Reincarnation and the interconnectedness of past lives

Giihlgiigaa Todd DeVries

By Odette Auger, Windspeaker Buffalo Spirit Reporter

Haida Knowledge Keeper, storyteller and cedar weaver Giihlgiigaa Todd DeVries is Tsiij Git'anne (Eagle) clan, Old Massett.

Giihlgiigaa was taken from his family during the Sixties Scoop and it wasn’t until he was 28 years old that he reconnected. His aunt brought him to the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre to a Haida Nation house of assembly where all the urban Haidas meet once a year to stay informed of what is happening within the Nation.

Ḵáawan Sangáa, Woodrow (Woody) Morrison, was there and spoke of Haida prophecies. This captured Giihlgiigaa’s attention.

“Woody didn't Christianize any of the stories,” said Giihlgiigaa.

At the time, Woody was teaching Haida language classes three hours every Friday evening.  Giihlgiigaa attended.

“Every day I had more questions, and every week I had another hundred questions from what [teachings] he gave,” Giihlgiigaa said.

After a time, Woody announced that Giihligiigaa was the one to receive his teachings.

“That's when he taught me everything Haida, our spirituality,” said the soon to be 56-year-old Giihlgiigaa.

Ḵáawan Sangáa, Woodrow (Woody) Morrison

Haida reincarnation concept

“My Gaagii (uncle), Woody, taught me when a person dies the G̱aahlaan–the life-force or Spirit– departs to ‘the village back there’, Giihlgiigaa explained.

“The ‘village back there’ (is) where all our ancestors go. How our concept of time works, the past is in front of you, the future is behind you. The past is in front of you because we can see it, right? The future is behind you because you can't see it yet. And so when we die, we go to ‘the village back there’, and that’s the future.”

The Spirit then returns “in the form of another being—an eagle, raven, orca—for the lifespan of that being. At the end of that lifespan, the life-force returns in the human form,” Giihlgiigaa said.

“Often it is the X̱anjang, one's reincarnated Spirit, that comes with a newborn,” said Giihlgiigaa. Every newborn has its own conscious Spirit, he said. The Spirit of the departed one returns with it.

The reincarnated Spirit accompanies that child. “Stays with that child through its entire life and leaves with that person when they go home,” he said.

Giihlgiigaa explains we come back more than once.

The first time is because there is something we did not learn. The second time is there is something we did not complete. The third time is because there is something we did not teach and, the fourth time is because there is something we did not convey or share, he explained.

“After that we can come back as many times as we choose but we are not able to remember those times,” he said.

“I mean, sure, we can go into hypnosis and do past life regression,” said Giihlgiigaa, “but it's not like you're living all those responsibilities in this life. So you can give up your last life’s responsibilities and commitments. You can give them all up when you die.”

Giihlgiigaa said this is to stay mentally healthy, “To keep on bringing them over to the next life, would be a leaky canoe.”

Calling for the return of a specific Spirit

Giihligiigaa explains that sometimes it’s important “to hasten the return of a specific Spirit.”

He describes a little about how that would be done.

“In early Spring the family of the departed gathers on the North Bank of a particular salmon stream with the SG̱áagaa, a nephew dressed in the exact likeness of the deceased uncle.”

“At sunrise a request was made to the Salmon, asking that they deliver a message to the Spirit world asking for assisting in returning the Spirit of the deceased to the human form.”

He explains that it is said that the first child born one year after the ceremony possesses that X̱anjang.

With mom Shirley Tranter, nunni (great-grandmother) Mary Louisa Dixon, and Giihlgiigaa Todd DeVries taken a year or two after their reunion.

Children can identify themselves

How does the family know who that child is? Giihligiigaa explains that before the age of four, a child will tell you who they are. He has heard stories of young children just learning to speak, suddenly saying full phrases in the voice and manner of the relative who has passed.

“So now we know who that person is and we can now mold and shape and guide that child and make sure they don't make the same mistakes they did in their last life.”

When Giihligiigaa reconnected with his mother, she told him a story of how she knew who he was.

One day he was in a highchair and his mother had purchased new glass bottles with the rubber nipple for him.

“She's going to warm up some milk and she gets it all ready and puts it on my highchair,” he said.

“And I grab it and smash it on the floor. And, oh, shucks. She says, ‘I spent a lot of money for those. Well, I'll just get you another one. Maybe it just slipped out of your hand.’ So she goes, warms up another one,” Giihligiigaa said.

“As she's handing it to me, my great-grandma comes in the door and she sees me in the highchair and my mom giving me the bottle. And I grabbed it from her hand and there was another smash to the floor.”

“And then, oh, great-grandma, Mary Louisa Dixon, says ‘That's my brother. He vowed he'd never drink from the bottle in his next life. That's him. That's him’.”

“So my mom goes, ‘Oh, if that's the case, well then I'll just get him a regular cup.’ And sure enough, she gave me a regular cup and I sip on it fine with both hands, right? Just don't give me your bottle.”

It explained to him why he was never a drinker.

“Let's put it that way. In this lifetime, for a long time, I just liked having one or two drinks on Thursdays. That's about it. Or on special occasions, like New Years. So I'm not a big drinker, because that was the last life,” Giihligiigaa said.

“I had no idea why everyone loved drinking so much. Just give me one or two just so I'm not a lone wolf. I'll fit in, but I'm not going to be taken out like you guys,” he said.

What we carry from previous lives

Reincarnated Spirits do carry skills and experiences from those lives into their current one, Giihlgiigaa said.

“As people, we're constantly coming into being. It's not like we're static machines,” he explained. “That baby flesh that we're born with changes every seven years. We replace every cell in our body.” So by the time you’re an adult, “you're completely different from your biological makeup than you were as a baby. There's nothing of the original,” he said.

In the past life, if you've been a carver or a fisherman or a good hunter, you're going to carry all those skills into the next life, he said.

“You don't forget those skills. You might forget that you have them, and then you think, ‘Oh, I'm a natural. I can do this without anybody even teaching me.’ That’s because you carry those skills from one life to another. So once a carver, always a carver.”

Receiving his Spirit name

Giihlgiigaa learned his great-grandmother’s brother, Jeffrey Smith, was a spiritual worker.

“Today I would call that a hypnotherapist. People were already colonized, so they called him a ‘white witch’.”

In 2008, one of his clan members decided to have a potlatch. “And I asked my grandma if she would give me a Haida name while we're here with her, and she was going to give me a name that meant Big Eagle.

“But then all the Elders that were sitting in front of us said that was already someone else's name,” he says.

“‘How about you give him this name, Giihlgiigaa,’” the Elders said.

“And it turns out that Jeffrey Smith also had that name. That's my spiritual name, our spiritual name. He was my previous incarnation.”

“And in many ways, I am carrying on all those things that we do,” says Giihlgiigaa.

There are four reasons for a human life, he explained. 

“You have become a human to experience something, to learn something, to share something, and then just to enjoy the experience of being alive,” he said.

“So those are all these good reasons to come back and have a good life, right?”

Top Photo: Giihlgiigaa Todd DeVries