Robert Bringhurst – Language, Myth and Poetry

I find that Robert Bringhurst brings to the world a unique perspective of humans and their role in nature. He argues the idea that humans are merely part of nature and the idea that we are here to rule nature and to separate it from our lives will not only remove us from reality but also move us along the path of extinction.  His is a powerful treatment and integration of story, myth, poetry and language, related to biology and physics. A book of collected essays and talks is in his “The Tree Of Meaning”.

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From the Poetry Foundation:

Robert BringhurstJason Vanderhill

One of Canada’s most revered poets, Robert Bringhurst is also a typographer, translator, cultural historian, and linguist. Born in 1946, he studied comparative literature at Indiana University and poetry at the University of British Columbia. Bringhurst’s own poetry draws on his experiences with Native American myths and storytelling, as well as his training in philosophy, comparative literature, and linguistics. Bringhurst’s poetry is known for its wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and linguistic clarity. He is eclectic in his approach to literature, taking inspiration from sources as diverse as the Bible, the ancient Greek poets, and the epics of the Haida, one of Canada’s native tribes. In the Observer, Kate Kellaway described Bringhurst’s poetry as “rare but never rarified.” She continued: “Bringhurst aims high: he attempts to grasp the essence of what it is to be alive… He also has the curiosity of a scientist. He never overindulges in emotion. His writing is at once lyrical and spartan. And yet he is witty. And while he has no taste for lamentation, many a poem catches, calmly, at the heart.”

Bringhurst has published over a dozen collections of poetry, including The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972-1982 (1982), The Blue Roofs of Japan (1986),Conversations with a Toad (1987), The Calling: Selected Poems 1970-1995 (1995), and Selected Poems (2009). In an interview with Intelligent Life, Bringhurst spoke about his poetry’s interest in philosophical questions rather than personal exploration: “I am not my favourite subject. The earth is a lot bigger and more interesting than I am. I also have a strong desire, as I was saying, not to be trapped in my own time. The poetry of the present, when it isn’t playing language games, is routinely full of self-display and personal confession—or to put it more kindly, it is full of self-exploration. In classical Greece or Tang Dynasty China or Renaissance Italy, and in the great oral cultures that were native to North America, there was very little art of that kind. Artists in those times and places were interested in human relations too, and had serious questions to ask themselves—but most of the time they found it more fruitful and more powerful not to deal with the self directly.”

Bringhurst’s book The Elements of Typographic Style (1992) is considered one of the most influential reference books on typography and book design. The work has been translated into ten languages, and is now in its third edition. Reviewing the book, the writer Roy Johnson noted that Bringhurst “can conjure poetry out of the smallest detail, and he offers a scholarly yet succinct etymology of almost every mark that can be made—from the humble hyphen to the nuances of serifs on Trajan Roman or a Carolingian Majuscule.”

Bringhurst has also published many books of prose, including mediations on philosophy, language, music, art, and ecology. Recent titles include The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology (2006) and Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (2009). A translator and cultural historian as well as a poet, essayist, and typography expert, Bringhurst’s  work with the Haida, a Canadian tribe, includes helping to translate their epics into English. His books on Haida mythology and story-telling include The Raven Steals the Light (1984), A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers (1999), and Nine Visits to the Mythworld (2000), which was short-listed for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. Bringhurst’s other awards include the Wytter Bynner Fellowship, awarded by US Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin. Married to the poet Jan Zwicky, Bringhurst lives on Quadra Island, British Columbia.


Worked as journalist in Beirut, Lebanon, 1965-66, and in Boston, MA, 1970-71; dragoman in Israel and Palestine, 1967-68; law clerk in Panama Canal Zone, 1968-69; University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, visiting lecturer, 1975-77, lecturer in English department, 1979-80; School of Fine Arts, Banff, Alberta, poet-in-residence, 1983; Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, adjunct lecturer, 1983-84; Ojibway & Cree Cultural Centre Writers’ Workshops, Atikokan & Espanola, Ontario, poet-in-residence, 1985; University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Manitoba, writer-in-residence, 1986; University of Edinburgh Scotland, Canada/Scotland Exchange Fellow and writer-in-residence, 1989-90; Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Ashley Fellow, 1994; University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, writer-in-residence, 1998-99; Frost Centre for Native Studies and Canadian Studies, Trent University, conjunct professor, 1998—. Military service: U.S. Army Intelligence, seconded to Israeli Defense Force, 1966-68; Judge Advocate General’s Corps., 1968-69.



  • The Shipwright’s Log, Kanchenjunga Press, 1972.
  • Cadastre, Kanchenjunga Press, 1973.
  • Deuteronomy, Sono Nis Press, 1974.
  • Eight Objects, Kanchenjunga Press, 1975.
  • Bergschrund, Sono Nis Press, 1975.
  • Jacob Singing, Kanchenjunga Press, 1977.
  • The Stonecutter’s Horses, Standard Editions, 1979.
  • Tzuhalem’s Mountain, Oolichan Books, 1982.
  • The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972-82, McClelland & Stewart, 1982, Copper Canyon Press, 1985.
  • Ocean/Paper/ Stone, William Hoffer, 1984.
  • Tending the Fire, Alcuin Society, 1985.
  • The Blue Roofs of Japan, Barbarian Press, 1986.
  • Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, McClelland & Stewart, 1986, Copper Canyon Press, 1987.
  • Shovels, Shoes and the Slow Rotation of Letters, Alcuin Society, 1986.
  • Conversations with a Toad, Lucie Lambert, 1987.
  • The Calling: Selected Poems, 1970-1995, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto), 1995.
  • Elements, with drawings by Ulf Nilsen, Kuboaa Press (New York City), 1995.
  • Selected Poems, Gaspereau Press (Kentville, Nova Scotia), 2009.


  • Boats Is Saintlier than Captains: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Morality, Language, and Design, Edition Rhino (New York City), 1997.
  • A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, Douglas & McIntyre, 1999.
  • (With Warren Chappell) A Short History of the Printed Word, Hartley & Marks, 1999.
  • Thinking and Signing: Poetry and the Practice of Philosophy, Cormorant Books (Toronto, Canada), 2002.
  • The Elements of Typographic Style, 3rd edition, Hartley & Marks (Point Roberts, WA), 2004.
  • The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, Counterpoint Press (Berkeley, CA), 2006.
  • Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking, Counterpoint Press, 2009.


  • (Editor with others) Visions: Contemporary Art in Canada, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver), 1983.
  • (With Bill Reid) The Raven Steals the Light, Douglas & McIntyre/University of Washington Press, 1984.
  • The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii, photographs by Ulli Steltzer, Douglas & McIntyre/University of Washington Press, 1991.
  • The Spirit of Haida Gwaii (television documentary), CBC, 1992.
  • (Editor, and author of introduction and notes) Bill Reid, Solitary Raven: Selected Writings, Douglas & McIntyre, 2000.
  • (Translator and editor) Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, Nine Visits to the Mythworld, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2000.
  • (Editor and translator) Skaay Being in Being: The Collected Works of Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver, Canada), 2001.

Guest editor of Arabic literature and Greek issues of Contemporary Literature in Translation, 1974, 1976; contributing editor, Fine Print, beginning 1985. Author of Prosodies of Meaning: Literary Form in Native North America, 2004; and The Solid Form of Language: An Essay on Writing and Meaning, 2004. Contributor to anthologies including The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, The Penguin Book of Canadian Verse, The New Canadian Poets, Inside the Poem, and World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time.



  • Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1996.
  • Inside the Poem, edited by W. H. New, Oxford University Press (Toronto, Ontario), 1992, pp. 93-100.
  • Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, Oxford University Press, 1997.


  • Antognish Review, volume 85-86, 1991, Peter Sanger, “Poor Man’s Art: On the Poetry of Robert Bringhurst,” pp. 151-169.
  • Books in Canada, 1995, Scott Ellis, review of The Calling, pp. 30-31.
  • Canadian Dimension, July-August, 1996, Terren Ilana Wein, review of The Black Canoe, p. 42.
  • Globe and Mail (Toronto), December 24, 1983; June 24, 1995, Chris Dafoe, “Robert Bringhurst: In Ink and Paper,” pp. C1-C2.
  • Journal of Canadian Poetry, volume 12, 1998, Iain Higgins, review of The Calling, pp. 27-46.
  • Library Journal, volume 101, 1976, Norman Stock, review of Bergschrund, p. 819.
  • Maclean’s, July 12, 1996, John Bemrose, “The Timely Wisdom of Traditional Tales,” p. 56; July, 1999, John Bemrose, review of A Story as Sharp as a Knife, pp. 56-57.
  • New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1986, Jorie Graham, “Making Connections,” pp. 32-33; February 9, 1992, Karal Ann Marling, “A Noah’s Ark of the North,” p. 13.
  • Poetry, volume 144, 1984, Robin Skelton, “Recent Canadian Poetry,” pp. 297-307.
  • Quill & Quire, volume 61.5, 1995, Michael Redhill, review of The Calling, p. 36.
  • Star (Toronto), April, 1995, Philip Marchand, “Simplicity Motivates Poet’s Work of a Lifetime,” p. H6.
  • Whig-Standard Magazine (Kingston, Ontario), March 26, 1988, Larry Scanlan, “Notebook: Interview with Robert Bringhurst,” p. 25.


  • The Reader Winter 1995—Robert Bringhurst,, (March 6, 2000).
  • Review of The Elements of Typographic Style, (March 6, 2000).

Robert Davidson – Haida Art – “To Regain Integrity We Have To Re-create The Foundation”

A Seattle Times reporter teases the strength of Haida Davidson’s vision and experience out, to the benefit of universal art development and Northwest art heritage.


“U and Eye,” 2009, acrylic on canvas, private collection.


“Canoe Breaker” (Southeast Wind’s Brother), 2010, acrylic on canvas
BEST Robert Davidson
Photo Courtesy of Kenji Nagai

In making art, Haida culture is revived

For more than 40 years, Robert Davidson has worked to revive Haida design and totem-pole carving traditions, and a way of life, that had been virtually erased. From his secluded studio near the U.S.-Canada border, he is charting new territory in Northwest Coastal arts.

By Tyrone Beason

Seattle Times staff reporter

HOW TO make something from nothing.

The artist Robert Davidson has been grappling with this question ever since he was a young wood carver growing up in what used to be known as the Queen Charlotte Islands of northern British Columbia, an archipelago that has been home to his Haida people for centuries.

For him, the question is not just an artistic one — turning a blank canvas or piece of wood into a work that will hang in a home, gallery or museum, as do some of Davidson’s pieces now at the Seattle Art Museum and Pioneer Square’s Stonington Gallery.

It is an existential question, too.

For more than 40 years, Davidson has worked to revive Haida design and totem-pole carving traditions, and a way of life, that had been virtually erased.

From his secluded studio near the U.S.-Canada border outside White Rock, B.C., Davidson, 66, is also charting new territory in Northwest Coastal arts, turning out works that confront notions of what it means to be a First Nations artist, as indigenous peoples in Canada are known, and what it means to be Haida.

“There’s a continual denial that we even exist,” a soft-spoken but blunt Davidson says.

“At the same time, our art is used for tourism, so there’s a conflict happening there,” he says. “But the more our art is featured in major institutions, that will be a testament that we do exist.”

Davidson’s silk-screens, acrylics and wood carvings strike the viewer like something suddenly remembered. They are hauntingly familiar.

We have seen these concise yet wondrously suggestive motifs before: The large, oval-shaped eyes of eagles, or maybe octopi; the gritted teeth of humanoid sea creatures or perhaps monster birds; the flowing blocks of red, black, white, blue, green and yellow that shape-shift in the mind’s eye, beckoning you to see the image within the image within the image.

Davidson, with his head of white hair and mischievous smile, has distilled these techniques and pushed them to an altogether more esoteric place. He has imbued the traditional “formline” style with quirks that can come only from a mind operating on another wavelength.

His “Supernatural Fin” from 2009 is a visual haiku that forces the viewer to stand back and squint. A solitary red circle hovers like an eye above a diagonal gash of red through the middle of a canvas painted stark black. That’s it. What you see may be a fin or the side of a face — or both.

His equally abstract “There is Darkness in Light” from 2010 is a feisty tango between positive and negative spaces, with curving streams of angry red and bold yellow fighting for supremacy above a pool of calming blue, all set against ribbons of black.

Even though a certain level of abstraction has always defined Northwest Coastal art, there is nothing in its history that looks quite like this. Yet Davidson’s use of traditional forms to break up the space, such as the three-pronged “tri-neg” shape, harks back generations.

TO ANSWER that first question, we have to learn how to make nothing from something, how to disappear a culture that had developed over generations.

On the map, the 150 Haida Gwaii islands, as they are now called, come together like a saw tooth in the often-rough waters between Vancouver Island and the panhandle of Alaska; it’s the most remote archipelago in all of Canada.

If you’d come upon these islands as Spanish explorer Juan Perez did in 1774 or Christian missionaries did in the 1800s, you would have found fishing villages with dugout canoes tied up on pebbly beaches and red-cedar totem poles brooding over low-rise communal buildings.

The eagles, ravens and watchmen carved into the Haida’s totems served partly as lookouts for storms and tidal waves. But while they focused on natural disasters, they missed the man-made ones that would actually cripple these islands: A smallpox outbreak that decimated the population around the turn of the last century; churches set up to “civilize” the natives; missionaries who knocked down and burned totem poles; 19th-century Canadian laws that banned Northwest Coastal societies from practicing traditional song, dance, art and ceremonies, such as potlatches and totem-pole raisings.

By the time Davidson was coming of age in the 1950s, when the cultural prohibitions were finally lifted, there was little left of “Haida” culture.

Davidson and his contemporaries spoke English, not their ancient language. Many of his peers were sent off to church-run “residential schools” where they were banned from speaking to each other and told by instructors that their culture was primitive and unholy. No traditional music was performed in Massett, the town where he grew up, when Davidson was a kid — but there was a rock band.

When 16mm Westerns shipped in from the mainland were shown on projector screens at the community hall, Davidson and his friends cheered for the cowboys not the Indians.

One time, an uncle of Davidson’s lectured him about rooting for the cowboys.

“Don’t you realize you’re an Indian?” the uncle chided. Davidson broke into tears. He didn’t want to be associated with people who were always depicted as the bad guys.

The “elimination” of native Northwest Coastal culture, to paraphrase a report by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released earlier this year, was total. Well, almost.

BY THE MID-’60s, Davidson had moved to Vancouver, where for a time he worked in the studio of one of his role models and a master of Haida carving, Bill Reid, who coached him on how to work with wood. It was a crucial period for Northwest Coastal artists. Major institutions were finally staging major exhibitions featuring works produced by communities that were themselves exploring their cultural legacy. Davidson was floored by the quality of what he saw on display — and from his own people.

But whenever Davidson came home to visit Massett, he’d sit in living rooms filled with sadness and “an emptiness of culture,” listening to elders lament what had been destroyed (or carted off by anthropologists).

“Where once there stood totem poles, there now stood telephone poles,” Davidson recalls in a recent autobiographical essay.

History itself had become an abstraction, a memory shattered by circumstance.

On one of those trips home in 1969, he decided to do something. Still a novice at working with large pieces of wood, he promised that if someone found him a suitable log, he’d carve a totem pole as a gift to the elders, one tangible link to a stolen culture.

He had no idea of the awakening that would result from what he thought of at the time as a simple show of affection.

The 22-year-old Davidson knew little about the myth he would depict on the log, the story of a woman who’s kidnapped by a bear, then gives birth to two cubs who eventually turn into humans. And because there were no examples of monumental totems in town for him to model, he used old photos, museum exhibits and totems by masters of the art form as his guides.

For the next 3½ months, Davidson worked 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, with the help of his brother, Reg, among others.

Some people in Massett wondered what could be gained by erecting a piece of public art that reminded locals of how much of their culture had been destroyed.

But on the day of the pole-raising ceremony that August, something magical happened.

Davidson keeps an oversize, black-and-white photograph of the ceremony, the first in seven decades, in his studio.

His totem pole lies at the center of a large crowd, four long ropes extending from it. More than 30 men, boys and even frail-looking elders can be seen tugging the ropes, gently sliding and lifting the monument into place in a shallow, angled pit.

Davidson’s father, Claude, presided over the raising with guidance from Davidson’s 89-year-old tsinii, or grandfather, Robert Davidson Sr. Neither had ever witnessed one in person.

Tsinii told Davidson it was customary for the lead carver of a totem pole to tie his tools around his neck and circle the pole while chanting.

Somewhat reluctantly, he obliged.

“There were no words, just the sound, ‘hah, hah, hah, hah,’ like I was breathing life into the pole,” Davidson writes in the book. “It gave me an amazing feeling of elation. I don’t know how long I walked. It was timeless space, a moment that lasted forever. The pole was completed.”

When the pole was raised, the elders suddenly started singing and dancing in the traditional way, drawing on ceremonial protocols they’d kept alive through hand-me-down memories — and practiced in secret all along, it turns out. Haida culture had not died, after all.

That day in 1969 represented a rebirth, nonetheless.

Davidson’s grandfather lived just long enough to see his grandson’s project galvanize Massett; he died three weeks later.

“All I know is that collectively, people were ready for that to happen,” Davidson says. “Each one of us is connected to the ancient ways by a thin thread. And when we come together, we form a thick rope. Each person in that photograph, we were all connected by a thin thread, and that day, we formed a thick rope.”

Davidson has spent the past half century since that day not just creating art but investigating his own sense of being a Haida artist. He needn’t look far. His late great-grandfather was the 19th-century master Haida carver Charles Edenshaw, whose work is on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Feb. 2.

Davidson likes to tell another story that illustrates the importance of cultural hindsight. One day when he was a boy, his father took him and an uncle on a hike on an unmarked creek-bed trail outside Massett.

“On the way up the first 200 yards, he looked back and he said, ‘You have to look back to see where we came from, so you can find your way back home,’ ” Davidson recalls.

One of the interesting things about Davidson’s work is that while it obviously pays homage to the techniques, motifs and narratives that came before, it is distinctly of his own time.

“He’s at the foundation level of reconstructing culture through visual art,” says Barbara Brotherton, the Seattle Art Museum curator who organized the Davidson exhibit that runs until Feb. 16. “For a long time we’ve called it a ‘renaissance’ because it really was a reformulation and a rebirth of visual traditions that had been lost.”

Still, she says, “He’s making the art that he wants to make,” using his own “language of form.”

Brotherton acknowledges that certain factions within the Northwest Native and First Nations arts communities believe that straying too far from the way totems, paintings and other art forms have been done since ancient times does a disservice.

“That’s a big burden for a First Nations artist,” Brotherton says, a pressure that white modern artists don’t necessarily experience.

Guy Anderson and Mark Tobey, for example, freely experimented with the signature motifs and techniques of Native American design in their early paintings from the 1940s.

Some of Davidson’s First Nations contemporaries have succeeded by creating less experimental, more easily accessible works.

“Robert rebelled quite strongly against that,” says Gary Wyatt of Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver, which represents the artist.

He uses a hockey reference, applied to the art world, to explain Davidson’s more experimental approach: “If you can’t go into the corners, you can’t win the game. Robert knows how to go into the corners . . . He has a way of moving your eye through space and playing with the idea of what design is.”

Davidson doesn’t seem worried about the possible clash between his efforts to resuscitate ancient art forms while simultaneously transforming them.

“I don’t say, ‘I can’t do that because . . .’ ” Davidson tells me at his studio, where his apprentice, Tyson Brown, grandson of Bill Reid, paints at an easel. “My thought is more to expand on my understanding of the art form — and also to challenge the viewer.”

Davidson’s bemusement ripples across the studio as he talks about his early career. While the Haida were officially banned from celebrating their own culture at home, they could quietly produce European-style jewelry and carvings for sale to visitors and in cities on the mainland. Davidson cut his teeth in the 1960s by producing $50 brooches and model totem poles that sold for $5 an inch. At the time, art experts considered these works little more than ethnic curios unworthy of a gallery.

“Those $15 and $25 totem poles are now three and four thousand dollars,” Davidson says with a grin.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, after he’d studied the deeper meanings and age-old principles behind Haida art and design, that “abstract impulses” started flowing through his own paintings and carvings, Brotherton says.

“But it’s really taken him all of this time to bring those from the background forward,” she says.

“If you look at pre-contact art, you can see a definite progression in terms of refinement,” Davidson says. “Then there was an abyss. Suddenly there was no one like Edenshaw to carry this refinement forward.”

He picked up where his ancestors left off.

“What was lost was the meaning” in Haida art, he says. “It’s up to us to give it meaning.”

Davidson doesn’t make it easy, but the challenge is transporting.

He never cuts us — or himself — loose from the source material.

“In order for us to regain integrity we have to re-create the foundation,” Davidson says. “We have no more elders. I don’t think of myself as an elder, but I feel that I have enough information that I’m willing to start a dialogue. Collectively, we need to talk about how we’re going to redefine ourselves based on the ancient knowledge that has survived.”

“Now I’m in that place of being an uncle,” he says. “In order to give value to what was given to me, it’s up to me to pass it on.”

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW magazine writer. Reach him at Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.


Seattle Art Museum’s exhibit, “Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse,” runs until Feb. 16. For more information, go

Stonington Gallery, 125 S. Jackson St. in Seattle, will have a selection of Davidson prints and aluminum sculptures on view throughout December. Visit

Dogfish Woman – A Bay in the Pacific

I live on an island that is part of the Inland Sea stretching from Alaska to southern Washington. This is a region dominated by the Pacific Ocean, islands, forests and mountains. Its human cultural history is relatively shallow, since until the arrival of the Anglos, history was oral and what art was produced by natives reflects their natural ecology – animals, plants and fish. The Haida Nation, north of here,  was well-known amongst the Salish and Tlingit for their warrior skills and their skillful use cedar canoes.
The Pacific Ocean is one block from my home and the bay upon which I live was known as Dogfish Bay. A dogfish is a bottom dwelling shark of modest size and while it once was the most prolific shark in the world it now is nearly endangered. It is known to arch its back and secret poison when in a defensive mode. 
The two images directly below are artwork representing the dogfish woman by Bill Reid. The next two articles enlarge upon the dogfish woman’s place in the Haida mythology.- rlw



Dogfish Woman: A Haida Ocean Story


Transformation is at the heart of Haida art and supernatural power. Supernatural beings and ancestors possessing special powers are often depicted with the attributes of two or more beings, indicating their ability to transcend ordinary limitations.

Dogfish Woman is another powerful figure in the pantheon of beings of the sea. The dogfish is a small variety of shark that inhabits the waters of Haida Gwaii. Dogfish Woman is a crest belonging to many of the Haida clans, and is related to a story of a woman ancestor who could transform herself into a dogfish. It is in this form that she enters into a whole other realm of experience, the undersea world.

The gills on her cheeks and her domed forehead identify her as a dogfish. The labret in her lower lip, made from inlaid abalone shell, distinguishes her as a high-ranking woman. Pectoral fins extend down from her elbows and a frog emerges from between her head and upswept tail. Sea lion whiskers and red flicker feathers are visible extending up from the headband. White ermine skins hang down the sides and back.

© 1998, CHIN. All Rights Reserved. (The Canadian Heritage Information Network)

The Jade Canoe

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“Consistent with Haida tradition, the significance of the passengers is highly symbolic. The variety and interdependence of the canoe’s occupants represents the natural environment on which the ancient Haida relied for their very survival: the passengers are diverse, and not always in harmony, yet they must depend on one another to live. The fact that the cunning trickster, Raven, holds the steering oar is likely symbolic of nature’s unpredictability.”

from Wiki dictionairy

The Spirit of Haida Gwaii

by Bill Reid

Here we are at last, a long way from Haida Gwaii, not too sure where we are or where we’re going, still squabbling and vying for position in the boat, but somehow managing to appear to be heading in some direction; at least the paddles are together, and the man in the middle seems to have some vision of what is to come.

As for the rest, they are superficially more or less what they always were, symbols of another time when the Haidas, all ten thousand of them, knew they were the greatest of all nations.

The Bear, as he sits in the bow of the boat, broad back deflecting any unfamiliar, novel or interesting sensation, eyes firmly and forever fixed on the past, tries to believe that things are still as they were. The Bear Mother, being human, is looking over his shoulder into the future, concerned more with her children than with her legend. After all, they wandered in from another myth, the one about Good Bear and Bad Bear and how they changed, so she has to keep a sharp eye on them.

Next, doughtily paddling away, hardworking if not very imaginative, the compulsory Canadian content, big teeth and scaly tail, perfectly designed for cutting down trees and damming rivers.

And here she is, still the ranking woman of noble birth, yielding no place to the pretty Bear Mother. In spite of her great cheeks like monstrous scars, her headdress reflecting the pointed shape of the dogfish head, and her grotesque labret – in spite of all these, the most desirable and fascinating woman from myth-time. More magical than the Mouse Woman, as mysterious as the deep ocean waters which support the sleek, sinuous fish from whom she derives her power, Dogfish Woman stands aloof from the rest, the enormous concentration of her thoughts smouldering smoke dreams behind her inward-looking eyes.

Tucked away in the stern of the boat, still ruled by the same obsession to stay concealed in the night shadows and lightless caves and other pockets of darkness, in which she spends her immortality, the Mouse Woman lost her place among the other characters of her own myth, an important part of the Bear Mother story, and barely squeezed in at the opposite end of the boat, under the tail of the Raven. No human, beast or monster has yet seen her in the flesh, so she may or may not look like this.

Not so the Raven. There is no doubt what he looks like in this myth-image: exactly the same as he does in his multiple existences as the familiar carrion bird of the northern latitude of the earth. Of course he is the steersman. So, although the boat appears to be heading in a purposeful direction, it can arrive anywhere the Raven’s whim dictates.

A culture will be remembered for its warriors, artists, heroes and heroines of all callings, but in order to survive it needs survivors. And here is our professional survivor, the Ancient Reluctant Conscript, present if seldom noticed in all the turbulent histories of men on earth. When our latter-day kings and captains have joined their forebears, he will still be carrying on, stoically obeying orders and performing the tasks allotted to him. But only up to a point. It is also he who finally says, “Enough!” And after the rulers have disappeared into the morass of their own excesses, it is he who builds on the rubble and once more gets the whole thing going.

The Wolf of the Haidas was a completely imaginary creature, perhaps existing over there on the mainland, but never seen on Haida Gwaii. Nevertheless, he was an important figure in the crest hierarchy. Troublesome, volatile, ferociously playful, he can usually be found with his sharp fangs embedded in someone’s anatomy. Here he is vigorously chewing on the Eagle’s wing while that proud, imperial, somewhat pompous bird retaliates by attacking the Bear’s paws.

That accounts for everybody except the Frog who sits partially in and partially out of the boat and above the gunwales: the ever-present intermediary between two of the worlds of the Haidas, the land the sea.

So there is certainly no lack of activity in our little boat, but is there any purpose? Is the tall figure who may or may not be the Spirit of Haida Gwaii leading us, for we are all in the same boat, to a sheltered beach beyond the rim of the world as he seems to be, or is he lost in a dream of his own dreamings? The boat moves on, forever anchored in the same place.

Haida Animal People – Pacific

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“The Haida believed both animals and people had souls, which were essentially the same. The bodies of different animals were merely their “canoes” and all were capable of assuming other forms at will; “or better, they possessed a human form, and assumed their other forms when consorting with men.” The killer whales were believed to be the most powerful of all living beings, inhabiting villages under the sea. There were, in this fashion, sea-otter people, salmon people, grizzly people, geese people, etc.”

Gary Synder – He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village, 1979, Grey Fox Press