A fictional representation of the solemn, sacred ceremony used by Native peoples in the American West to welcome home and finally lay to rest to remains of ancestors stolen during colonization and imprisoned in museums and other institutions. From my novel, That Golden Shore.
As I walk down to the lake, the mountain beyond looming ever larger and more holographic in the fluttering heat, my pace quickens with the drumbeat, with that steady, insistent, one–two–three–four, like a heartbeat, or a march without beginning or end. It pulls on my body, and I can’t help but follow, and want to hurry down there.
But I try not to hurry, just saunter down as casually as I can, like I’ve been to a million of these things — because I cannot help but notice that everyone I am walking by is stepping a little out of the way, or turning entirely away.
Down near the lake, there are 30 or 40 people, sitting in loose concentric circles of camp chairs around a tight circle of seven men, sitting shoulder to shoulder on stump-stools over a huge drum. I pull up to the loose, outermost circle of people standing and watching, and hover just past the last people, watching, listening.
The seven men, I can see from here, span as many generations. A skinny, pimply teenager with a bone choker and long braid down his black t-shirt. Guys in their 20s and 30s in leather vests and caps with tribal patches. A huge dude about my age, in sweats and a leather vest over a great brown hairless trunk. A skinny guy in his 60s, in a red vest covered with military service ribbons. And the oldest, sitting in one of those walkers, his hair all white and running out from under an ancient, sweat-brimmed hat ringed with feathers.
They beat on the drum in perfect unison, with long mallets made from hand-carved shafts and leather pouches stitched with rawhide, a rock-steady four/four beat, building slowly, barely perceptibly, to a climax of volume and tempo. Then, with no discernible signal or word or cue, right at the top when it feels like the drum is going to explode, all seven drummers cut to two/four and lay in harder still — beat-pause, beat-pause, beat-pause — and the bottom drops out, the volume suddenly halved and the tempo slowing up, back to that steady four/four again.
“Hey-yea-ah-wah!” the oldest guy lets loose with a piercing, wailing chant that shoots through me like an electric shock. I know they must be words, but I have no idea what they are.
“Hey-yea-ah-wah!” the others echo him, one after another, into a rising, rumbling chorus.
Two voices soar still higher than the leader, the rest coming in up and down the register: booming, growling, wailing, the whole range of male voices melding into one voice.
I have no idea what the song is — can’t even tell if it’s happy, sad, angry, scared, defiant — because it sounds like all of those things mixed together. Like crying and laughing at the same time, over heartache too big for words, or one voice, or one mood. Like a Hebrew chant, a niggun, a song without words, only bittersweet tangle of sorrow and joy, loss and hope. Like an old blues song that goes back not a hundred years, but a thousand, the plaintive wail not just by the singer for his good or bad luck, but for the whole world.
They sing on like that for I don’t know how long, and I finally feel my body — which has been on a strange high-alert since we got here — relax into the beat. I notice that I’m nodding with the beat and tapping my feet, left foot, right foot, and how could you not? And even as more and more people are coming down, and pushing past me to find a place in the circle or stand around me on the periphery, I finally stop trying to read everybody, and sink deeper into this transfixing rhythm and follow that singular, seven-layered voice.
In the middle of the next song, I cannot help but lift my eyes, from the blur of those seven mallets on that drum, across the perfect blue stretch of lake, and up to that great impossible glory of a mountain, hovering now in the heat and haze, its spiky summit exploding from its cloak of glacier ice, shining with such ferocity that it hurts to look right at it for too long.
My eyes drift back to the drummers, and the crowd, some of them out of their camp chairs and dancing in place to the beat now.
Two people split off from the circle, walking down to the edge of the lake, where I notice for the first time some sort of makeshift altar. I suppose I thought it was just a long flat stump or chunk of old driftwood; but when they bend down to put something on it, I can see that it’s actually a knee-high wooden platform of small tree limbs lashed together, festooned with feathers, and covered with small objects.
I feel a bump from behind, and there’s movement back toward the circle, flashes and whirl of color. Two dozen dancers have come together now to fill the meadow all around me, many in full buckskins, face paint, and feathers, bells jangling from arms and legs. I slip off to the side and watch them dance. Some move in small circles, shuffling their feet to the beat; others spin in wild gyrations, a blur of color and motion, feet pounding the earth with the drumbeat.
The drummers peak again, from straight four/four to one/two — beat-pause, beat-pause — and the dancers peak too, soaring dramatic stomps, spins, arms to the sky, back to the earth, up to the sky.
An hour later, the last of the daylight…
…is almost all gone and the temperature is dropping fast like it does in the mountains, but it’s not dark. A full moon is rising to the east, just off the right flank of Úytaahkoo, and there are fires burning all over the campground, the biggest of all next to the drummers.
Eve has rounded up Tommy and his cousins, and there’s a group of maybe 20 of us walking down toward the altar with our camp chairs. Everything and everyone is suddenly, intensely quiet. The drummers are still going, but it’s a a slowed, softened, steady rhythm, no chanting, the pace of a processional. And no is talking for the first time since we got here. Not a sound from anyone, not even the kids, all of them clinging to somebody’s hand, Tommy to Eve’s.
When we get down to the lake to join the fifty or so people already spread out by the altar, I turn to see what looks like the entire encampment heading down to the lake with their chairs, all in silence. Eve’s uncle keeps going, and sets his chair down right in the middle, near the front, and we all settle in.
I’m grateful for the failing light, the fire, the moon, its milky light on the mountain, the few stars strong enough to gleam in the half-lit sky, all the things to look at to keep me from staring at everyone around me, to think about that aren’t about me, and what the hell I’m doing here.
The drumming stops suddenly, and the whole meadow is a deathly quiet. There is no breeze, and the lake is now a mirror, empty but for the watery, moonlit face of the mountain.
“Nem utel-yomi-n, hu’uni ka-li’ilaw ena.”
It’s a single voice, chanting more words I can’t make out, coming from a group of seven men and three women, all in buckskins, walking from the drum circle toward the altar.
“Nem utel-yomi-n, hu’uni ka-li’ilaw ena,” the others repeat the phrase, one of them with a hand drum, a beat on the first note of the three phrases.
Then, “Kani’i aye ka-li’ilaw miti kani’i aye,” the single voice again, more cry than song.
The sound makes my throat tighten, then chest ache, then head swim, like I want to burst into tears, for no reason in particular and every reason in the world. It is filled with a kind of heartbreak I don’t think, for whatever pain and losses I’ve endured over the decades, I will ever understand.
“Kani’i aye ka-li’ilaw miti kani’i aye,” the others and the hand-drum respond as they approach the altar.
They circle behind the altar, right on the edge of the lake, and I notice for the first time that one of the women — the oldest by far, well into her 70s, her face a scrunch of wrinkles and crevices and covered in blue paint — is carrying a bundle the size of a small child, wrapped in a white blanket.
Ugh. That can’t be what I think it is.
I turn and look at Eve, and she nods to me, Yes. That’s what you think it is.
Then a piercing cry, “Ka-appi ka-ene’ene ka’unu ka-pa’apa!”
She steps back and chants, “ka-we’e’ama-kon she ma-t ka-ho’oye.”
And the all of them together with the slow heartbeat of the hand-drum:
Nem utel-yomi-n, hu’uni ka-li’ilaw ena.
Kani’i aye ka-li’ilaw miti kani’i aye,
Ka-appi ka-ene’ene ka’unu ka-pa’apa
ka-we’e’ama-kon she ma-t ka-ho’oye.
And then utter silence, but for the crackling of the fire.
The man who’d led the chant steps out from behind the fire pit, stops to bow his head and say something to himself, then looks out at all of us.
“Brothers and sisters of the Shasta Nation, Karuk Tribe, the Klamath Tribes, the Coast Miwok, Plains Miwok and Wintu, the Pit River, Hoopa, Wiyot, Redding Rancheria, all good people of the Great Spirit who have come here to honor our ancestors. On this sacred day, when Sister Moon rises to dance with Úytaahkoo, we come to welcome the spirits of our grandmothers and grandfathers home. They are returned to their ancestral homeland, after their terrible journey through darkness, after more than a hundred years in the in-between, an awful wandering.”
He stops, bows his head again, like he’s praying — of course he’s praying — for what has to be thirty seconds. And not a sound but for the fire over by the drum circle, hundreds of us sitting there in silence, watching, waiting.
He lifts his head and continues, “For one hundred and seven years, your bones sat unburied, without honor. For the white people to look at, and take pictures of, in their museum of living death. In that city of concrete, and money, and bad medicine, as far from your home as the stars, on land stolen from our brothers and sisters to the east, two hundred years ago.”
He lifts his head higher, to the sky, and starts to murmur a chant I can’t follow. On what sounds like his second time around, the hand-drum finds the rhythm of his song, then the other voices, and the voices all around me, Eve’s too, and all her aunts and uncles and cousins, a sea of wailing that fills my chest like a fist clenching and releasing, clenching and releasing, a sound of anguish and fury and longing like nothing I’ve ever heard, and nothing I could ever reproduce.
While the chant goes round and round, building into an aural swirling of dark watery blue infused with yellow light, the leader turns and bends to squat in front of the fire pit, and lights it.
The chant grows louder, until it is midnight pitch shot through with streaks of that yellow light, and the flame flickers and catches in the paper, flaring up into the stack of wood. The woman places the bundle on the top of the wood, and her voice pierces all the others with the same chant, a death-wail.
The hand-drum comes in behind her, then the big drum again over in the other circle, the same chant.
Out of the crowd emerge four new dancers, dressed in white buckskins, holding feathered wands, their faces painted blue, who march-dance to the four corners of the fire pit, their gaze fixed on the bundle, now fully aflame, hovering in the middle of a suddenly raging fire. They turn with the beat, then square up, drop their shoulders nearly to the ground, turn and square up the other way, and pop upright. It’s the same dance I saw earlier, and now I know why they looked so intent, why they were practicing for so many hours to get every footfall, every dip, every turn exactly right.
The fire flares up through the center of the wood, turning their dancing figures into a blur of white and blue and feathers and light, fluttering with the heat, a burst of sparks with each burst of their feathered hands from ground to sky.