I Heard the Owl Call My Name
I Heard the Owl Call My Name
by Margaret Craven
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in the mid-1960s in the Kwakiutl Indian village of Kingcome, British Columbia; published in 1967.
A young Anglican vicar finds peace in life and death among the Kwakiutl tribe.
Margaret Craven was born in Bellingham, Washington, in 1898, and attended Stanford University. She began her writing career as a newspaper journalist, and in fact it was a story she wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, based on the experiences of a minister in the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, that was the genesis of her novel I Heard the Owl Call My Name. For much of her life Craven had struggled with a career as a fiction writer, experiencing only nominal success, but at the age of sixty-nine her quietly moving book about life in a Kwakiutl Indian village would become the culmination of her career.
The Kwakiutl people live in and around the Queen Charlotte Strait, which is on the central coast of British Columbia, Canada; they formerly inhabited the northeastern part of Vancouver Island as well. The word Kwakiutl means “beach on the other side of the river,” and at first designated a very specific place and group, though the term has been extended to apply to all tribes who share a common linguistic heritage. Contact with Europeans seems to have occurred in 1786, when an English trader by the name of James Strange first made his way along the strait. Sources seem to indicate no further contact with whites occurred until 1792, when a veritable flood of foreigners sailed through the area—Americans, British, and even Spanish. About thirty years later, the English-based Hudson’s Bay Company established trading posts all over the area, and the Kwakiutl became economically linked with the outside world.
The Kwakiutl built permanent villages of wooden houses, generally alongside a river or other shoreline, with secondary seasonal structures located in other places close to rich sources for food gathering. There were three social classes, roughly approximating the European classes of nobility, commoner, and slave. Nobility was not extended to entire families, but to the member of the family, generally the eldest son, who would one day assume guardianship of the emblems and rights of the family’s primal ancestor. Commoners were sometimes responsible for contributing toward the upkeep of the noble head of their family, giving him a certain portion of their food, for example. The Kwakiutl—both nobles and commoners—in the past sometimes kept slaves, who were usually captured members of other tribes. If the person was not ransomed by his or her family, he or she lost all social status and became a slave for life, able only to marry another slave and produce children born into slavery. The life of Kwakiutl slaves was not necessarily harsh; they often lived with the family they served and, if useful or skillful, could become a valued member of that family unit. Also it was possible for a slave to be released from bondage upon the word of his master. In I Heard the Owl Call My Name, the behavior of Sam, the unlucky drunkard who mistreats both his wife and his daughter, is explained by his heritage:
Sam was descended from slaves and in the old days to be a slave was to be worse than a nothing. He had no pride. His boats burned under him. When he reached the fishing grounds, the fish had not come yet, or they had seen him and fled.
(Craven, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, p. 24)
The Kwakiutl Indians have traditionally supported themselves largely by fishing for halibut, cod, and salmon, by digging for clams, and by hunting for bear, wolf, beaver, and seal. In more recent years, as the mythic power of their art has become popular far beyond their coastal home, the production of native handiwork has probably surpassed all other forms of enterprise.
In 1881 the Anglican Church of Canada set up a mission with a school in Alert Bay, the Queen Charlotte region’s major center of commerce, health services, and government. The school would become the main center of education in the entire area, right up until the time that Craven was writing her novel. The Anglican Church of Canada made an impact on the Indians in the Queen Charlotte Strait, but it was only at Kingcome, the setting of I Heard the Owl Call My Name, that the Anglicans set up a permanent church, St. George. Other Indian villages received monthly visits from Anglican churchmen; every six weeks the Anglican hospital boat would arrive offshore and offer basic health services. The Pentecostal Church was also very active in the area at the time Craven was writing, and was perhaps the more popular because of its novel approach; the formal Anglican services were in English (although the Anglicans did issue a translation of the Book of Common Prayer in Kwakwala, the language of the Kwakiutl), while the Pentecostal services were often held in the native Kwakwala tongue and were more spontaneous, with a lot of “yelling and jumping around and shouting” (Sewid, p. 175). Despite the enthusiasm evident in its church services, the Pentecostal Church was strictly against dancing, gambling, and drinking, and such taboos tended to make it less popular than it might have been among native populations. In 1969 (two years after I Heard the Owl Call My Name was published), the autobiography of the Kwakiutl Indian James Sewid appeared, in which he wrote of a conflict between the Anglican Church and the Pentecostal Church in the very village of Kingcome about which Craven wrote:
I had to take a trip up to Kingcome one time because the Pentecostals had gone up there and that whole village was divided. The fathers and sons were divided, the mothers and fathers, they were not on good terms, and the way I saw it it was not a good thing.
(Sewid, p. 178)
Despite all the flurry of Western religious activity conducted in their communities, the Kwakiutl maintained their ancient religious traditions. These ancient traditions continue to be observed and generally exist alongside Christianity.
According to the Kwakiutl world view, everything in nature contains a supernatural aspect, known as nawalakw, which people address in thanks while they perform daily tasks, such as hunting, picking berries, or fishing. In I Heard the Owl Call My Name, the nawalakw of the salmon is particularly prominent, not just because fishing was such an important part of daily life at Kingcome, but also because the character Mark is associated with the salmon, for reasons that become clear during the course of the novel. Mark himself knows a version of the salmon prayer, and recites it to Jim, his Indian helper, on the day that the two of them see a silver shoal of salmon moving with secret urgency to their spawning beds. The anthropologist Franz Boas recorded a version of the salmon prayer at the
In I Heard the Owl Call My Name, the Indians of Kingcome hold an annual ceremony at the end of March in preparation for the coming of the oolakan, or candlefish, the mainstay of their economy and diet. As the novel relates, like other ceremonies of the season, this one was taken quite seriously.
[In fact, this was a] season so deep in the tradition of the people that all the taboos and superstitions were remembered, and followed. No pregnant woman must cross the river. No body must be transported upon it. The chief of the tribe must catch the first fish.
(I Heard the Owl Call My Name, p. 65)
The oolakan, or eulachon, run for about five weeks every spring. The fish is a sort of salmon, but tiny—only eight inches in length. Its great value is not its flesh, but its oil, which females of the species have in greater abundance. The eulachon has so much oil, in fact, that when dried and stood on its end, it actually burns—like a candle. The Kwakiutl used the oil for cooking.
turn of the century while he was among the Kwakiutl:
We have come to meet alive, Swimmer. Do not feel wrong about what I have done to you, friend Swimmer, for that is the reason why you come that I may spear you, that I may eat you, Supernatural One, you Long-Life-Giver, you Swimmer.... Now call after you your father and your mother and uncles and aunts and elder brothers and sisters to come to me also, you, Swimmers, you Satiater.
(Boas, p. 207)
After such a prayer, the speaker answers back to himself in the place of the animal or fruit—“yes,” or an affirmation of another sort. Craven’s novel links the “Yes, my Lord,” that Mark utters to his own god, in acceptance of his call to minister to the Kwakiutl, with the response of the salmon who affirms the rightness of his capture by the Indians.
In the novel, before he moves to Kingcome, Mark is given some sage advice by his predecessor, an aged cleric named Caleb: “Don’t call them cannibals. It was never true literally. No one alive has seen the famous dance in which the young man, maddened by the cannibal spirit, returns to his village crying for flesh and carrying a body taken from a grave tree” (I Heard the Owl Call My Name, p. 5.) What Caleb is referring to is the hamatsa, or Cannibal Dance, a winter ceremony that marks the initiation of a young man into the Cannibal Society, one of the many secret societies to which Kwakiutl people, both men and women, belong. The Kwakiutl seem to have developed the Cannibal Dance after contact and marriage with nearby Indians, the Bella Bella and Oowekeeno, probably after having killed a number of Bella Bella nobility sometime around 1856.
The secret societies—altogether there were apparently eighteen of them—each honor a mythical ancestor, supposedly each group’s founder. Group members, who protected the “secrets” of their societies, were generally of the same age and gender; the Crow society was for young women, the Sea Lion society for older men, for example. In the winter, the most sacred time of the year, people no longer went by their everyday names, but by the sacred names given them in their societies.
There were many different kinds of dances that could be performed, with the hamatsa being the most terrible. The general theme behind the dances was that the dancer had been abducted by the spirits, who gave the dancer horrible powers or qualities; it was up to the other members of the tribe to capture and tame the person through ceremonial dance. “The public ceremonial was the performance and taming of the possessed dancer, who had disappeared from the village some time before, often under dramatic circumstances, and had been in seclusion in the woods or in a special room” (Codere, p. 373).
The hamatsa dancer was cured over a period of four days; at his first appearance, the dancer was wild, having acquired the taste for human flesh. He snarled at, clawed, and bit the people gathered to sing and dance him back to health. To appease him, a woman danced in front of him with what appeared to be a corpse in her arms; his appetite led him to follow her around the room, a first sign of being tamed. Eventually, the young man, who had first appeared naked, put on clothes, stood up straight and began to become more social. Some anthropologists believe that one of the purposes of such displays of ferocity was to frighten non-members of the society into believing that Cannibal Society members—generally drawn from the potential nobility—were really in touch with the spirit world and were not to be challenged.
I Heard the Owl Call My Name is a book about death—not just that of the hero but of several members of the young vicar’s flock. Consequently the novel is rich in discussions about traditional burial rituals. Mark, the vicar, distinguishes himself by his tolerance and support of such traditions as he attends his first burial in the village: “Did you notice that at the graveside he left quietly and asked no questions?... He respected our customs” (I Heard the Owl Call My Name, p. 23). Upon death, a Kwakiutl’s body was immediately put into a wooden box made from local materials, the hands and face washed and then painted red. Traditionally the open box was hoisted into a tree top belonging to the family of the dead person so that the body could be eaten by birds—usually ravens—and thus the person’s spirit, passing into the bodies of creatures of this earth, would remain in the world of human beings, and have the chance of being reborn once again into a human body upon the death of the animal. It was thought that if a person were buried underground, his or her spirit would pass only into the creatures who inhabit the soil and would have no hope of being reborn into the human community. Another traditional burial form was to put the body into an above-ground wooden tomb apart from the village. In both cases, tradition has given way to a more generally acceptable custom. Government and missionary church pressure have now compelled the Kwakiutl people to bury their dead underground.
Mark Brian, a twenty-seven-year-old Anglican ordinand, has three years before he will die. Unaware of this, he is sent by his bishop to live among the Kwakiutl Indians in their remote coastal village of Kingcome (in the Kwakwala tongue, Quee, or “inside place”). On his first day in the village, he confronts the task of burying a small boy who has drowned ten days earlier. The people have been unable to bury him not just because they have been without a vicar, but because the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have not yet arrived to investigate and issue a death certificate. After the insensitive officer has come and gone, Mark accompanies the tribe to the burial ground separated from the village by a section of heavy forest. Giving a traditional Anglican funeral service, Mark is moved by how appropriate the ceremony seems to him, here in this remote and alien part of the world. When he is finished, he senses that the people themselves are not yet through, and he leaves, with a Kwakwala lament echoing through the burial glade behind him. His sensitivity to their customs impresses the Indians.
Whether or not the Cannibal Dance, which enacts the eating of dead bodies, ever really involved actual cannibalism remains a matter of debate. Craven’s novel, however, gives an explanation by Peter, the ceremonial totem carver, that suggests the cannibal dances actually involved human remains: “In my father’s day when the hamatsa entered on the second night of the dance carrying a real body taken from the old burial ground, the women were afraid, and they said, Is the body from my family’s tree? Is it one of ours?’ When I was a boy the hamatsa carried no body because the government forbade it, and he only pretended to bite people, holding a piece of seal liver in his mouth. As a boy I saw the scars on the arms of the old men, and I heard the tales” (I Heard the Owl Call My Name, pp. 100-01).
The following day he awakes from his first sleep in the village to discover by the broad light of day that his vicarage is a shambles and his church a dark and dank ramshackle place. Rejecting an offer from the bishop to have a prefabricated house sent up to Kingcome to replace the crumbling vicarage, Mark begins to clean and set things right; he wants to wait to build the vicarage until his people offer to help him with the difficult task. The Indians watch him politely, shyly, and Mark feels keenly that he is an alien in their home.
One late September afternoon Mark and his Indian helper, Jim, take a trip together up the river that runs past the village. Mark wants to see the “death of the swimmer,” the last moments of the salmon that swim upstream to spawn and die. They meet some of the other villagers there, near a small group of cabins where they dry salmon and pick berries; among the other villagers are Marta Stephens, an ancient woman who has been kind to the young vicar, and Kee-tah, a young woman who alone among the villagers does not have an English nickname. They all picnic together and discuss the puzzle of death, debating whether it is a tragedy or a triumph. Keetah weeps at the death of the salmon, but Marta and Mark both feel that death is a moment of culmination, when one achieves what one was born to do.
The men of the tribe, and especially Jim, come to like and respect the vicar for his tenacity and his curiosity about their way of life. A spirit of love is even evident between them by Christmas, although Mark still feels the Kwakiutls’ reservation about accepting him as one of them. Christmas vacation, however, brings with it a spirit of unrest. The older children of the village have returned home from the native church school in Alert Bay; they speak English almost exclusively, can no longer converse fluently in the Kwakwala tongue, and are filled with the “superior” technologies of the white man’s world. Old Mrs. Hudson, Keetah’s grandmother, nearly has a heart attack when she learns that her granddaughter (Keetah’s sister) is going to marry a white man. Her foreboding turns out to be justified. At the yearly potlatch, the outsider gets his fiancee’s uncle drunk and buys from him a priceless ceremonial mask for the paltry sum of $50. Out of their shame that such a thing could have happened, the old people of her family depart, Keetah with them, for a deserted village elsewhere to live for a time.
Mark takes it upon himself to find out what has happened to the sister, for the villagers are certain that the white man took advantage of her just to get the family’s treasure. A kindly Canadian police officer looks into the matter, and discovers that she was indeed abandoned in Vancouver and, totally unfamiliar with city life among white people, she soon turned to drink and drugs and died of an overdose. Mark feels that he has begun to share in the sadness that he sees in the eyes of so many of his flock. Because he suffers with his people over the death, they welcome him among them fully; they offer to help him put up a new vicarage and he gladly accepts.
While his vicarage is being built, Mark goes to live with Marta, where he sees a lot of Keetah. He encourages the girl, whom he has come to love, to write down the old stories that are slowly being forgotten, now that the children are being educated in the white man’s world. In the fall, Mark takes four of the village boys to Vancouver, to help them prepare for their new life in the city of Powell River, where they will board with white families and attend a white school. They are the first in the tribe to do such a thing, and when he accompanies them to the city, the vicar is aware of how much he himself has changed, how alien he finds the life he once led.
When Gordon, the most promising and well-loved of the boys, comes back, he also realizes how much he has changed and that he can no longer live in the village. He takes Keetah with him, breaking the hearts of their families, who see in their departure the end of the old life. But unable to bear life away from her home, Keetah returns to the village, alone. She has waited to return until she was pregnant, but not, as Mark suspects, to make Gordon return; rather, she wants to bring something of him back to the village to comfort his family and herself for their great loss.
The following spring, after a terribly hard winter, old Marta notices on the face of the young vicar a look that she knows all too well. She sends a quiet note to the bishop, who arrives in a season of high celebration. He tells Mark—who still has no idea that he is fatally ill—that he is seeking a replacement for him. One night after burying an old friend on a remote promontory, Mark hears an owl call twice—the traditional Kwaki-utl sign of impending death. Mark begins to realize that he has not been formally told something that deep inside himself he knows full well. His impending departure from the village fills him with grief—he will die, he realizes, in a strange city far from the peace he has found among the Indians. But in their own quiet way, the Indians have taken matters into their own hands and asked the bishop to allow Mark to wait out his death among them. Keetah, who loves him, brings him the news.
One afternoon Mark and Jim are at sea when a terrible accident happens; their boat is caught in a slide coming down the mountain at the foot of which they are sailing. Mark is killed and the villagers grieve at his passing. The book closes on the night of Mark’s funeral, as the villagers privately hold Mark in their thoughts; Peter, the ceremonial carver, is certain that the spirit of the young man will return to the village he loved:
Past the village flowed the river, like time, like life itself, waiting for the swimmer to come again on his way to the climax of his adventurous life, and to the end for which he had been made.
(I Heard the Owl Call My Name, p. 138)
When Mark, the young Anglican vicar, first comes to live among the Kwakiutl, he knows a few set “facts” about the people, and one of them is that potlatches, the traditional ceremony of gift-giving, “were based on a chiefs desire to shame his rival, even if it meant his tribe and his children went hungry” (I Heard the Owl Call My Name, p. 59). The Northwest Indian tradition of potlatch is probably the most famous of all Indian rituals, written of extensively by the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, who worked among the Kwakiutl in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Essentially, potlatch is the ceremonial redistribution of wealth, which among the tribes of the Northwest became a complex web of debt and obligation. At its height, potlatch obligated the receiver of property to double the value of what he received in what he himself gave away at potlatch. The extreme lengths to which certain chiefs would go was a matter of power and pride, but also had the effect of binding tribes more closely together. In 1915 the Canadian Parliament passed a law forbidding potlatch, partly on the grounds that it was ruining Indian tribes financially. The law was enforced by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who instructed the Kwakiutl people to hand over all the ceremonial trappings pertaining to the potlatch; such regalia included a lot of valuable copper shields and artwork that were never returned to their owners. The practice of potlatch did not abruptly disappear; it remained underground in certain areas. According to one anthropologist’s research, a potlatch held in 1921 saw a chief give away pool tables, sewing machines, engine-powered boats, and furniture (Codere, p. 369). But the Depression of the 1920s and 1930s further discouraged the ceremony. Financial hardship, added to the legal prohibitions, more or less militated against the general practice of potlatch among the Kwakiutl for forty-odd years. A revision of The Indian Act in 1951 lifted the ban against the ceremony, but still it was not resumed. Finally, in the late 1960s—a period of Indian activism and strong assertion of native identity all over North America—the potlatch was once again revived among the Kwakiutl.
Margaret Craven visited the Kwakiutl village of Kingcome, setting of I Heard the Owl Call My Name, and based many of the characters and incidents in the book on composites of the people she came to know there during her fourmonth stay. The opening scene, in which a church organ is being transported to Kingcome on a pair of canoes, actually happened on her voyage there, and Craven herself appears in the novel as the physical model for the annoying English anthropologist, with her tight wool skirts, huge shoes, and inability to pronounce words in the Kwakwala language.
Craven modeled the young Anglican vicar, Mark Brian, upon Eric Powell, an Anglican vicar in his mid-thirties who had broken his back as a young man and faced eventual paralysis. When she was writing the novel, she had a terrible time creating the episode in which Mark Brian would be killed because he was based on Eric, who had become very important to Craven.
Craven, an American, originally sought an American publisher for I Heard the Owl Call My Name with little success. She was, however, able to interest a Canadian house in the manuscript, and upon its publication her novel became an instant bestseller. The American market took notice eventually, and the novel has now sold well over a million copies worldwide. In her autobiography, Again Calls the Owl, Craven writes:
There was an astounding deluge of mail.... From the rich and the poor, the House of Commons, boys in jail, Arabs, Africans, a headhunter village in New Guinea, from Australia, New Zealand and of course from Canada and my own country.... The vast majority of readers... said the same thing in almost the same words: I have read the ’Owl’four times and I feel I must write and tell you what it means to me.
(Again Calls the Owl, p. 116)
Reviews by critics were generally favorable. “It is hard to imagine,” wrote Elaine Moss in the Times Literary Supplement, “a more complete and fulfilling book than this” (Moss in Gunton, p. 80). In the view of another critic, the novel tends “to idealize life in a Kwakiutl village” but manages nevertheless to create “an entrancing chemistry” between the Indians and the dying vicar (Lewin in Gunton, p. 79).
Boas, Franz. Kwakiutl Tales. New York: Columbia Univerity Press, 1910.
Codere, Helen. “Kwakiutl: Traditional Culture.” In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 7: Northwest Coast, ed. Wayne Shuttles. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1990.
Craven, Margaret. I Heard the Owl Call My Name. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1967.
Craven, Margaret. Again Calls the Owl. New York: Dell, 1980.
Gunton, Sharon R., ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981.
Rohner, Ronald, and Evelyn C. Rohner. The Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970.
Walens, Stanley. Feasting with Cannibals: An Essay on Kwakiutl Cosmology. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.