You didn't hear this song so much as you felt it, palpable, changing the air pressure in the room.
Saturday afternoon I went over to the powwow - "A Gathering of Tribes" - being held at the Armory. I went partly out of curiosity, having never been to a powwow before, but mainly because I read that there would be a tribute to Cody Gray Eyes, a Juneau man who in past years has been very active at powwows here in town. When I arrived at the powwow, I discovered that the tribute was a memorial. Cody Gray Eyes had passed away.
I'd heard Gray Eyes sing once, about five years ago, at the Cathedral of the Nativity downtown during a funeral Mass for another local Native, Chuck Bearden. As Bearden was both Cherokee and Catholic, the mass included some elements of Native American funeral traditions. Mainly, this meant having Native singers present to offer Native songs along with the Christian hymns.
When I arrived for the funeral Mass, the small cathedral was filled with people, and it was a very warm day. On a bench to the side of the altar sat a number of younger Tlingit singers and behind them, on a seat of his own and in contrast to the attractive young singers on the bench, sat a large Native man, his face perspiring.
Halfway through the Mass, the young Tlingit singers stood up and sang three or four songs, prefacing each one with an explanation of the song's origin and purpose and meaning. The singers all had very good voices and the songs were lovely. They finished, sat down and the priest proceeded with the traditional Catholic funeral Mass. Toward the end, as a number of men lifted the casket onto their shoulders for the procession down the aisle, the large man behind the Tlingit singers stood up and suddenly, with no word of explanation, began singing.
I say singing, but I'd never heard singing like this before. It was loud, louder than any unamplified voice I've ever heard, and seemed to fill the small chapel to bursting. And you didn't hear this song so much as you felt it, palpable, changing the air pressure in the room and beating against your eardrums and moving across the hair on your forearms. This wild mournful song welled up from somewhere deep inside this huge man and pulsed out into the air and pounced on your consciousness like a wildcat.
And it changed things, changed the way things looked, changed the way you saw things. Gray Eyes joined the procession behind the casket and I watched him as he passed by me. As he sang, he seemed transformed by this music, this incredible howl, and the face I saw pass by me was beautiful, as if in singing he had taken into himself all the suffering and beauty of the world. The face of Christ.
When I walked out of the chapel into the afternoon, it was a world I'd never noticed. Everything seemed to be moving, falling. Even the mountains seemed to tremble with mortality.
A few days later, I happened to see him again, in Fred Meyer, a normal guy again, browsing through the shirt racks with his wife. I wanted to go over and introduce myself, say something about the impression his singing made on me. But it didn't seem right. It occurred to me that I would probably just embarrass us both by trying to express how deeply his singing affected me. So I didn't. I watched him out of the corner of my eye for a few minutes and then went about my business.
Hale writes fisheries regulations for the National Marine Fisheries Service. In September, he will become an assistant professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast.