In 1999, Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr) and I made our second visit to Seattle. Our friend, Leon Reed, with whom we were staying, drove us downtown one afternoon and pulled in by a Post Office. As Leon hopped out of the car, we saw a tall Native American guy coming up the street towards us. He was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a wolf on it, so naturally he seemed pretty cool to me. Leon greeted him and then introduced him saying, “This is my friend, Beaverchief, you guys should talk to him.” Leon went off to post his package and Beaverchief leaned down to the car window to say hi. Bobcat and I decided it would be more polite for us to get out of the car to talk. Beaverchief was a fair bit taller than me and towered over Bobcat like a giant redwood. We talked, telling him that we were Druids from England, in town to do some teaching and make some ceremonies. Beaverchief asked if we would like to hear a song. We said, sure.
The three of us stood there on the sun-baked Seattle pavement, and he began to sing. We had no idea what to expect, you seldom do when someone offers to sing for you, that's part of the joy. What we got wildly exceeded any expectations we might have had. His voice had an amazing beauty, power and resonance. As he sang, we were transported from the bustling city street to the forested side of a mountain, where scented breezes wafted past us, thick with cedar and birdsong, replacing the city scents of petrol fumes and dust, its sounds of traffic and commerce. We listened in rapt silence, outside of space and time. It was utterly beautiful and magical in the best and truest sense of the word.
The song came to an end and we had to re-adjust from the place it had transported us to back to the city street outside the Post Office. We looked around us, blinking at the sunlight reflected from the buildings and pavement. There was nothing to say. We looked at Beaverchief and he knew. We all smiled and nodded.
Leon rejoined us and said, “Wow! That was weird. I've been standing watching you guys for a while and it was like there was a huge bubble all around you. People were going out of their way to walk right around, even crossing the street to give you guys room. I've never seen anything like that.”
That was our meeting with Beaverchief, an amazing guy. Leon told us he was a local musician and later gave us a copy of a tape Beaverchief had made in 1992 on his Big Magic label. It turned out to be a reflection of his remarkable character. He took traditional spirit songs of his people and set them in a Seattle rock context with great gusto and obvious good humour … you can hear him laughing and telling funny stories between takes. What I didn't know until recently is that Beaverchief was among the first Native Americans to do this. In the process, he upset some of his own people and some Europeans who prefer their Native Americans 'pure.'
A Native of Washington State, Beaverchief's origins lay in the NW Coast traditional native medicine known as saseewis, his ancestors having been an Indian doctoring family who had travelled up and down the coast for thousands of years. His family were registered with the Lummi and West Saanich tribes. However, he also drew on his experience in the Catholic Church, the Indian Shaker religion, the Hari Krishna movement, Yoga, and many other traditions. One of Beaverchief's messages was that the Northwest Native American culture is a constantly evolving way of life, not something to be stuck in a museum and frozen in time. His music very strongly reflects that.
Here's what Beaverchief himself had to say:
“I am a Northwest Coast Native American. My people are from the Puget Sound Area. Not until 1978, when a bill was passed which stated that we, Native Americans had the right to practice our way of life (some call it a religion; our people call it a way) did we start sharing our dreams and visions with people who have an open mind, and heart. The sharing of the teachings and dreams was to help heal the wounds between our Native American Indian culture and the White man's culture.
“This music came about because a friend, Barbara Leischner, asked me to do a ceremony for a special poem that was written for a friend who was sick with AIDS. Mark Nichols was asked to record the poem. At that time I sang the Cedar Tree Song. It was the first time Mark Nichols had heard the music of the Northwest Coast Salish people. That night the inspiration for this music came to be.
“I am proud of this music. It will help manifest my vision/dream of inter-cultural world peace. It bridges together traditions in a good way. It will help the children. It will help the healing. People who listen to the music in a good way will feel the magic of the ancient ways. They will feel the magic of the creativity that comes together from the music.”
Sadly, Beaverchief left this life in July 2001, but his music and his legacy live on. He is rightly
celebrated amongst his own people and in the Seattle music scene as a pioneer, an inspiration and as a really nice guy.
I write this having just dug out that old cassette and listened to it again. It is uplifting, inspiring stuff. You can hear The Cedar Song and find a link to some of Beaverchief's music here: http://www.thereallybig.com/Beaverchief.htm
Wherever you are now, big guy, know that you are recalled with deep affection by two English Druids.