By Kim Briggeman of the Missoulian :
ST. IGNATIUS – They revved up their Harleys on a gray, blustery afternoon and gave Octave Finley one last ride Monday.
Born here to a traditional family and raised with Salish as his first language, the war dance chief and cultural guardian was laid to rest in Snyelmn Sntmtmne cemetery after an unusual motorcycle escort from the St. Ignatius Catholic Mission.
Finley, 84, died Thursday of cancer that, in its later stages, kept him off the bikes he loved but never stopped him from his customary place at the head of powwow grand entries and graduation processions at Salish Kootenai College.
“He did so many things,” marveled Finley’s wife Edna, a Choctaw from Alabama who said she met Octave while waitressing at a drive-in in Oklahoma when he was in the Air Force. They were married for 51 years.
The hole that Finley’s death leaves is gaping, said Tony Incashola, director of the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee.
“We are running out of elders like Octave, who I call the keepers of our cultural treasures – our language, our culture, our history; those people who make sure that we understand the way it was,” said Incashola, who delivered the eulogy to some 175 people.
Even more filed past Finley’s open casket in the Longhouse a block away to pay their respects to him and his survivors, including Edna and five children. The traditional wake closing lasted more than two hours, delaying the start of the funeral Mass by 45 minutes.
The turnout came as no surprise to those who knew Finley and recognized the role he played in his majestic Mission Valley home.
“For 84 years, he was a central figure in all of our lives,” Incashola said.
As a young man, Octave Finley was into bull riding, scuba diving among sharks and was even a member of the infamous Hells Angels, according to a brief biography in the Char-Koosta News, the tribal newspaper, in 2008.
The story appeared on the occasion of Finley’s selection as honored veteran at the annual Veteran Warrior Society Powwow at the Kicking Horse Job Corps.
A year earlier, Finley received an unexpected honor at the Arlee Celebration powwow. Some 20 American Indian bikers roared into the arena and presented him with a black leather vest with “Sober Indian Riders” embroidered on the back. It honored Finley for 39 years of sobriety, after he spent much of the first half of his life with a drink in his hand.
“It was one of the few times I’ve ever seen him surprised,” Edna said Monday.
“I’ve seen many things,” Finley told a reporter at the time. “I’ve been around the world, I’ve been an alcoholic, I’ve seen people die, I’ve been starved, and I hope I can pass that on to my people – what I’ve learned through all the rough times.”
“He always talked about the day he decided to be sober,” Incashola said. “Because of that, he’s inspired many other people” who face the ravages of alcoholism.
Many at the funeral talked about Finley’s ever-present smile, one that seemed to grow only bigger when it came powwow time.
“He was a fixture that people expected to see when they came to powwows at Arlee, Elmo, Job Corps, Head Start, wherever,” Incashola said. “Big or small, he was there.”
Joe McDonald, founder and retired president of Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, said Finley was there in full regalia every year for more than 30 years to help lead the graduation procession with Oshanee Kenmille and, in later years, with Linda King.
“The greatest thing about Octave (was) he didn’t care about anyone’s ethnic origin,” McDonald said. “They were all his friends.”
But perhaps above all else, Finley embraced and reveled in his heritage, an appreciation that his stepfather and longtime traditional leader Pete Beaverhead ingrained in him.
McDonald said in Finley’s years away from his family and his people while serving as an airplane mechanic in the Air Force, he kept his Salish roots fresh by talking to himself in Salish.
Finley was part of the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee when it first formed in 1975. Incashola said Finley owned a reel-to-reel recorder and brought it meetings to record the stories told there so they wouldn’t get lost – sometimes to the annoyance of Beaverhead.
“He was very, very, very proud of Indian tradition,” Father Drew Maddock said during the funeral Mass. “This was the bulwark of his life. This was the groundwork of what he was.”
Finley’s contributions shouldn’t be forgotten.
“We lose another stone from our foundation,” Incashola said. “We must build young people, strong people with value systems like Octave’s to replace that stone.”