A Story as Sharp as a Knife:
The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World

527 pages,
ISBN: 1550546961

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Rainbow Scratched the Raven's Back
by Brian Brett

Readers who have turned too many pages tend to grow jaded, like the poet Mallarmé, who once grandly announced: "The flesh is sad, alas! and I have read all the books." Then, suddenly, something exciting comes along that rouses you from your boredom and forever alters your way of looking at the world.

Robert Bringhurst's study of Haida customs and mythtellers, A Story as Sharp as a Knife, is one of those books. I found myself at page 100, leaning back against the sofa cushion, the book in my lap, realizing I will never be able to think about myths in the same way again. I've been researching comparative mythologies and teaching approaches to Native Literature in schools across Canada since the early seventies, so I wasn't expecting to be surprised by the large body of untranslated work that Bringhurst has found. What a charge this discovery sent through me!

My simple Haida vocabulary is now long gone, but the memory remains of years spent exchanging the language with young Haidas on the Queen Charlotte Islands as they began relearning their culture, of years spent chasing the texts, the ethnographic bulletins, and the too-scant anthologies. Those islands became my spiritual homeland, which is perhaps why I was astonished by Bringhurst's book. His well-researched observations often left me wondering why I hadn't thought of them before. This is the book's greatest success: the theories are so complexly developed yet simply stated that they become instant common sense. At one point, I found myself thinking, yes, of course, I know that already, when I realized I didn't. The brilliant analysis of myth and culture, I suspect, will find its place alongside such popular investigations as Radin's The Trickster, Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Santillana and von Dechend's Hamlet's Mill or Lévi-Strauss' The Raw and the Cooked.

In some ways, Bringhurst's study reminds me of the linguist, Edward Sapir, whom he often cites and praises. There's controversy these days over some of Sapir's conjectures, but while Sapir might appear wobbly to some, there's no doubt his intuitive leaps have opened up new approaches to linguistics and ethnology. The same will be said of this book.

The West Coast of Canada was once a rich country. Its landscape allowed the First Peoples to develop intense, self-sustaining cultures, especially in the last few centuries as the flotsam of the European world washed up on their shores, releasing iron from shipwrecks to be salvaged and remoulded into carving tools. This development led to the great age of sculpture: house poles, mortuary poles, masks, etc. At the same time, the cornucopia of the sea (now fished-out, many of the tidal shallows vacuumed into a near desert) permitted these West Coast cultures to winter in relative comfort, giving the nations time to develop ceremonial, spiritual, and artistic customs.

We know the rest of the story: how the European invasion devastated these people with disease and guns and arrogance. One of the most spectacular to collapse was the Haida on the Queen Charlotte Islands, an archipelago that has recently come to be referred to as Haida Gwaii (islands of the people) by English-speaking Haida, but should, according to Bringhurst, be referred to as Xhaayddla Gwaayaay, or "Islands on the Boundary between the Worlds". Struck down by waves of European diseases, sold smallpox blankets by a Victoria merchant, blown out of the water by a British gunship-the proud Haida were overwhelmed and nearly obliterated. The survivors were ground down by the missionary culture sent to finish the job. A glance at Bringhurst's map of dozens of villages abandoned within a few years is enough to break anyone's heart.

When I first came to the Charlottes in the early seventies, the last of the old poles in Masset had already been cut down by a Haida who wanted to put in a telephone line. The cedar raven that capped the surviving pole in Skidegate had been stolen by a hippie who'd promised to fix it. The missionary culture had eaten out the hearts of most of the elders. Yet the seeds of the renaissance were already well-sprouted, and the last thirty years have witnessed a truly heartening recovery in a people who do not consider themselves defeated.

Still, small miracles did occur during the holocaust. One of them was a frail anthropologist named Robert Swanton who, from 1900 to 1901, recorded nearly 3,000 pages of Haida myths, customs, and history in the original language. Though a few others attempted to salvage memories, skills, and customs, Swanton's patience and scholarship, accompanied by the magnificent oral skills of a few Haida, have produced the largest record of all that has vanished.

A Story as Sharp as a Knife is devoted mainly to the work of two aging mythtellers, Ghandl and Skaay (one blind and the other hunchbacked), who knew their world, who knew how to tell about it, and who considered it their solemn duty to preserve its memory before they died. Bringhurst surmises that a combination of luck and Swanton's deep respect for the culture gave him the opportunity to be introduced to them. Unfortunately, Swanton didn't have time for an extended audience with Charles Edenshaw (Daxhiigang), the greatest of the carvers and a mythteller in his own right.

A Story as Sharp as a Knife focuses on several tales, such as the mini-epic, "Raven Travelling", narrated by the two elders and mediated by a young Haida translator named Henry Moody. (Further translations of Swanton's transcriptions will appear in a forthcoming volume.) But the book is more than a study of Haida tales; it weaves together many cultures and art forms to create an understanding of the sensibility of mythtelling and how it functions in oral traditions. One of the highlights is when the author elaborates on the organic structure of a myth, how it runs like a river in the background of a culture, each mythteller dipping into it and producing unique variations-much like jazz players play riffs on a melody, or painters paint variations on a theme.

Bringhurst approaches the Haida with grace and knowledge, delving deep into lexicology and comparative mythology, and harnessing his own powers as a poet. This is not an easy book, but the rewards are many. One of my favourite sections is a short and very accurate dissertation on the differences between the qqaygaang (myths), qqayaagaang (traditions, family stories, deeds of land in narrative form), and gyaahlghalang (historical or personal accounts of notable events). Bringhurst introduces his own refinements on the Haida language's translation into English, and on the original Haida for place names and people. This could be difficult for lay readers, but it is a sensible gesture of respect and, hopefully, we will see the names return to their Haida originals in the coming years. (Here, I am using some of the common, anglicized Haida names for locations to avoid confusing readers familiar only with the names on maps.)

In a book this dense and sweeping, a few slips are inevitable: Bringhurst's attention to detail does falter; the index fouls up repeatedly; and Raven, the trickster, as the errata informs us, got hold of one of the appendices.

Also, the author makes a few silly remarks, such as: "But Plato is clearly part of an older tradition. He is the last, not the first, known philosopher in Europe for whom the telling of a myth is a serious form of thinking." Fortunately, such simplistic declarations are few.

The only other flaw, strangely enough, is Bringhurst's overly effusive praising of the myths and their narrators. True, the works are beautiful, and Bringhurst's examination of their narrative structure illustrates their complexity. One commentary conjecturing on how the fingers of both hands, knuckles included, are the memory tools of a narrative, has to be the most delicious piece of detective work in a long time in the field of ethnography. But in the end, these do not read like most good translations of The Odyssey or Beowulf, or even the broken and notoriously rejigged Finnish folk-epic, The Kalevala. It is surprising that such a fine poet would show a tin ear every so often. Perhaps his fault lies in his respect not only for the long-dead Haida mythtellers, but also for the new politics of the Haida. Too reverential to the text, he slips occasionally into the gap between literal translation and poetic remaking. Simple, stirring phrases are counterpointed by confusing, clumsy constructions that slow the reader:

The doctors told Gitkuna and his father

that the gods were still discussing him:

whether to let him climb up something and slip

or let something collapse on him

or perhaps just to let him capsize.

Four years at most, the doctors told him,

and they were certain to come for him.

It gets the point across; however, this is not the clean, gripping language that poetry demands, and the modern word, "doctor", sounds too contemporary. The use of "him" six times in seven lines is neither necessary nor musical. A great translator either brings the reader to the translation or the translation to the reader, and doesn't straddle the fence.

It can't be stressed enough, though, that these failures are few and relatively minor. Much of the work reads elegantly for the non-Haida:


A rainbow scratched its back

right in front of the village of Qinggi, the mythteller.

The gods came out to watch it

and died on the spot!

In the end, I suspect there are few poets and translators, even among the Haida, who could combine Bringhurst's knowledge of linguistic theory, comparative mythology, and Native histories with such a sensitive awareness of the culture. No doubt, some years down the road, we will be surprised again as individual Haida publish their vision of their nation and its history (there's only been a few to date); meanwhile, a reaction is already brewing in Haida Gwaii against Bringhurst daring to translate these nearly 100-year-old texts commissioned by the American Ethnological Society.

Interestingly enough, Bringhurst reports that Swanton paid about the same amount of money to his informants as he was paid. It's obvious this recording of tales was a joint expedition, a desperate partnership between White and Native to protect what surely would have been lost forever without Swanton's intervention. As Bringhurst also points out, the selling and retelling of stories was a tradition for Haida as well as most other coastal nations. Only certain "personal" totem stories were held back. While one cannot blame Haida people for being deeply suspicious of anything outside their control, it would be a terrible loss to see books of this quality censored.

Bringhurst has already been subject to some harassment for his work with artist Bill Reid. For that matter, Reid himself was not popular with a radical few in Haida Gwaii. Several times, I've actually heard his art dismissed because he wasn't of pure blood or was only half-Haida, and because he brought his training in European jewellery to the art, allowing what was "foreign" to influence pieces like "The Black Canoe" and "The Raven and The First Men". We all know where this kind of lunacy leads; but such attitudes and talk belong only to a minority, and we have to expect extreme reactions to erupt from a culture brutalized by the European colonizers and the Canadian government's historic policy of what would now be termed "ethnic cleansing". We are witnessing now the late phase of a dialectic moment. Time, we must hope, will gradually bring the opposing sides together in mutual understanding.

Nevertheless, some Haida continue to demand that everything published about their nation be vetted by councils. There is even a contract for visitors to sign, giving the Haida Council permission to censor any photographs or writing about subjects within their territorial claims. We all know about art decided by committees of censors, Haida or otherwise, and we can be thankful Bringhurst proceeded on his own, while acknowledging some Haida would resent his book. I myself refused to sign the contract some years ago-if I had, this review probably would have to be approved. And I know more than a few archaeologists and ethnologists who have done the same. Work submitted to Haida arbiters of taste and custom can receive a rough ride, as in the recent case of an ethnobotanist whose work is languishing in an office drawer because, as one Haida official cavalierly put it, "Council is not putting much time and effort into it." Controversies like these could become another sad note in the history of the Haida people. But I think many of the "cultural appropriation" follies will settle down as land claims are resolved and more upcoming Haida scholars and artists present their renewed vision in the coming millennium.

To not have the scholarship and the far-ranging concepts of A Story as Sharp as a Knife would have been a loss indeed. The book is a homage to the Haida nation, a classic of cross-cultural studies-a work that will make academics tremble with jealousy, and all students of mythtelling shiver with excitement. 

Brian Brett is a poet, novelist, and essayist who lives on Saltspring Island. His most recent book is The Colour Of Bones In A Stream.


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