The Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia believe that when they hear an owl call their name their will die soon. Mark Brian, a young priest, has no more than three years to live, but he doesn't know it. His bishop does, and he sends Mark into the Indian village of Kingcome to learn enough about life.
What Mark most wants to discover is the reason for the sadness he sees in the eyes of all the Indians he meets, starting with Jim Wallace, who is in charge of the 40-foot boat that is the village's lifeline to the outside world.
Becoming a friend to the Indians is a long and difficult process, Mark finds. They are polite and respectful, but for months they won't open up to him. He does his own chores – that's a beginning and a change from the usual way of white men among Indians. And, when a child dies, he stands up to the local constable in defending the Indians' decision to move the body away from the scene of his death and to refuse an autopsy. His respect for tribal custom in conducting the burial service brings him closer to the tribe.
Mark's first two friends are six-year-olds, who have not yet learned to distrust whites. The next is Marta, an old woman of the tribe who remembers the first white man to reach them – a man who had to learn their language so he could teach them his. Mark works hard to learn the Indian language.
During his first winter, Mark learns something of the sadness of the Indians. Their young men are all packed off to school and learn the white man's ways. While many return, others do not. Those who do return have lost some of their Indian culture.
Gordon, one of the tribe's most promising youths, goes off to school in Vancouver. His success in the white world and his unwillingness or inability to return to his village are a source of sadness for many; Mark sees him as an emissary who may help the white world understand the Indian. Mark realizes that he has become so close to the Indians that he cannot imagine going back to his own people.
In January, after he has been in the village for but a year and a half, Mark hears the owl. Now he understands the unwillingness of the doctors to discuss his illness with him, the bishop's reasons for giving him this assignment and the sadness in his sister's eyes when he sees her in Vancouver. .
This report prepared by David Gordon