Singing for the End of the Line

Last night I went to visit my mother and instead of listening to an audiobook or a pop song on the drive over to her house, I listened to a CD of my father singing Haida songs. This is not unusual, I often bring the CD out in the weeks before a performance to prepare my voice to sing publicly.

I am currently teaching a course on Indigenous education for teacher candidates. One of the last classes in the course has to do with respectfully hosting Indigenous guests. To teach this, I invite the teacher candidates to host me in the classroom. The idea is that it provides them with the opportunity to practice hosting and to learn about the associated protocols in a safe environment. The teacher candidates practice doing a territorial acknowledgement, an introduction, and they also practice thanking me at the end. For my part, I do a short presentation for them, similar to what I might do in a school. I sing traditional Haida songs and tell some of the stories about my regalia. Last night, I was practicing for this presentation.

Haida singing has always been a part of my life. Unlike my father who was alive during the Potlatch Ban, I grew up being part of a traditional Haida dance group from a very young age. There was no need for my father to hide the songs that he sang to me before I went to sleep, no need to use paper bags for masks when he showed me the dances that accompanied those songs, and there was no Indian Agent to report him when he did. During my lifetime, it has always been legal to practice our Haida culture.

Though there were times when I was embarrassed to practice our dances and songs and times when I equated my Haida identity with the negative stereotypes associated with Indigenous peoples in Canada, I rarely questioned why I sang. It was a part of my life, it had always been a part of my life, and in the future it would be a part of the lives of my children. Those songs were what made me Haida and regardless of my future children’s other ancestries, the songs would make them Haida as well. Perhaps because I have always had access to Haida songs, I took it for granted that these songs would always be a part of my life.

Years ago, I attended an event hosted by another nation. Our dance group was invited to perform; however, many members of our dance group were unable to attend the event. As a result, there were only a couple of us there that day. When the time came time for us to sing our songs, I quickly realized that I did not truly know them. In that moment, I discovered I only knew how to follow the songs – not to lead them. This realization led me to wonder what would happen to these songs when our leaders were no longer with us. What would happen when it was left to me to lead the songs and to teach them to my children?

I returned home and asked my father if he would teach me some of the songs well enough to lead them. I worked closely with him to learn the words and the meanings and the protocols connected with them. I wanted to be sure that these songs continued into future generations, for they had survived far greater hardships than I was facing at that moment.

My father describes our connection to our history as a thick rope that has been made up of thin threads we all hold. Our songs bring us together and strengthen that rope. I did not want to be the one who broke the rope that connected us to our ancestors.

Years passed, and I became pregnant with a daughter. From early in the pregnancy, I imagined passing the Haida songs onto her, and I sang them to her knowing that then they would be familiar to her when she was born. Being pregnant changed my perspective on my life. For the first time, I began to think about the long lines of ancestors reaching back across the history of our world whose lives had all lead up to the life of this tiny being I was carrying. My daughter became the end of that line. She died shortly after she was born. With her death, the line that stretched back to the beginning of human life and passed through me, ended. With her death, I felt that I had let down my ancestors. Without children who lived, it became hard to know how I could contribute to the world. I had always believed that my contribution would be my children and the life and experiences that I passed onto them.

Last night, as I sang in my car, I asked myself, for the first time, why do I sing? Why do I sing when I am now at the end of this line with no children to teach? Why do I continue to work to learn the words? Why is it important that I know how to lead the songs? Why do I continue to sing?

As I continued my drive home, the answer came to me: I sing for the end of this line.

I sing for my daughter who took those songs with her when she returned to our ancestors. I sing for those ancestors so they know that their songs and their knowledge did not die with them. And when I sing for those who are not Haida, I sing to remind them of our strength and our resilience as Indigenous peoples. I sing so our history continues to live on in the present. And so the rope of which my father speaks is never broken.