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Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers

By Robert Bringhurst

Review By Terry Glavin

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 138-139 Summer-Autumn 2003  | p. 181-4

THE IDEA OF a story being as sharp as a knife, which is the title of Robert Bringhurst’s astonishing introduction to the works of classical Haida poets, is a useful proposition to consider in order to make sense of all the fuss and argument that has accompanied it and the publication of its two sister titles

The idea derives from what might be called a maxim, which was once well known among the Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, and other Northwest Coast peoples: “The world is as sharp as a knife.” It’s a peculiar thing to say. The world appears anything but knife-edged. It is broad and flat, as far as the eye can see. In one folktale, a careless son points this out to his father and stamps on the ground to repudiate what he imagines to be a pointless aphorism. A splinter pierces his foot, which causes him to die soon afterwards. A story, too, can be as sharp as a knife. It might wound, or reveal what only a knife will disclose below the surface of a thing, or it might puncture old ideas, some fatally. The point is that a story, even a story we all thought we knew well, can contain meaning that is utterly unaccounted for by conventional methods, in the same way that the careless son dismisses wise counsel in the folktale. 

This, then, is the point Bringhurst makes so brilliantly and thoroughly in this trilogy, and it is also the thing that has gotten him into such trouble. What Bringhurst reveals in the works of Haida myth tellers such as Skaay and Ghandl is meaning and substance that cannot be accounted for by standard anthropological methodology. While his most vociferous detractors may stamp their feet, Bringhurst ably defends the proposition that the Haida texts he has translated are examples of a literature of great complexity and power. 

Further, he considers Skaay and Ghandl to have been great artists in their own right, whose works should stand with the great classics of epic literature. 

Bringhurst studied linguistics under Noam Chomsky in the 1960s and has worked as a professional translator of Greek and Arabic. He is considered North America’s leading authority on typography, but he is first and foremost a poet, perhaps best known for his collections The Beauty of Their Weapons and The Calling. Bringhurst began translating Haida texts after developing an intense interest in Haida art and culture, having authored a study of the works of Haida sculptor Bill Reid, The Black Canoe, and co-authored, with Reid, Raven Steals the Light. 

Among the many contributions Bringhurst makes with A Story as Sharp as a Knife is a translation of the five movements of Skaay’s Raven Travelling, in 1,400 lines. It is the result of Bringhurst’s chance discovery of a frayed binder that had been mislabelled as a letterpress book at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., which contained the long-lost first page of Skaay’s epic, along with a full copy of the original transcripts of Skaay’s recitation of the work to the linguist John Reed Swanton in 1900. This chance find allowed Bringhurst to extricate from the known sources the entire, unabridged version of Skaay’s Raven Travelling (Poem of the Elders). 

The second in the trilogy is a collection of the works of the blind Haida poet Ghandl, Nine Visits to the Mythworld. Ghandl, of the Eagle Clan, was born at Sea Lion Town (Qaysun Llanagaay) on the outer west coast of the Queen Charlottes’ archipelago. His “missionary name” was Walter McGregor. 

The third in the trilogy, Being in Being, is a collection of the works of Skaay, also of the Eagle Clan, from the village of Ttaanu, a village in the southerly portions of the Haida archipelago, in what is now the South Moresby National Park Reserve. 

Clearly, there’s a lot more going on here than the mere recitation of time-worn “legends.” There’s also more to all this than a “poetic” codification of Aboriginal customary laws. What’s going on here, Bringhurst asserts, is epic poetry that ranks with Beowulf The Iliad, and The Ramayana. 

Bringhurst is not the first to make such comparisons. John Reed Swanton, the young linguist whose 1900-01 sessions with Skaay and Ghandl provided the raw material for Bringhurst’s trilogy, also saw classic poetry in the oral traditions he was recording. It was like “constructing a nation’s literature,” Swanton wrote, “or rather like Homer collecting and arranging a literature already constructed” (A Story Sharp As A Knife, p. 175.) 

While the discipline of anthropology quickly evolved in directions that would leave no room for such characterizations, Bringhurst, a full century after Swanton, is happy to revive that train of thought. 

It has been a terrible mistake to dismiss mythtellers such as Skaay and Ghandl as mere “informants,” Bringhurst says. They were great poets, masters of their art, and they deserve to be recognized as such. 

This isn’t the sort of thing one easily asserts, especially among anthropologists: even the eminent Alfred Kroeber insisted that there was no “poetry” or “philosophy” to be found among North America’s Aboriginal cultures. And so judgments are rendered. They began in 1999, shortly after A Story as Sharp as a Knife was first published. 

The book was initially greeted with enthusiastic reviews in such newspapers as the Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette, and the National Post. It was short-listed for the Governor-General’s Award for Non-Fiction. In spite of the response, or perhaps because of it, certain Haida political leaders began to complain publicly that Bringhurst had not asked their permission to use Haida stories. A linguist who works with official Haida approval created a Web site devoted solely to disseminating his own 8,200-word condemnation of Bringhurst’s book. 

Adverse judgments in the academic press have continued, most recently with an attack on A Story as Sharp as a Knife that appeared in the September 2002 issue of the University of Washington’s Pacific Northwest Quarterly. 

“It’s like an infection, and it’s still there,” Bringhurst observed in a recent conversation. “I don’t expect it will go away in my lifetime. I have violated protocol on every front. I have no PhD. I have no faculty position. I did not ask permission from the Haida.” 

It is not as though Bringhurst is without supporters among academics. His efforts have been lauded by several anthropologists and linguists, including Dell Hymes, Hugh Brody, Regna Darnell, and Victor Golla. But the tragedy is that all the rumpus-making has drawn attention away from the utterly breathtaking works of the very poets that Bringhurst laboured more than a decade to redeem and introduce to the wider world. 

Bringhurst is not the only contemporary poet or linguist to see works of great art within the “Swanton texts.” The American poet Gary Snyder, for instance, subjected Swanton’s version of Skaay’s He Who Hunted Birds in His Fathers Village to a book-length treatment after first encountering the text as an undergraduate in the early 1950s. Also, Dell Hymes was drawn to Swanton’s translations and the verse structure of the Haida texts, noting – significantly, for Bringhurst’s purposes – that literary texts should be understood as “open” documents that might lend themselves to many differing translations and interpretations. 

Also, happily, Ghandl’s Nine Visits to the Mythworld made it to the Canadian short list of the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2001 – a belated recognition of the poetic merit of works recited a century earlier. 

It would be hard not to see poetry in, say, the lines from Ghandl’s “Those Who Stay a Long Way Out to Sea”: 

“Then they set off, they say.

After they travelled a ways,

a wren sang to one side of them.

They could see that it punctured

a blue hole through the heart

of the one that had passed closest to it,

  they say.”

Similarly, Skaay’s rendering of “Raven Travelling” is obviously much more than a mere rote-memorized recital of an origin myth: 

“After a time, at the toe of the Islands, 

there was one rock awash.

He flew there to sit.

Like sea-cucumbers, gods lay across it,

Putting their mouths against it, side 

 by side. 

The newborn gods were sleeping, out 

along the reef,

Their heads and tails in all directions.”

The three-volume Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers boxed set comes with a useful twenty-three-page interview with Bringhurst conducted by Thérèse Rigaud, in which Bringhurst makes the case that Haida is a literary language, like classical Chinese or classical Greek, and that the sagas of mythtellers such as Ghandl and Skaay must be recognized for the great literature that they are. 

Bringhurst insists that there is no “cultural appropriation” at work here, and indeed, the Haida mythtellers Swanton engaged were willing participants in a project they fully understood. They were also paid on an hourly rate in amounts equivalent to Swanton’s salary and the salary earned by Swanton’s interpreter, Henry Moody, of Skidegate. The endeavour was, in every respect, beneficial to everybody involved. 

“What is at work here is something rather more troubling,” Bringhurst says: “It has been the fate of almost all of North America’s aboriginal literature to remain hidden away in obscure monographs and in unpublished field notes” (interview with Robert Bringhurst, March 2002). “Instead of being read side by side with the works of Herodotus, aboriginal literature is largely ignored,” Bringhurst says, conceding that he cannot fully explain why this is so. “I think this remains an unanswered question,” he said. “It is a question one should at least keep on asking.”