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

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So … yeah. Okay, the 4 stars are basically for the opportunity to read the absolutely fascinating translations of large portions of Haida myth, particularly a couple different versions of Raven stories, that Bringhurst presents here.


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This is a world so unlike many Western myth cycles that we are used to - one in which the spirit world is a vital part of the everyday, and the boudaries between spirit beings and those of flesh and blood is nigh on non-existent. These tales bristle with life and humor, a far Okay, the 4 stars are basically for the opportunity to read the absolutely fascinating translations of large portions of Haida myth, particularly a couple different versions of Raven stories, that Bringhurst presents here.

These tales bristle with life and humor, a far cry from the lofty and serious pantheons that often inhabit much of Western mythology. Full disclosure, Bringhurst is a white male, chronicling and commenting upon anthropological work left to us by other white males. The book's slowest section details the process by which many of these stories were first collected by early anthropologists as well as discussing some of the growing pains of anthropology as a field and practice.

While this was certainly interesting, it mostly leaves one feeling incredibly frustrated by the bigoted views of many of these researchers and the precious things that they deemed unimportant or unworthy of record. We have, for example, very few records of any of the great female Haida storytellers, though there are many and they are highly honored in the culture.

Also, Bringhurst mentions the vital part that music and song plays in much of this literature, but we have no record of what any of this might have sounded like, as none of the researchers were trained enough in music to make any attempt at notating this. The question of appropriation and ownership of this material comes up frequently in Bringhurst's book, but I am not certain that he really engages with it to its fullest extent. He makes much of his relationship with Haida artist and writer Bill Reid, as if this relationship gives him license to write about whatever he chooses. That being said, I do think Bringhurst's contribution is valuable, if for no other reason than to make a small portion of this spectacular mythos accessible to a wider audience.

As for his approach, which views the story cycles as high literature through a Western lens, it has its positives and its problems.

I don't know that sections of "Raven Travelling" necessarily need to be elevated by comparisons to a Bach fugue, for example. While this may be an interesting way of thinking about it, the works can clearly stand on their own merit and it ends up feeling like trying to better understand a stained glass window by looking at a painting. All of this aside, reading the large sections of these myths and story cycles provided in this text is an absolute joy. It feels very much like stumbling upon a completely other world that makes one feel humbled at how little one really knows about anything.

The fact that we picked this book up at the fantastic Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, where several of the remains of posts pictured in the book now reside added an extra level of appreciation for the deep loss experienced by the colonization of this area of the world but also the rich culture that continues to flourish today. Jul 18, Lea Taranto rated it it was amazing.

One of the most engrossing academic texts I have had the pleasure of reading, and that manages to do justice in its description, appreciation and study of the great oral Haida literary tradition. I hope just like Bringhurst that some day soon yesterday is not soon enough more schools will study the great epics of Raven Travelling and The One They Hand Along alongside well known counterparts like the Oddessy or the Mahabharata.

My only regret was that this first book out of three did not have m One of the most engrossing academic texts I have had the pleasure of reading, and that manages to do justice in its description, appreciation and study of the great oral Haida literary tradition. My only regret was that this first book out of three did not have more content in myth alongside all of the eloquent and passionate commentary. What an excellent book! I got caught up immediately in the stories and poems yes, poems , and the Swan Maiden makes her appearance again.

The Haida were sophisticated oral traditionalists and their stories were only written down by one linguist. Sep 17, Robert Costic rated it it was amazing. What I really love about this book is that the author brings history, sociology, linguistics, and literary analysis to bear on the Haida mythic literature so that there is enough context for us to understand it. In doing so, the author also shows us how we should think about myths, literature, and different cultures more generally. The stories Robert Bringhurst covers were originally collected in their original language and translated by John Swanton a hundred years ago.

Swanton's technique was r What I really love about this book is that the author brings history, sociology, linguistics, and literary analysis to bear on the Haida mythic literature so that there is enough context for us to understand it. Swanton's technique was rather unique at the time, because most of Swanton's contemporaries collected Native American stories only in English and tried to extrapolate a generalized story from the culture rather than preserve the individuality of each contributor's work.

Bringhurst describes the process by which Swanton did this, describes the mythtellers Swanton talked to, and analyzes the mythtellers works, pointing out aspects of the stories that are unique to their speakers and general to the culture. Bringhurst spends some time describing the Haida culture generally, its relationship to other nations along the West Coast, and how they were affected by Western culture, religion, and tragically diseases.

Dec 19, Chris McCracken rated it it was amazing Recommends it for: amateur anthropologists.

Story as Sharp as a Knife, A (by Robert Bringhurst)

This book is mostly a series of epic oral poetry from a few of the remaining members of the Haida tribe - a native North American tribe living in the modern-day Queen Victoria islands off the coast of Alaska. Robert Bringhurst partly narrates as an ethnographic historian - noting the difficulties and triumphs of the wide eyed 19th and 20th century transcriber John Swanton in his obsession with getting down the massive series of poems the breadth and depth of which he likened to the Odyssey, Ilia This book is mostly a series of epic oral poetry from a few of the remaining members of the Haida tribe - a native North American tribe living in the modern-day Queen Victoria islands off the coast of Alaska.

Robert Bringhurst partly narrates as an ethnographic historian - noting the difficulties and triumphs of the wide eyed 19th and 20th century transcriber John Swanton in his obsession with getting down the massive series of poems the breadth and depth of which he likened to the Odyssey, Iliad, or the Bahagavad-Gita.

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Bringhurst translates the difficult Haida language with the precision of a sharp eared linguist and infuses his western poetic soul into the poetry. The myths are subtle and range from creation stories to family histories to classic trickster myths. They are difficult to read at first, probably as they were never intended to be written, but as with any great work of art they teach the reader how to read them. Beautiful and important. Changed my life and my outlook on literature and art.

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

Oct 21, Derek Pyle rated it really liked it. Read it aloud with friends like story tellers. These words are meant for hearing, not for reading! Read it through and it meant nothing. Lots of linguist stuff that meant nothing. Skipped some of it to be honest, this is a big book. Damn this stuff is cool! It took some time to get, but wow. The world is as sharp as a knife Be cheerful and generous instead. While the body of the book focuses primarily on the content of stories themselves with untranslated and translated samples , there is a substantial description of Swanton's methods, concerns, and interactions with the Haida.

The introductory materials and appendices provide a wealth of interesting information regarding the linguistic characteristics of the Haida A study of the efforts of ethnologist John Swanton to record the stories of the Haida people of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. The introductory materials and appendices provide a wealth of interesting information regarding the linguistic characteristics of the Haida language and its representation in print.

Jul 19, Graham Oliver added it Shelves: academic , translated , subject-nonfic. Really fascinating book that's part translation, part anthropology, part critical inquiry, part historical context I don't have enough knowledge on the stuff surrounding this book to have a complete sense of it, but the voice was really great for an academic-style tome, even if it did swerve into the "here's why this is so important" deal a bit. Oct 17, CAW rated it really liked it.

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A book containing fragments of epics and the epic task of teaching white people to hear. Heavy going at times, but worth it for those brilliantly illuminating scraps of commentary and context which cause the Haida myths to stir and shake off the photographed dullness of their imprisonment in the static text of the Roman alphabet.

A masterful synthesis of both researched scholarship and a reflection of past scholars themselves. But all with the focus on the original folklorists themselves.


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Due to my lack of knowledge in various Haida nuances some of which could have been more elaborated upon my enjoyment of the stories was uneven, but still it is a great collection. Incredible, enlightening, poignant, evocative, intense scholarship and dedication. A testament to one man's humility and discipline and another's the author's erudite understanding, perception and respect for the subject s both academic and personal. It is a vision painted indelibly in the air with words that disappear the moment they are spoken. It is something new and locally flavoured, fulfilling age-old, independently recurrent and widely travelled themes.

And it is part of a whole forest of themes and variations, echoes and allusions, spreading out through space and time. Facebook Twitter Pinterest. Topics Margaret Atwood. Publishing Native Americans.

ISBN 13: 9781553658399

He lived under Mrs. Davidson's roof for 12 years, studying with her and conversing with her in Haida. He is now one of the more fluent speakers of Haida. In he began an. His consultants translated it as "Only Raven," but he agrees that another possible in- terpretation is "Raven Alone. He also worked for about four months on Alas- kan Haida. Up to the present day he has been researching all aspects of the Haida language. His most substantial publications document Masset Haida phonology, Skidegate Haida myths and histories, Northern Haida songs, and Haida syntax.

Still in preparation are a massive Haida dictionary and a book of Haida place-names see References. In addition to being the world's foremost linguistic expert on Haida, I venture to guess that Enrico is high on the list of experts on traditional Haida culture, although he has made no such claim.

Bringhurst is an internationally renowned poet and analyst of poetry and speech- act art in general. The breadth of his art is impressive, effortlessly crossing tra- ditional boundaries, making forays into saga, song, silence, sculpture, spell-casting and seeing. He has dwelt in Canada and on things Canadian: verse, literature, the city and its subnations, the country and its First Nations. But he has not neglected the outside world; he has visited or revisited the Greece of Homer, the India of the Mahabharata, the Buddhists of the Himalayas and Indonesia, and the blue roofs of Japan, among many other habitats.

He has studied Haida oral tradition for 15 years, in which process he spent one day learning from a speaker of Haida. Perhaps in his mind the distinction between studying with a live teacher and researching sources delimited by death is yet another imaginary line to be crossed; I leave this for the reader to decide. Bringhurst's SSK is an interwoven set of tales by means of which he explores the interaction between Swanton and his Haida consultants on one hand and his men- torlcritic Boas on the other, the epic mythology of the Haida, and the larger themes of the structuring of art and the practice of poetry.

In SSK, the history is not neatly divided from the myth. To me, the most striking aspect of the book is that Bringhurst subtly yet effectively emulates the narrative style of Sgaay John Sky , the Haida talebearer that Bringhurst most admires. Like Sgaay, he shuffles the elements of his tales into an opus whose structure is visible only from a broader viewpoint, inviting the reader to contemplate and revisit the memorial.

The mythtelling, its analysis, and its context are arranged into a mosaic that leaves the reader's eyes slightly unfocused and opens the ears to the music within the book. I do not know how Bringhurst and Enrico made each other's acquaintance; evi- dently there was a disagreement between them that continues to divide them.

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