins were very powerful? They carried a lot of good energy. And this man became a healer. He was psychic. He could see things that a lot of people could not see. He felt things. He was so much, like, in between the spirit world and the living world that he was so in touch. He was so in tune that he had gone to visit his family and after they ate, he felt ill. He got up and he went out and he got sick to his stomach. And he came back and he said, “Something’s not right in this home. Someone is very ill. And I’m gonna go away and I’m going to meditate on this. And I will come back and I will tell you – identify who it is that is very sick in this room.” So he went out and did some meditation overnight. This is how he meditated, was sitting by fire and chanting and going into his own little spirit world, asking the spirits to guide him, to help him. And he recognized the one that was sick. He came back the next day and he said to him, “You are the one that is very, very sick.”

He said, “You’ve lost your spirit. Your spirit has gone away from you, because you’ve been grieving for so long over your loss of your son. I was able to track your spirit. And your spirit is way up in Toba Inlet. Your spirit is on top of the highest mountain there at Toba Inlet. It’s sitting right on the top there,” he said. “If we don’t bring it back, if you do not co-operate, your spirit will go to the other side of the mountain and there’ll be no bringing you back. You’re going to be dead. But if you co-operate and help bring your spirit back – it’s entirely up to you – I’ll help you. And then we’ll work together.”

So this is what they did. Someone went out and got a seal, went hunting, ’cause this what the healer requested. This would be the offering for the return of the spirit. So that was all ready. Everything was gotten ready. And this all happened at Emmonds Beach. There was a village there – a lot of our people lived there. And so he had a little sweat. Nowadays you may see, like, a sweat lodge, but our people used to have individual small sweats. It was just enough for two people. So this was what they used. “And we are going to go in there and I’m going to pray. You gonna help me, ask the spirits to bring your spirit back. And it’s going to take us all night in there.” So they went out when it got dark, and he told him, “At the first breakin’ of daylight, the white owl will bring your spirit back to you. We will know when you hear that from a great distance the owl will make its sound, will make his call. And then he will move and come closer, and the third time that we hear him, he will be sitting up in this tree above us.” So that’s what happened. They were there all night. It was just breakin’ daylight. It was still dark yet. It was just a hint of light coming. And they heard that owl. Came closer. Then the next time they heard it, it was on the tree right above them. And these white owls, they’re called “qʷoqʷoqʷ” in our language. Very powerful, very deep voice when they speak, when they holler and when they make that sound – hooting sound. They’re so very loud, your hair will stand up on end. And it did that. And he could just feel that his spirit come back to him, right from the top of his head down to – it was a rush of this energy through him. So that was how he got his spirit back.

“It wasn’t a legend, it wasn’t a made-up story. I truly believe in that. And they used to point out, ‘That’s the tree that the white owl came and sat on.’”

And that day they had an offering of the seal meat. They cooked it and they got a fire going and they offered it to the ancestors, to thank the ancestors for bringing his spirit back. And my grandmother remembers that! And this is why I truly believe that this happened. Because this was in her family that was a generation up from her, that did this work – that were able to do that kind of work. That believed in that, and practised it. And it works! It worked for them. Because that was how they did things. That was how they looked after their spirit. And to me that’s spirituality, the belief in spirituality: the belief that when you believe enough, it’ll happen. That you call upon the spirit of your ancestors. They will help you. How did that white owl know to bring that back, as predicted by the healer? How did he know that? Because they are of one mind. They are of one spirit with that white owl. So that’s powerful. Very powerful. And it wasn’t something that was told out of nowhere to my great-grandparents. And that’s a true story. My great-aunt used to tell that story to me. So did my grandmother and those sisters, you know, there’s several sisters, my grandmother’s sisters. And that’s – that’s a fact. That’s a true story.

So I truly believe in things like losing your spirit when you lose a loved one. So that became part of the teachin’ in our family. That when you lose someone, if you’re grieving and you allow yourself to be crying all the time, you lose your will to live. You lose your will to take care of your family, or to take care of yourself – you become very sick. And once you’ve, I guess, hit rock bottom, then you’ll just die. It’s like it could kill you! So you have to be strong. When you lose someone in your family, you have to try to be really strong. Remember those teachin’s. Remember the bathing, the cleansing, the getting up early in the morning and going outside and doing your cleansing. Greet the new day. And try to heal your spirit – to let your grief go. And by cleansing – you take water and you wash your face and you gargle some of this water, and you spew it out there. That’s cleansing your inside as well. You want to feel lighter, ’cause you’re heavy – the heaviness is there when you’re grieving.

So we were always reminded of that story: “Look at what had happened to this man, that he almost died because he let his grief get the best of him.” So this is why this is a teachin’ – it’s a very important teachin’ – that you look after yourself, take care of yourself. Because if you don’t, nobody else is going to take care of you. That’s a very personal thing, is grief, and nobody can come and take it from you. It’s up to you to work on your wellness, to get yourself better. To get back to normal. Because if you don’t, you’re going to be down and you’re not going to be good to yourself or to anyone else after a while. So that’s a lesson learned from that. It wasn’t a legend, it wasn’t a made-up story. I truly believe in that. And they used to point out, “That’s the tree that the white owl came and sat on.” And what makes it more believable – makes it more factual, makes it more useful – that you could use it, because it was true! Doesn’t get any better than that. So I truly believe in that. I just really believe in that – the importance of self-care. And especially at a time like that, you know, the loss of someone you love, someone you’re close to. There was a lot of teachings around self-discipline, especially if you lost your husband, your spouse, or you lost your mother and your father, ’cause you’re so closely connected to them. And that’s the time to use those teachings about self-care.

You don’t get into bad behaviour or give in to, for an example, today – I know our people didn’t have alcohol years ago – and what happened today is sometimes people will turn to alcohol or to medication to feel better, because they’re grieving or they’re hurting. They’ll turn to something to make them feel better. But people didn’t have those things, and this was how they took care of themselves. But they recognized that if you don’t do this important work of self-care, then you’re going to end up dead! Eventually. You’re going to be no good to yourself or anyone else. You’ve developed this bad habit. You’ve become lazy. And become, you know, just a nothing. Although you were maybe a real good hunter or a good provider, your spirit leaves you. And you must protect that spirit. You must hang on to that.

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