Farewell to our chief

  • Mar. 10, 2008 8:00 p.m.

By Oriana Wesley, Special to the Observer-A carpet of red roses draped the casket, with flowers of all sorts from carnations to cedar roses banking the front of the hall Saturday for the funeral for Chief Skidegate-Dempsey Collinson.Collages of pictures of Dempsey, Irene and family and friends were posted on the walls for everyone to see. So many smiles in those pictures, with fond memories of fishing, Hawaii, barbecues, and all the other activities that fill up a life of a bigger-than-life man. Chairs lined the hall with small Haida Nation flags draped on the back of each seat, making the hall look like a sea of red. The hall was filled to standing room only with more people standing outside in the chilly weather just for a chance to pay their last respects.Mounted Police in their red serge stood sentinel at the casket. Dempsey was a chief who took care of his people. He always made sure his village had fish, ghow, and other food. He was no respecter of a person’s status in life, and would have an open hand and home for anyone anytime. His generosity to others was repaid Saturday with the outpouring of respect at his burial. Stores, banks, and eateries closed down for the day, the flag at the RCMP flew at half-staff. All this was done to honour our great generous chief.The funeral was officiated by Reverend Lily Bell from Masset. Old time hymns were sung, and an old recorded love song sung by the late Godfrey Williams. Miles (Buddy) Richardson read the eulogy. There were tears and there was also laughter at some of the favourite sayings of Dempsey’s. Sayings like calling you “Sport” if he forgot your name, and calling his wife the “War Department”. Some other colourful sayings were: “Haidas are great warriors and great lovers, and I have never been a warrior”, “Damn Monkeys”, and “Holy Crow”. He was a trickster and always had a joke to tell.Dempsey’s casket was carried from the hall to the cemetery by his nephews and grandsons in honour of his importance. There were many arms to help keep the load light. Small crimson Haida Nation flags fluttered on the pickets of the cemetery fence in honour and thanks for all Dempsey has done in his life for the Haida Nation. The drumming and singing filtered through the trees and floated over the water to where Coast Guard boats stood honour guard as well.Dempsey was buried next to his love, Irene. It was a poignant moment to see the flowers on Irene’s grave have not completely faded yet and we all felt for the Collinson children at that moment.The feasting portion of the funeral was truly a feast. It started out with a Haida grace and then as the soups were being served Guujaaw and friends sang the serving song. The array of soups was amazing. There was seafood chowder, halibut chowder, clam chowder, and moose and elk stew. Just as we were getting to the bottom of our soup bowls, the cooks brought out platters of every kind of sandwich, vegetable tray, seafood, and salads you can imagine. The food just never stopped coming. Soon after the savouries were over, the sweets came out. There has never been such an array of sweets at any feast I’ve been at. This all was a display of how well Dempsey and Irene have taught their children to show hospitality and generosity.After the feasting came the speeches. Gary Russ and Paul Pearson were co-emcees. Some of the history of Dempsey’s life was spoken of. When Dempsey became Chief Skidegate on March 23, 1973, he became the first Haida in this century to renew the ancient custom of potlatching to publicly proclaim an event. He married his beloved Irene on June 15, 1951. They were together for over 56 years. I remember the potlatch he held for his and Irene’s 50th wedding anniversary. He wanted to proclaim to the entire village how much he loved his wife and his family. He was so generous in spirit he wanted to share every happy moment with his village.The roe-on-kelp industry originated with Dempsey and Roy Jones Sr. They took a traditional fishery and turned it into a thriving modern industry. Dempsey worked at many jobs over the years and was politically involved in many first nations organizations. He was involved with so many things during his lifetime it would be difficult to name them all.There were many messages from those who could not attend. The most notable messages were from: Gary Coons, Iona Campagnola, Bill Wilson, Geoff Plant, Gordon Campbell, Nathan Cullen, and author of “The Raven’s Cry” Moira Johnson. All spoke of personal encounters with Dempsey and one knew from the messages that these were not just formal, impersonal messages, but they came from the heart of people that had met and been affected by him. There were also many chiefs from Massett, Skidegate, and Port Simpson (Albert Brooks) to speak of their dealings with Dempsey both as co-chiefs of these islands and as friends.Ben Roberts, with his wife and Eddy Hans, sang Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, and A Goldmine in Heaven, which were Dempsey and Irene’s favourite songs. There were tales told of his many pranks and jokes he’d tell. He was light-hearted and enjoyed his family to be with him. He loved the water and he was there on the boat he loved when he went down. We will all miss his hearty personality here in the village, as he was everyone’s chief. Farewell Chief Sgiidagids, “lid gan nang ‘llaana aawga Sgiidagids” (the chief of us for mother of the village).