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.

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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.

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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.

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