Saturday, June 6, 2015

I Heard the Owl Call My Name



I found myself reading this beautiful, short novel by Margaret Craven, "I Heard the Owl Call My Name" in a week when, sadly, once again, a commission calls for reparation for the cultural genocide inflicted on the First Nations in Canada through the long running policy of enforced education that removed First Nation children from their homes and imprisoned them in residential schools that were unrelenting hostile to their origins and culture http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21653631-making-amends-cultural-genocide-truth-and-consequences

The book has the quality of a fable but many of the questions and issues it touches on are familiar, all too familiar to indigenous people as they seek an uneasy accommodation with the world. They watch as their traditions unravel as their children are increasingly pulled towards the outside world. They watch as their children hold that world as a standard against which to judge their behaviours. They all, elders and children, find themselves in a loving perplexity as the different worlds offer different attractions forcing real (and apparent) choices upon them.

The story is told poignantly through the eyes of the newly arrived vicar-Mark, a young man, unknowingly to him (and the community) but not to his bishop, under a slow sentence of death through an (unnamed) illness. We watch as slowly, cautiously, he finds his way into the life of the Kwakwala (of whom today there are only a few hundred native speakers, a small fraction of the actual tribe).

It is a tale of growing acceptance, of insight rounded with a deeper unknowing for how can a 'white man', however sympathetic, step over the threshold into a community so different from the white man's norms and knowledge? That he is accepted is beautifully shown as he is gently, but incrementally, tested. There is a wonderful moment when the elders come to him, seeking to restore and renew their ancient burial site, fallen to disrepair. They do not announce what they want - that would be too direct and how would they know that the vicar was not simply agreeing with them rather than being in sympathy with them? It is Mark's move to intuit what they seek and in responding suggest it. This he does and another barrier dissolves. He becomes the man who has helped the ancestors find peace.

We follow this unfolding life - in its quiet unfolding and its dramas - until one day Mark hears an owl call his name. It is a signal for his coming death and rather than return to 'his' world, the community asks the Bishop to let him stay. To die where he is known and so it comes to pass but not, as it happens through illness, but by one of those accidents on the water that so press in on their lives when the vicar is on one of his many errands in support of the life of the community.

It is a tale of clarity and insight, touched throughout by wisdom, a wisdom both familiar and strange where you genuinely taste two different worlds struggle with each other and the principal gifting comes from the world marginalized. But we know, or ought to know, that the cornerstone that is rejected is the one from where our help comes. 

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