The Epic Art of the Haida Mythtellers

By Matthew SpellbergOctober 10, 2013

The Epic Art of the Haida Mythtellers

A Story as Sharp as a Knife by Robert Bringhurst
Being in Being by Robert Bringhurst
Nine Visits to the Mythworld by Robert Bringhurst

WHAT DID LITERATURE SOUND LIKE at the beginning, when it passed without pen or parchment between the mouth and ear? When it flourished in societies without ploughs or furnaces or seed-furrows? We can never exactly know what it meant to listen to a storyteller in an oral culture in a community of hunters. But we can get a sense of the thrill from the surviving stories:

A young man paddles out to sea in a dugout canoe, disembarks onto a strand of kelp, and makes his way to a spirit-lodge on the ocean floor.

A lust-bloated Raven summons the ghost of a shaman to help him rape the village women in their sleep.

The son of a god, wearing a hat whose brim swirls with ocean waves, kidnaps a chieftain’s daughter, and is chased for two years by the girl’s mother and a shaman in a canoe dragged by a spear that has somehow become a sea otter.

These myths belong to one of the richest surviving archives of oral literature, and one of the world’s great epic traditions. They appear in Robert Bringhurst’s trilogy, Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers, a compilation of the mythology and oral poetry of the Haida, a nation of people indigenous to the Pacific Northwest. Their traditional homeland is an archipelago 100 miles off the coast of northern British Columbia, called the Queen Charlotte Islands by the British, recently renamed Haida Gwaii, or the Islands of the People, and known before the arrival of Europeans as Xhaaydla Gwaayaay, or the Islands on the Boundary between Worlds.

Bringhurst, a Canadian poet and translator, has spent the better part of a career studying the classical Haida literary tradition, and a decade translating thousands of lines of Haida myth-poetry into English. His trilogy consists of a book-length essay — A Story as Sharp as a Knife — on Haida literature, culture and ecology, and two volumes of poetry, each devoted to the corpus of a master Haida poet. These books, which deserve much greater recognition than they currently have, transmit the rich language of a long and once-flourishing poetic tradition:

After they’d travelled a ways,
A wren sang to one side of them.
They could see that it punctured
A blue hole in the heart
Of the one who passed closest to it, they say.

Something about the epic tone is unmistakable, even when the context of a given story has long ago been swallowed by history. The language is mingled vitality and violence; the stakes are high and the journeys are long; the characters are debased and distinguished. These qualities, more even than their fantastical elements, mark them as belonging to that archive of epic and myth which is the deepest foundation of nearly all literary traditions.

The Pacific Northwest was home to some of the most sophisticated hunter-gatherer societies to have ever existed. Living in an environment with plentiful game and relatively mild weather, the tribes of modern-day British Columbia and coastal Alaska developed an intricate culture with large communities, impressive wooden houses, superb visual art, monumental carved poles, a complicated system of heraldry, a web of family relations, and a rich mythological heritage. Out of this complex culture emerged a remarkable literary tradition. Thanks to Bringhurst and his intellectual predecessors, it has survived the destruction of Native American civilization at least partially intact.

In fact, the pleasure of encountering these poems is made all the stronger by the unusual story of how they came to be preserved, a story which serves as a framing narrative for A Story as Sharp as a Knife.

In 1900, a 27-year-old American ethnographer named John Swanton, newly minted PhD from Harvard, junior employee at the Bureau of American Ethnology, and disciple of Franz Boas, arrived on Haida Gwaii to study the culture of the islands and collect artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History. Swanton met a younger Haida, fluent in English, named Henry Moody, who would act as his translator and entrée into Haida society. Moody was a prince under the old system, and he could bring Swanton into the most refined Haida households, or at least what remained of them. By the end of the 19th century, nine-tenths of the Haida had fallen victim to ecological destruction and disease, especially smallpox. By 1900 the ancient villages, some of the largest pre-agricultural settlements in history, were cemeteries of fallen house-poles and rotting cedar-plank lodges. The survivors of the holocaust lived in two clapboard missionary towns.

Swanton realized that transcribing stories was the most important task he could set himself to while on the islands. He was a hard worker and a patient, self-effacing listener — a man who lived for a year on Haida Gwaii “as if nothing in the world were more important than to record what a Native American oral poet wanted to say in precisely the way that poet wanted to say it.” For six hours a day, six days a week, Swanton took dictation. His Haida informants would tell their stories a few phrases at a time. Then, Henry Moody, at Swanton’s side, would repeat slowly what they had said, and Swanton would transcribe the poetry into a phonetic alphabet of Boas’ devising. The Haida spoke a language that had never existed before in writing, except as the vessel for evangelical tracts and Bible passages.

Swanton believed that stories ought to be recorded exactly as they were told, in the original language, preserving the storyteller’s vocabulary and syntax. He did not believe that there was a single version for each myth in a culture; he thought that a storyteller’s variations on a story were conscious artistic choices, not mere corruptions of the original. In this he differed from Boas and most of his colleagues, who preferred to make English prose reductions of the myths, trying to distill some elusive standard version of each story. Swanton’s Haida texts are thus some of the only unadulterated mythtellers’ works to survive the eclipse of classical North American Indian culture.

Bringhurst doubles down on Swanton’s convictions: his trilogy champions the exact words of Native American poets, and makes the sweeping claim that those words are — niceties of cultural relativism be damned — products of artistic genius. The result is a true widening of the canon of world literature.

Swanton met two literary geniuses on Haida Gwaii. These were the poets named Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, baptized in English as Walter McGregor, and Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, called by the missionaries John Sky. Swanton spent more than a month with each of them, and collected long works from both.

These poets are the systole and diastole of this trilogy; the alternation between them sets the rhythm for Story as Sharp, and the two final volumes are each devoted to one of them — Nine Visits to Ghandl, Being in Being to Skaay. Their poetry is difficult in much the same way as the Iliad, Paradise Lost, or Gilgamesh — that is, difficult because it is concerned with the unending cycle of existence, both mortal and immortal. The poems are philosophy enmeshed in personification and metaphor: there are divinities that desperately seek rebirth, animals who shed their skins to talk and live as humans, paths laid with feathers, shamanic hats made from crashing ocean-waves, and a world-creating raven who is both greedy and recklessly generous.

Ghandl was blind, Skaay had a stooped back (neither uses the formulaic ending common to some traditions farther south: “my spine is straight!”). Ghandl authored tight, skillful poems; Skaay wove suites of stories into two cycles, one a creation myth and the other a sprawling epic.

But the two mythtellers shared much in common. Their poetry is sinewy, full of elision, and hypnotically repetitive. Anaphora of a sort is possibly the most important literary device, since repetition in an oral poem is an essential linking mechanism, not unlike a recurring theme in music. A sudden alteration in the mode of delivery, to continue the analogy, is like a new theme that suddenly throws the earlier repeated figure into stark relief. Repetition and variation create a recognizable relation between different parts of the story even though the listener cannot, as with a book, look backwards or forwards. Sometimes these forms play out in the language; more often they inhere in the imagery or content. It may be that a phrase is constantly repeated (“they say” is an important trope), or that an object, like an animal skin or hat, recurs in a series of slightly altered guises.

Skaay is the master of these deceptively simple devices. As written text, his poems might occasionally be mistaken as clumsy. But that’s because they have to be spoken out loud, with pauses after each clause and a real command of inflection and speech-tone:

One day he gave ten servants to the eldest of his grandsons.
Then he gave ten servants to the next.
He gave ten to all eight.
And then he made houses for each, arranged in a row.
All the housefronts were sewn.

On the eldest one’s housefront he painted a thunderbird.
On the next, he painted the sealion.
On the next, he painted a rainbow.
On the next, he painted a killer whale.

On the next, he painted a human.
On the next, he painted stars.
On the next, he painted a cormorant.
On the next, he painted a gull.

He presented a chest full of spears to the eldest.
He gave him a box full of arrows as well.
He gave the same things to all eight.
And as for their sisters,
He dressed each of the two
In two marten-skin blankets, they say.

Then he sat down in front of his grandchildren’s town,
And he called them to come.
They picked up their weapons
And went at each other.

These lines must be read deliberately, with an expressiveness approaching pantomime, to be fully appreciated. This is poetry as stately ritual. But the formal and numeric structures serve a literary purpose: they tell a story, explore themes, and generate gorgeous images (the whole universe enfolded into a few housefronts!). In this passage, each grandson is given his own crest and so distinguished from his brothers. But the story is packed with oblique meaning for an informed listener. Skaay is doing something very complex with both Haida metaphysics and Northwest Coast history. First off, the housefronts are “sewn” — an archaism, since they would normally have been wooden — so we know the story takes place in the deep past. The painted images display the plenitude of the universe, but perhaps also reference the heraldic signs of specific Haida families or of the neighboring Tsimshian, in whose territory the story takes place. The image-list may be the genealogy of a tribe, but it is also a lexicon of sea creatures and sky entities. This makes sense, since the sea and the sky are the two main poles of the Haida spirit-world. But what is the logic behind the order? In the first four lines, sky and sea alternate (thunderbird, sealion, rainbow, killer whale). But then comes the human: what do we do with him? In some Haida accounts, he is a “surface bird,” like the gull, who cannot dive into the ocean. But what do we make of the fact that the final totem, the cormorant, both dives into water and flies in the sky?

We barely have enough time to ponder these questions when the grandfather passes out identical weapons to the eight boys, this time with no symbolic repetition — just a curt “He gave the same things to all eight.” Where before the poem had created expansive lyrical difference, now it displays the laconic parity of violence. Then, in a single, sharp line — “they went at each other” — all distinctions collapse into the chaos of war. Now it’s no longer sea and sky, man and whale. It’s all against all — although even that, it turns out, is not as it seems. In the following lines of the story the fighting turns out to have been a kind of game, everyone is basically unhurt, and the myth jumps to a different adventure.

Bringhurst is a good shepherd through the complexities of these poems — my reading of Skaay owes much to his example. His method is a hybrid: part historicist, part structuralist, part emotive. One of his best analyses is of Ghandl’s poem called In His Father’s Village, Someone Was About to Go Hunting Birds (incidentally the subject of Gary Snyder’s senior thesis at Reed).

The poem, which Bringhurst describes as a variation on the swan-maiden story, is about a hunter who falls in love with a goose princess. He brings her back to his village, but when someone insults her for liking goose food she flies away. The hunter goes on a quest to find her, meeting spirits, a prophet, the Mouse Woman, and a man with only one-half a body. He acquires and loses a series of magical tools. He shimmies up a pole into the sky and is reunited with his love. But ultimately he realizes he misses the earth and can’t stay in heaven.

Ghandl’s myths, like Skaay’s, are formally complex events, with a quasi-musical logic. They are also full of striking images, as in this little scene where the hunter, having reached the sky, comes upon a strange council of animals:

After travelling further,
He came to a river.
It was running high.

Near it perched an eagle.
A heron perched on the opposite bank.
A kingfisher perched upstream.
A black bear sat on the opposite bank,
And he had no claws, they say.

Then, they say, the black bear said to the eagle,
«Lend me something, grandfather»
Then, they say, the eagle did as he asked.
Then and there the black bear got his claws.

I call the image striking because it is intended for a listener who can recall the color and shape of every feather and tuft on each of these animals. And for such a person, familiar with the fauna of the northwest, the peaked crests and claws and colors of this assembly of creatures must be as impressive as Proust’s rainbow-stippled asparagus or Melville’s lacquered Japanese sunset.

Ghandl’s work is built from careful sequences, often centered on objects (there are 10 magical tools discharged in 10 scenes; marten skins, goose skins, mouse skins and salmon skins are all constantly circulating). It is governed by symmetries of varying sizes, so regular and careful that they resemble rhymed couplets or the exposition and recapitulation of a sonata – only they are imagistic and thematic rather than aural. The kind of beauty that inheres in this story is thus like that of a classical sonata or string quartet, a series of consonances and dissonances, of anticipations and resolutions, of echoes and inversions.

According to Bringhurst, even the interlude about the black bear getting his claws, which seems so unrelated to the main story, has a musical function. A mouse-skin and claws were given away earlier in the poem, so now something else’s claws must be given back — we must return, so to speak, to the tonic key. Ghandl resolves the dilemma with an allusion: “The story of the bear getting claws from the eagle is a stock piece of North American folklore,” Bringhurst explains, “slipped into the poem like an innocent bit of folksong inserted into a string quartet or sonata.”

The comparison to a folksong in a sonata is, I think, superb, because it lends the familiar cultural context of those terms to an unfamiliar poem. Ghandl suddenly feels a little closer because a reader perceives an analogy between his artistic method and that of Mozart or Schumann. The distance between these poems and our own experience is bridged by the artistic achievements of cultures closer to our own.

The sonata-folksong method writ large is the main strategy of Bringhurst’s book, and a great achievement for comparative literature. Bringhurst treats Native American literature with the same weight as we treat the highest works of European (and, for that matter, Asian and African and Middle Eastern) civilization, and he does so by maintaining a continuous thread of comparison between the two. As we readers grope to find the compass points of our Haida literary universe, we are buttressed by a reality more familiar (if no less enigmatic), one filled with Velazquez paintings, Homeric epithets, Thelonious Monk improvisations, Schubert rondeaux, Flaubert paragraphs. References to the Western tradition (as well as, less frequently, to Arab, South Asian, Japanese and Chinese traditions) hold us in place while slowly, over the course of this book, we build in our imaginations a worthy home for Haida literature.

The approach has its opponents. Some members of the Haida nation have attacked Bringhurst for his perceived misappropriation of their culture. Linguists studying indigenous languages of the Americas have called him unprofessional (scholar John Enrico went so far as to set up an angry website pointing out Bringhurst’s failings). He has been above all criticized for his apparent use of western categories like “art” and “genius” to describe non-Western cultural practices. “Native American mythtellers living in oral cultures could not, I was told, have been as I described them,” Bringhurst writes in the preface to the second edition. “They couldn’t have been individual artists and thinkers, employing the tools and techniques of traditional narrative to overreach or question societal norms, much less to interrogate the nature of the world. They could not have been poets. It couldn’t be true — and even if it were, only their consanguineal descendants ought to be free to lay out the evidence supporting such a perverse and insensitive claim.” Bringhurst offers two arguments against such attacks, one explicit, the other implicit. The explicit argument is that these categories of respect — “artist,” “genius,” the author as critic and consummation of his culture — are in fact not limited to a European context, even if Haida and some other languages lack explicit terms for “artist” or “philosopher.” Bringhurst provides a great deal of evidence to support this, some of which will be best judged by anthropologists.

But the deeper argument is that the book’s intention is to transpose the subtleties of Haida literature onto an English speaker’s plane of thought. In other words, Bringhurst’s efforts are not only supposed to provide an introduction to Haida phonetics and literary conventions, but to help plant a deep subjective experience of Haida literature into the minds of his readers, none of whom are classical Haida living in the 19th century.

These poems were originally told in the midst of a vibrant cultural context (and, of course, were told by actual human beings with expressive voices, faces, and hands). When earlier listeners (including the go-between Henry Moody, I presume) heard about a particular species of bird or tree, or particular kind of basket or canoe, or heraldic figure or family lineage, they knew exactly what it meant. We do not have that privilege, and for that reason Bringhurst’s historical and anthropological work is almost as important as his translations. He puts in his books photographs of Haida Gwaii and of Haida carvings; he clues us into the complex ecology of the region. But even these are not enough: to really commune with these poems, we also need to understand what makes something funny in Haida culture, what makes something sad, and what makes a person proud or ashamed, upset or merely bemused. We need to know, as much as is possible after a hundred years, what kind of face (heroic? foreboding? ironic?) the storyteller was pulling.

Hence, for example, Bringhurst’s unraveling of an enigma in the Swanton transcriptions. When Skaay promises to tell Swanton his version of Raven Travelling — the Northwestern Indian creation myth — he begins with a curious misstep. He starts in medias res, telling an unimportant part of the story (it’s supposed to begin with the stealing of the sun and the creation of the world). Then Skaay’s clan chieftain jumps in, telling other bits and pieces of the story. The two Haida elders go back and forth, while the poor Swanton scrambles to keep up with his transcription. The next day, Skaay returns to Swanton and tells him that after consulting with an old woman, he’s realized that the poem should actually be told from the beginning, not the middle.

According to Bringhurst, the whole show is an elaborate joke. Skaay and his chieftain are engaging in a poetic sparring match: Skaay tells a story in which the Raven and a crew of birds trip up Xhyuu, the Southeast Wind, with a bunch of halibut tails. Xhyuu is also the name of the chieftain sitting in the room, and the halibut tails are a playful jab. He jabs back by interrupting Skaay and telling his own tale in which the raven takes the form of a shriveled old man, that is, of Skaay himself. Bringhurst calls this exercise a “Flyting,” the name for an exchange of insults between poets, once practiced in Scotland and in the early Anglo-Saxon world. He also compares the duet to the structured improvisation of the 12-bar blues. In a schematic diagram of this Flyting, he uses convincingly the words “strophe” and “antistrophe” to describe the recitations of Skaay and Xhyuu. Everywhere his comparisons are circumscribed by qualifiers — the mythpoets don’t directly attack each other, as in an actual Flyting, the pulse of mythtelling is much less temporally strict than in a jazz improvisation. But these qualifications only enhance the function of these comparisons as tools for subjective comprehension: gradually our notion of a Haida literary exchange takes on weight from the collage of different images — three quarters of a Flyting, one-tenth of a blues solo, a drop of the Virginia reel, just the faintest echo of the Greek Chorus.

Bringhurst is a literary critic in the high Romantic mode. His claims for literature and art are cosmic in scale. He writes on the Haida as Schelling might have, or Walter Pater or Northrop Frye. This will not suit all temperaments, and even I admit that there are times when I find the drama of his writing disproportionate. Moreover his work occasionally walks an uneasy line between ecstasy at the brilliance of the poetry and indignation at the neglect it has suffered. There are moments — and they are for the most part very brief moments — when a nagging, superior voice intrudes on the best defense of this tradition, which is its beauty.

But much is gained by the drama of Bringhurst’s writing, for when a new concept is first planting itself in the mind, it must often appear swollen and urgent, impossible to ignore. Only that way does a reader come to appreciate how much is at stake, and only then can he or she proceed to whittle down the idea until it corresponds exactly to the reality it is trying to shape or describe. Should more books on the Haida follow Bringhurst’s into the (relative) mainstream, doubtlessly some of his conclusions will be revised. But this is as it should be: the plant has to grow before it can be pruned.

We might hope that eventually Haida literature will stand alone without need of all these comparisons. But even the transcriber John Swanton felt he needed to touch one foot to more familiar ground to make clear how great these poems really were. In a letter to Boas, he wrote, “Haida mythology, I want to state here, can not be defined as animal worship. The Haida pantheon was decorated just as lavishly as the Roman, and they seem even to have risen to the level of an Olympian Jove.” The Haida spirit-beings, of course, have no Olympus; they prefer the top of the sky and the bottom of the sea. But to follow them there is no easy feat, especially since the old ladders leading up and down have been cruelly cut away. Until they can be fully rebuilt, borrowed ones made from foreign metals will have to suffice.


Matthew Spellberg is a graduate student at Princeton.

LARB Contributor

Matthew Spellberg is a graduate student at Princeton. He studies dreaming and also writes on opera, literature, and visual art.


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