The timely wisdom of traditional tales: The penetrating beauty and great art of Haida poetry shines through in new translations by West Coast poet and linguist Robert Bringhurst

In the fall of 1900, John Swanton, a young American linguist and ethnographer, arrived on British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands and found a great culture on the brink of extinction. On the shores of misty inlets, totem poles towered forlornly above abandoned cedar houses. Over the course of the preceding century, the 12,000 Haida people of the archipelago — an area known in their own tongue as Haida Gwaii — had been reduced by the ravages of smallpox to a remnant of about a thousand. Many of the survivors had become Christian and their old beliefs were already slipping from memory. Yet Swanton was able to find a handful of Haida who could still tell their people’s traditional oral tales. Many were entertaining and historically important. But the best were poetry of a high order — evocations of the myths that had once sustained the Haida’s deep links to the sea and forests.

Swanton, who knew the Haida language, spent a year taking dictation from the surviving storytellers. Ultimately, he published his findings in scholarly books and journals that never reached a wider public. And so — even while Haida carving became celebrated around the world — Haida poetry has remained relatively unknown. But now West Coast poet and linguist Robert Bringhurst has used Swanton’s original manuscripts to create one of the most important books to grace Canadian literature in many years. In A Story as Sharp as a Knife (Douglas & McIntyre), Bringhurst offers new translations of such penetrating beauty that they fully justify his contention that Haida poetry is, at its best, great art. The book also offers fascinating glimpses into the Haida oral culture, as well as making claims about the authorship of the poems that challenge decades of scholarly thinking.


A slow-spoken man with a deep, pleasant voice, Bringhurst — whose own poetry has been translated into seven languages — is already known for two earlier books about the Haida. In 1984, he and his friend and mentor, Haida sculptor Bill Reid (who died in 1998), published The Raven Steals the Light, a superb retelling of Haida stories that has been reprinted several times. Seven years later, Bringhurst and photographer Ulli Steltzer released The Black Canoe. It chronicled Reid’s sculpting of a six-metre bronze canoe (which now sits outside the Canadian Embassy in Washington), and earned a reputation as one of the best studies ever of Haida culture. Both books were nourished by Bringhurst’s study of the Haida language, which he began 17 years ago and which has now achieved its major flowering in A Story as Sharp as a Knife. Yet this wise and valuable book, which seems so inevitable a product of his labours, came about, in a sense, by accident.

As Bringhurst tells it, 12 years ago he applied for a Guggenheim Foundation grant to write a book of original poems based on Northwest Coast mythology. He received the $26,000 grant, but when he began to study the best collections of that mythology — books and manuscripts by Swanton and others — he saw he had the wrong idea altogether. “I realized what a fool I had been to suppose that this stuff was folktales just sitting there waiting for some nice, sophisticated downtown poet like me to come along and make art out of it,” says Bringhurst. “The art was already there.”

And so were the artists. As Bringhurst studied the source material, he discovered that the poems were the work of individual poets with names like Ghandl and Skaay. Bringhurst became convinced that they were great original artists in their own right — a conviction that flies in the face of most scholarly assumptions about Native American literature. In the standard, rather paternalistic view, this work is simply “folk art,” created anonymously and passed on substantially unchanged for generations: storytellers were judged not by their originality, but by their faithfulness to the pure, accepted version of a tale.

But Bringhurst’s book shows that the Haida poets had their own individual styles. And while they often used similar plots, characters and formulaic phrases, they were no different, he maintains, than those Renaissance artists who all painted crucifixions or annunciations. What counted was not the common subject matter, but the touch of individual genius. “Haida poetry is not folk art any more than the sculpture of Donatello is folk art or the sonatas of Beethoven are folk music,” insists Bringhurst. “This is art made by individuals who knew what they were doing, and did it in their own way.”

Whatever scholarly turmoil results from his claim, there can be no doubting the strange power of the poems. They are not poetry in the standard European sense, with regular metres and stanzas. Instead, they take a wilder, more freely flowing course, though at the same time they are unified by the subtle, musical repetition of phrases and themes. They are also highly accessible and entertaining, while at a deeper level they come to grips with complex themes of survival and conflict. “This was a literature for the whole community to feast on,” Bringhurst says. “There was something in the poems for everybody, but the old, wise people undoubtedly got more out of them than others.”

One of Swanton’s informants, a blind man called Ghandl, told him a story that Bringhurst entitles “Goose Food.” It concerns a young man who marries a young woman who is in fact a wild goose (in so-called mythtime, many creatures could assume human shape). When she flies away to her home in the sky, he follows her, only to discover that he cannot live in her world. This charming story is clearly a version of the folktale known in Europe as “The Swan Maiden” — which inspired Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Swan Lake. Bringhurst estimates the tale may be 100,000 years old: it may have come to North America from Asia with the ancestors of the Haida.


In Ghandl’s telling (or at least in Bringhurst’s translation) “Goose Food” has a streamlined, minimalist quality that entices the imagination to flesh it out. Yet the Haida poets could also create passages of great lyrical beauty. Skaay’s magnificent tale, “The One They Hand Along,” is about a headman’s much-loved daughter. It exquisitely evokes her royal origins: “They wove the down of blue falcons into her dancing blanket, they say.” The phrase “they say” is common in Haida poetry and seems to emphasize both the elusive, hearsay nature of the tale and — paradoxically — the authority granted to it by common knowledge.

Many of these tales take as their theme the exceeding of wise and sensible limits. In “The One They Hand Along,” a young woman is kidnapped by a youth who has stolen his father’s magic hat: he takes her off to an alien place under the sea, with unhappy results. Bringhurst believes such stories reflect the Haida’s keen sensitivity to the need for social and ecological harmony. In their view, he explains, the cosmos was not run by a single powerful figure “like the Christians’ father in the sky.” Rather, the universe ran itself through a harmonious distribution of powers among humans, animals and mythological creatures: “No one is in charge of the world, but everyone has some power. If people try to take too much, if they try to take charge, they destroy themselves.”

Bringhurst thinks this theme contains a message for the world’s current dominant culture, which appears to be committed to unlimited development and consumption. In that sense, A Story as Sharp as a Knife may be as timely as it is compelling. Of course, whether the busy world will pay heed to the canny old poets of Haida Gwaii is, as they say, another story.

>>> View more: E. Victor Milione, R.I.P

E. Victor Milione, R.I.P.

THERE wasn’t yet a “conservative movement” in the early 1950s, but there was bustling activity on the right side of the political spectrum. The great Austrian economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises had come to America, and Leonard Read had launched the Foundation for Economic Education to give their libertarian (“classical liberal”) ideas wide exposure. Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk were writing their seminal works, and Henry Regnery was publishing them. Human Events and The Freeman were bringing conservative analysis to the general public. The 25-year-old Bill Buckley burst on the national scene with God and Man at Yale (also published by Regnery), and another Austrian expatriate, Willi Schlamm, started plying Buckley with the idea of a conservative journal–which four years later made its appearance as NATIONAL REVIEW.

Another of Buckley’s mentors, the libertarian Frank Chodorov (whom WFB later described as a “gentle, elderly anarchist”), recognized that the left-wing ideas criticized in God and Man were by no means confined to Yale. The Left was making its long march through the institutions. If the Right was not to cede the next generation, action was needed. In 1953, Chodorov founded the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, grandly announcing that he had a “fifty-year project” to defeat collectivism in all its manifestations.


At first, though, Chodorov’s endeavor was more a hope than a plan. Then he received a windfall donation from a wealthy Midwesterner and made the best investment of his life: He hired a 28-year-old Pennsylvanian named Vic Milione to run ISI and spread the word on the campuses. Chodorov told Milione, “Vic, I have this money and as long as it lasts, you will get $75 a week and expense money. You’ll have to take your chances on the future.”

Milione took the chance. When the money ran out, he raised more. And he formed a plan to do an end run around the leftists’ march. As his eventual successor, Ken Cribb, put it, “If ISI was denied schools, it could have summer schools. If the classroom was out of reach, there was the independent lecture and the seminar. If ISI couldn’t assign texts, it could make available alternative libraries of books and journals via the mails.” And eventually, the young scholars nurtured by ISI did make their way into positions in the academy. Milione himself, speaking a few years ago about ISI’s Weaver Fellowships, pointed out that the recipients among them “have published over 1,000 books–8,000 articles and reviews–and it is estimated that they teach about 50,000 students each year.”

Besides making ISI a viable institution, Milione shaped it into a conservative institution. Whereas Chodorov was a pure libertarian–in fact, by his own description, a “radical” libertarian–concerned only with protecting freedom from the incursions of government, Milione was devoted to “Western Civilization as well as our specific American Heritage.”

He saw to it that ISI fostered a love for that civilization and that heritage among its student members, and among all those, students or not, who bought its books and subscribed to its journals, The Intercollegiate Review and Modern Age. The change in emphasis, which he had begun with Chodorov’s permission while the older man was still president of ISI, was underlined after Chodorov’s death, when ISI dropped “individualist” from its name and became the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.


Milione handed his beloved ISI over to Ken Cribb in 1988 and took pleasure in its continued thriving. As his health permitted, he continued to attend ISI functions and meetings of sister organizations such as the Philadelphia Society. His diminutive frame belied the largeness of his vision. With the substitution of just one word, what he said of ISI sums up Vic Milione’s own life: “Fifty”–eighty–“years of integrity (meaning both honesty and wholeness) of effort, and diligence, has reaped rich rewards.”

>>> View more: Thinking outside of the (big) box: Chapters and Future Shop form an odd couple, but get a new challenge from Indigo’s power couple

My kind of town

Few cities have so thoroughly altered the world’s perception of them as Chicago. In the past half-century, America’s second city — ‘the city of big shoulders’, as the poet, Carl Sandburg, famously called it — has shaken off its blue-collar image and transformed itself into one of the finest places to live and work anywhere.

There was a time when the city by Lake Michigan was primarily associated (by outsiders, at any rate) with organised crime and bent coppers. No longer. The villains and the coppers are still there, as they are everywhere, but the city now presents a more attractive face. ‘Second City’ it may be, but the ‘toddlin’ town’ of the song is anything but second class. With its superb setting, thriving business life, magnificent reputation for the performing arts, and spirit of adventure, Chicago offers a splendid example of how a modern city can work.

Perhaps more than anywhere else, this is a city altered by the arts: architects, musicians, writers and actors have all played a significant part. When Sir Georg Solti took the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a European tour in the summer of 1971, to loud hurrahs, conductor and musicians returned to a ticker-tape reception through the city, and were accorded front-page treatment by Time magazine. Here, at last, was the status, the class, that all city fathers crave.


With Solti, the Hungarian Englishman, achieving hero’s status, Saul Bellow at the University of Chicago winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the Goodman and Steppenwolf companies bolstering the city’s reputation for producing the most lively theatre in America, Chicago made the world look at it with fresh eyes. And, to put a cherry on the top, there was always the Art Institute, one of America’s great collections, and the repository of the broadest selection of Impressionist paintings outside Paris.

It is not only French painting that gets a look-in. The Art Institute also features excellent work by Americans, which is entirely appropriate in a city that may be held to represent that vast continent.

Gateway to the Midwest, sufficiently far from both coasts to have a strong urban identity that owes nothing to either New York or Los Angeles, this city speaks clearly of the amplitude and social blend of the country. It is not necessarily true to say that ‘Chicago is America’, but it’s a good place to start if you want to understand what America is, and how it works.

The ‘sombre city’ of Bellow’s young hero, Augie March, can still be glimpsed during the cold winters, for the wind really does zip off Lake Michigan, and the streets in ‘The Loop’ downtown are full of hardy men and women wrapped up against the elements.

But this is essentially a handsome city, an architect’s playground, noted for the quality and variety of its skyscrapers. Take a trip on the Chicago River, and marvel at the beauty of a city that renews itself year by year.

It isn’t the blast off the lake that gives the place its sobriquet, however. Chicago is known as the ‘Windy City’ because when it was being rebuilt after the great fire of 1871, visiting New York journalists were so taken (or perhaps exasperated) by the tendency of locals to bump up their city that they thought them full of wind.

Today, visitors will find Chicagoans to be friendly folk. There is none of that secondcity chippiness that sometimes infects other towns. Most of the people born there are happy to remain, with good reason — their lives are varied and fulfilling.

At its deepest point the bedrock of the city is German and Polish, with layers of Italian and Irish culture supplementing the large black population living on the South Side. In recent years there have been waves of immigration from Ukraine and from Asian countries, so it really is true to describe Chicago as a city of neighbourhoods, where folk of many nationalities live cheek-by-jowl. During the football World Cup last summer it was possible to believe that Americans were attuned to events in Germany, such was the interest of so many people who had left the countries taking part in the tournament.


But the most imposing modern construction is the work of an Englishman. Anish Kapoor’s astounding steel sculpture, Cloud Gate, takes pride of place on the edge of Millennium Park, on South Michigan Drive, next door to the Art Institute. Known as ‘The Bean’ by locals (it is shaped like a giant coffee bean), and reflecting the buildings around it in all sorts of dazzling ways, it offers the best possible example of how visual art can enhance a modern city.

Chicagoans come here at all hours, to walk round and under it. They even get married on the site. It is an ocular miracle.

Not that Chicago is short of art in public places. At various places downtown you will find sculptures by Henry Moore, Picasso, Miro and Alexander Calder (a terrific, towering, deep-orange stabile outside the Post Office), and the Four Seasons mural by Chagall. Full marks to Chicago for trusting in the power of art to brighten the lives of its citizens, and to Chicagoans for making them part of their city.

Cloud Gate, by itself, provides a compelling reason for visiting Chicago. For lovers of theatre and music, for shoppers and diners, for admirers of architecture, and for pretty well anyone who has any curiosity about how people can live well in an urban setting, Chicago is a treasure trove. If that overused phrase ‘world class’ has any meaning, then Chicago is coated with that quality.

Personal picks: the Clark Street Ale House, the original Morton’s of Chicago steakhouse, a leisurely stroll round the leafy Lincoln Park district, Sunday morning at the quaint Music Box cinema uptown (where the organist pops up between shows to entertain! ) and, two blocks away, Wrigley Field, the homely ballpark where the perennially duff Cubs never fail to frustrate their fans. Whichever way your tastes incline, this is a great town.

Thinking outside of the (big) box: Chapters and Future Shop form an odd couple, but get a new challenge from Indigo’s power couple

The story so far.

The fair damsel (well, sort of) in this case, the big-store, slightly overextended bookseller Chapters, is alone in her tower, crying woe and trying to fend off the unwanted advances of Toronto power couple Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz. They are out to nab Chapters Inc.’s 77-superstore dowry and merge it with Reisman’s tony 15-store book chain, Indigo! Books & Music Inc. A potboiler, and from Chapters’ vantage, the tale is not going well. Bad words are exchanged. Lawsuits fly. There is talk of poisoned pills.

All of a sudden, out of the blue of the western sky (Burnaby, B.C., to be precise) comes an unexpected saviour: Future Shop Ltd., galloping in on an appliance-grade steed of houseware and electronics profits. Money is pledged. Future Shop’s $200-million bid — roughly $16.80 a share in cash and stock — tops the Reisman-Schwartz offer of $15 a share. More important, it is for the entire company, not just the 50.1 per cent that Indigo wants. Handshakes all round.


Last Chapter? A happy ending? Don’t put down the book yet. Within two sunsets, Gerry Schwartz has topped the Future Shop bid with an offer of $17 a share. Conditional on Chapters removing a shareholders rights poison pill. But all cash. For all of the company. “Our proposal beats the Future Shop bid in every respect,” he boasts.

It’s going to be quite a war, between the power couple — and the odd couple. They do seem a strange fit: Future Shop, the big-box electronics retailer (actually Future Shop is also a supplier of home electronics for US market, such as: best air fryer, firearm, rifle scope, etc) with its warehouse charm and legion of eager on- commission salespeople. And Chapters, superstore to the latte crowd, with its leather loungers and ensuite Starbucks. Working title of this plot line: “Revenge of the Boxes.”

Taking over Chapters is a unique opportunity “to create a powerhouse Canadian retailer,” says Future Shop president Kevin Layden. “It is complementary to our existing growth strategy based on the four main tenets: selling boxes, selling content associated with boxes, selling connections and services.” Huh? Translated, this means Future Shop gets to add Chapters’ high-end books, music and DVDs to its quiver to help fend off the anticipated Canadian arrival of Minneapolis-based Best Buy Co., a humongous big-box purveyor of electronic gadgetry. But the real prize is Chapters’ e-business, suggests Ed Strapagiel, a senior vice- president at retail analyst Kubas Consultants. Chapters has the better brand name and much more experience with online sales, even as it has lost a mitt-full, $56 million in the past 18 months.

Strapagiel, for one, is not worried about a culture clash at Future Shop and Chapters. At the corporate level, at least, their respective operators seem cut from the same cloth: rapid debt-defying expansionists who can barely pass a mall without wanting to build a store. Since he founded Chapters in 1994 by merging Coles and SmithBooks, CEO Larry Stevenson has both infuriated and rejuvenated Canada’s book industry by treating it to a full-frontal dose of U.S.- style deep-discount merchandising. But it is not likely he would stay on: “As of yet, no one has made that decision,” he said while announcing the deal. Future Shop execs said they intended to run two, for the most part, separate operations, that they would do nothing to darken Chapters’ upscale door with heavy appliances, and that they have “all the faith in the world” in Stevenson’s number 2, Chapters’ president Glen Murphy.


As for the power couple, this is a high-stakes battle. If Future Shop wins, it will be missed opportunity number 3 for Schwartz: he was unable to acquire John Labatt Ltd. in 1995 or merge Air Canada and Canadian Airlines in 1999. But he is not hurting. If he were to cash out the Chapters’ holdings he and his wife have been accumulating, he would walk away with about $24 million — not far off what Chapters is expected to lose and Future Shop is expected to earn in profits this year.

>>> View more: The colony of Indigo: Opinion: A former bookseller takes aim at the mega- deal

Area’s acoustic folk music gains tradition: Silver Spring church is site for popular series, and more is in store

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Sound man, impresario and owner of Takoma Park’s venerable House of Musical Traditions, David Eisner is hunched over his portable soundboard in the upper meeting room of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring. Like most Monday nights, it’s time for a folk music concert, courtesy of the Institute of Musical Traditions, a nonprofit offshoot of Mr. Eisner’s store, itself for many years a mainstay of Washington’s acoustic music community.

Home Brew, a Takoma Park acoustic band opening for featured folk balladeer Sally Rogers, is tuning up onstage, and the mix is not quite right. Fiddler Liberty Rucker, a former employee of Mr. Eisner’s, can’t hear the rest of the band on the monitors.

“How’s that?” Mr. Eisner asks.

The musicians play a few bars.

“That’s fine,” Miss Rucker says. “I can hear it now.”

The female band launches into a few more riffs, and with a little back and forth banter, the final settings are determined. The band breaks to await the audience’s arrival, and Mr. Eisner leans back to relax – for a minute or two.

His intense face framed by a thick, black beard, the burly Mr. Eisner, 47, is looking a little weary this evening. In addition to operating the store, he has been sponsoring this venerable concert series for 15 years, and this season marks a turning point. No longer able to supply the $10,000 to $15,000 a year that the series needs to keep going, he’s looking to make the concerts more self-supporting, and that’s a tough order in today’s lean times.

“We’ll need to raise at least that much, probably more, and increase our audience size, or we’ll have to close our doors,” he says.

With arts funding cut back on the federal and local levels, there are more arts groups pursuing leaner companies with less of a desire to give than ever before. And support is particularly critical for IMT and devotees of acoustic music. Along with Alexandria’s landmark Birchmere and the lesser-known Folk Club of Reston-Herndon, the smoke-free IMT is one of few places around that features a mix of top international Celtic and folk artists in an acoustically excellent hall where serious listening, rather than serious drinking, is the order of the day.

Over the years, the series has featured many of the acoustic “greats” in their earlier days – among them Mary Chapin Carpenter, who has agreed to be an honorary board member of IMT, according to Busy Graham, current director of the institute.


While many of these artists got their start elsewhere, the IMT series helped gain them valuable early recognition. “I’m approaching a number of other big names who’ve played here in the past because their support can attract interest from the corporate community,” Mrs. Graham says.

* * *

The House of Musical Traditions actually got its start in Greenwich Village in 1967. First housed in a loft above the St. Mark’s Theater, the shop catered to traditional and acoustic musicians and specialized in building lap dulcimers. At about the same time, Mr. Eisner was majoring in psychology at the University of Maryland, moving on to establish Maggie’s Farm, an alternative boutique in Takoma Park.

“I liked to call it `a unique craftsperson’s place,’ he says, “but some might have called it a head shop.”

A fan of acoustic music and already familiar with the House of Musical Traditions, the entrepreneurial Mr. Eisner learned that the owners were interested in selling and decamping to California. So he purchased the store’s inventory and name and reopened it in Takoma Park at the site of the former Maggie’s Farm, eventually moving the store to its current location at 7040 Carroll Ave.

Right at home in funky, downtown Takoma Park, the shop prospered. Selling traditional, often handmade instruments to a sophisticated and demanding clientele specializing in folk, bluegrass and Celtic music, the store expanded to include sheet music, books and recordings by well-known and local artists. Mr. Eisner opened another location in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., in 1974, but that location was closed in 1983, and the store was consolidated in the present space.

The concert series started almost by accident in the early 1980s. Members of the local Irish band Celtic Thunder contacted Mr. Eisner and asked him whether there was any possibility of doing an in-store concert featuring Tony Sullivan, a banjo player from Ireland – “in four days.” Mr. Eisner agreed, putting out what publicity he could, and he was surprised by the excellent attendance on such short notice.

An informal concert series started not long afterward, and soon, it was getting too big for the shop.

“It got so that we’d have to move instruments right out to people’s cars when the acts changed,” says Mr. Eisner, and the series soon moved down the street to the old Takoma Cafe. When the restaurant closed in the late 1980s, the series – by now incorporated as a nonprofit organization – moved to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, its current home, where it now mounts some 40 concerts per year.

Local musicians such as hammered dulcimer virtuoso Maggie Sansone and Celtic harpist Sue Richards, as well as traveling internationally known artists such as Canada’s singer-songwriter Eileen McGann, have been attracted to the place, a spacious yet acoustically warm and intimate space just off busy New Hampshire Avenue. The vaulted wooden ceiling floats above an airy layer of windows in the church’s upper meeting room, and on the walls, an exhibit of paintings by local artists is rotated every month.

The chatty ambience is enhanced at concert halftime when delectable comestibles are served up by moonlighting Silver Spring bakers operating under the moniker of “Desserts First, Because Life Is Uncertain.”

“National touring artists have told us that the IMT series and our venue is their favorite place to play,” Mrs. Graham says.


Audiences have grown over the years, according to Mrs. Graham, perhaps boosted by the recent New Age interest in Celtic and traditional music. Nonetheless, the average audience consists of regulars (who Mrs. Graham says attend about a third of the concerts each season) and a lot of people in the 40- to 50-year-old age group, primarily boomers who first became devoted to folk music in the 1960s. And the series is increasingly popular with singles.

The institute also supports “Class Acts,” a popular series of arts-in-education and community outreach programs geared primarily toward schoolchildren.

A highlight of the season – and the institute’s biggest event in attendance – is the annual holiday family concert with Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. Special guests in past years have included the likes of Pete Seeger, Trout Fishing in America and Bill Harley. This year’s concert, the series’s 11th, will be held at Montgomery Blair High School on Dec. 1 and will feature Tom Chapin, an award-winning children’s recording artist and brother of the late folk artist Harry Chapin.

***** WHAT: Upcoming concerts include the Kennedys, with acoustic guitar and vocals, tomorrow; Gordon Bok, Ed Trickett and Ann Mayo Muir performing Russian, Irish and original tunes on Friday; and an evening of Celtic harp with Sue Richards, Jane Valencia and Debra Knodel next Sunday at 7 p.m.

WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, 10309 New Hampshire Ave. (at Oaklawn Drive), Silver Spring

WHEN: All times 8 p.m. unless otherwise noted

TICKETS: $8-15. Discounts available. Students under 14 half-price

PHONE: 301/588-7525. Tickets also on sale at the House of Musical Traditions, 7040 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park

>>> View more: Click Here to Buy Kenyan Food, Music, Books And Gifts!!