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

Overview


The Haida world is a misty archipelago a hundred stormy miles off the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska. For more than a thousand years before the Europeans came, a great culture flourished on these islands. In 1900 and 1901 the linguist and ethnographer John Swanton took dictation from the last traditional Haida-speaking storytellers, poets, and historians. Robert Bringhurst worked for many years with these manuscripts, and here he brings them to life in the English language. A Story as Sharp as a ...
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Overview


The Haida world is a misty archipelago a hundred stormy miles off the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska. For more than a thousand years before the Europeans came, a great culture flourished on these islands. In 1900 and 1901 the linguist and ethnographer John Swanton took dictation from the last traditional Haida-speaking storytellers, poets, and historians. Robert Bringhurst worked for many years with these manuscripts, and here he brings them to life in the English language. A Story as Sharp as a Knife brings a lifetime of passion and a broad array of skills—humanistic, scientific, and poetic—to focus on a rich and powerful tradition that the world has long ignored.
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Editorial Reviews

Vancouver Sun

"Accomplished poet and linguist that he is, Bringhurst hones his Haida verse translations to a point which makes them read like orations. These stories, he says, are like Beowulf, The Odyssey, Gilgamesh, Giotto’s frescoes and Bach’s fugues: unique, formative ways of thinking about one’s experience of the world."—Norbert Ruebsaat, Vancouver Sun

— Norbert Ruebsaat

Vancouver Sun - Norbert Ruebsaat

"Accomplished poet and linguist that he is, Bringhurst hones his Haida verse translations to a point which makes them read like orations. These stories, he says, are like Beowulf, The Odyssey, Gilgamesh, Giotto’s frescoes and Bach’s fugues: unique, formative ways of thinking about one’s experience of the world."—Norbert Ruebsaat, Vancouver Sun
Library Journal
A distinguished Canadian poet and critic, Bringhurst here unveils a literary portrait of the keenly artistic culture native to the islands of Haida Gwaii. Located off the west coast of British Columbia, this enclave is allied with the Tlingit nation but has developed its own unique language, history, and artistic tradition; it predates European influence by 1000 years. Once numbering over 12,000, the Haida have been reduced to only 4000. Linguists, anthropologists, and folklorists have documented their extraordinary artistic expression, which includes masks, totems, and carvings that explore the rich treasury of their oral tradition. In 1900-01, with the help of a translator, ethnographer John Swanton took down the words of the last traditional Haida poets, historians, and storytellers. Bringhurst draws on Swanton's transcriptions for these two volumes, the first of which is also graced by his commentary. The second volume focuses on the remarkable oral lore recorded over a one-month period by Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, "the blind poet of Sunshine and Sealion Town," who addresses his ancestry and contemporaries in condensed and tightly woven narrative poetry. Throughout, Bringhurst illuminates the specialness of "reading that cannot be written." Essential for all North American native literature and history collections.--Richard K. Burns, MSLS, Hatboro, PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Times Literary Supplement
He went down in the margins of history - white history - as Walter McGregor. If Robert Bringhurst is right, he was a major artist of the word. "I know of no one writing in any language, anywhere in North America toward the end of the nineteenth century, who uses words with greater sensitivity and skill. He seems to me not just an exceptional man . . . but a figure of durable importance in the history of literature." Bringhurst is a distinguished Canadian poet and critic. "Walter McGregor" was a blind, middle-aged man who spent a few weeks in November 1900 telling stories (or poems, or myths) to a young American anthropologist by the name of John Swanton. At the instigation of his mentor and thesis director, Franz Boas, Swanton had journeyed to the Queen Charlotte Islands off the west coast of British Columbia - or, to use less colonial terminology, to the islands of Haida Gwaii. Because of smallpox, measles, typhoid and other introduced diseases, the numbers of the Haida had plummeted in the previous century, from about 12,000 to fewer than 1,000. Swanton's mission was to record the last traces of a culture he had been told was doomed. What made the trip so extraordinary was that unlike most anthropologists, Swanton chose to transcribe the stories (or poems, or myths) in the storytellers' own language. With the help of a young, bilingual interpreter, Swanton recorded their actual words - not just a translation of the plot. The translating would come later, when he was back home in Washington working at the United States Bureau of Ethnology. But most of the original stories, along with Swanton's line-by-line translations, would languish unpublished for many decades to come. Enter Bringhurst, stage left, with a startling proposition. Strip away the varnish of our preconceptions; strip away "Walter McGregor", for a start. The man's name was Ghandl, meaning "freshwater person". A missionary heard "water" and turned it into "Walter". The man came from the village of Squaatsigaay, which the colonizers called "Scots Guy". The missionary, hearing "Scots Guy", came up with "McGregor". Ghandl was renamed at his baptism, a few years before Swanton sailed into Haida Gwaii, but after his community had been decimated - for once the word is accurate - by disease. "Ethnology", Boas had proclaimed, "does not deal with the exceptional man; it deals with the masses." Nonsense, Bringhurst says, or at least: so much for ethnology. It wasn't the masses who told the story of the canoe spirit-people; it was Ghandl. One of Bringhurst's chapters is entitled "Oral Tradition and the Individual Talent". Roll over, Eliot. Roll over, Boas.
Toronto Star

"A beautiful weave of poetry anthology, poetics and anthropological adventure.”—Hans Werner, Toronto Star

— Hans Werner

Toronto Star - Hans Werner

"A beautiful weave of poetry anthology, poetics and anthropological adventure.”—Hans Werner, Toronto Star
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Product Details

Meet the Author


Robert Bringhurst is one of Canada’s most respected poets and cultural historians. He is the author of The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii and the coauthor of The Raven Steals the Light.
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