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Literary Haida Gwaay: Some Traveller’s Notes

Sean Kane

“Arriving at Skidegate Landing, you are following the path of John Reed Swanton, who came to Haida Gwaay in September of 1900…”

— Sean Kane

Sean Kane takes the reader on a pilgrimage to the villages, forests and seascapes of Haida Gwaay mythteller Skaay (John Sky) “to honour a poet by visiting his homeland…. it is time Skaay became the Haida people’s next gift to the world. His poetry says that a great civilization flourished here, and it did so within the Earth’s allowances’ and affordances.” By attending to the landscape and places that are visited, Kane ensures that his discussion of myth and storytelling is anchored in the land. This corrects tensions with humanistic and anthropological appropriations which move away from the integrity of Haida stories as an ecosystem of myths, in which each part supposes the others. Skaay’s original myth telling was dictated via interpretation provided by Henry Moody, a bilingual, high-born Haida youth. Published by the American Bureau of Ethnography (1905) the myths have been retranslated by John Enrico and also by Robert Bringhurst. These stories are masterpieces in verse that contain not only ‘story’ but theory and commentary on the role of myth and myth telling.

This contribution weaves together many key players who sought to preserve Haida myth and art in the twentieth century. These include both Haida and Settler figures: curators, translators and writers, artists and photographers, sustaining and “returning [this tradition] to the Haida people, if they wish it.while presenting to world literature, if it accepts it, the “works” of Skaay and other “classical” Haida mythellers…”

There is an edginess around these works whose authenticity is jealously guarded. This tension and the complicated relationships between Haida and Settler allies is not resolved or reconciled. Yet, there is a cross-fertilization that may be taking place especially if we understand that in myth, “Words are things are acts of making something happen: they are embedded in the objects and activites they handle.” Rather than reducing experience to neutral information, words galvanize and depend on deep knowledge and collective experience of the world to put words into context and understand them, to grasp the mood. Oral literacy, “a musical thinking in images” is everywhere in Skaay’s myth telling but especially in his images such as Mouse Woman in her animal, rodent form, carrying a “burdensome cranbery, accepting help over a fallen log: ‘She laid her tail up between her ears and ran ahead,” says Ghandl, who was blind when he struck Swanton with the image.’”

Haida mythical beings and godlike creatures are depicted as super-perceptive. Haida carvings and images of these animal beings show bodies literally covered with the signature eyes of the art form. Raven sees with the eyes in his wings and tail feathers; with his whole body. Such a ‘hypervigilance’ reminds us that we ourselves see but only reciprocally by being visible. We are in relation with the earth and its non-humans as well as our own species.

And so there are countless networks of perception going on everywhere between and among sensing subjects, most of that network of perception unconscious. It prompts the human perceiver to make conscious a discrete arc of that lifeworld and construe it as a phenomenon (literally a “shining upwards into consciousness”). But then, the living network slips away, leaving the perceiver with the compensation called an idea. Then, the very act of speech can come along and isolate the self from the living presence of beings, situating the self instead in the vacant space of meanings…. all those animate things that, when you sense them sensing you, frighten you into putting them back in their place with a meaning. 

Unconscious or not, you participate in the life-world because you are a body. The body is that part of you which perceives…

These intersubjective, trans-corporal moments interweave us with the world, which becomes a joint author of our perceptions and affects. Yet the voices of animals were lost to adult Europeans and their stories from about the Neolithic period. We now hardly recognize the texts of the nonhuman world, from the ‘chemotactic scrolls’ that signal between insects to “the fair-weather clouds bobbing in from the ocean are a front-page headline about the coming of the salmon.” Consider “the exaggerated organs of communication given to the animals by carvers — the hands, the ears, the nose, the mouth, the anus, especially the eyes. The creatures bulge with mental power. On the poles, they seem to have just said or seem about to say something important.”

Rather than nostalgia for a lost simplicity, Kane sees a polyphonic complexity in Haida myth. They revel in contradiction, juxtaposition and counterpoint: Their monumental art and totem poles are intended to disappear. Rather than memorializing an event, they are accessories to its performance whose very content is monumentation. That is to say, “in Haida creativity each work of art gives a transitory face to a tradition that thinks furiously behind it.” Like each tide is just one instance of the gravitational pulsing of the sea, each work is one reminder, “carved in the flow of time, of a timeless monumentality.” Let Kane speak:

Fathoming this place of literature without texts, housepoles without permanence, a traveller comes to understand that most of the art and literature is inaudible. It is unvoiceri story. This is the way with oral literature, to hide itself in memory until it is spoken. It is spoken to occasion, created new to the moment, satisfying the honour of families while playing out the ictus of creation. At another ceremony, the story will be spoken differently, then differently again. The rest of the time, the story is inaccessible.


Such terms as “presence” and “absence” — present in performance, absent in the time between performances — cannot really capture the story’s peculiar way of being…Accordingly, Haida oral literature dwells as a reality beneath the reality of its oral expression. The silent real co-exists with the spoken real, not as a repertoire of specific stories so much as a grammar-sets of instructions about the possibilities of realizing a story in words or in wood. This same relation of the potential to the actual is true of music, and explains why, for example, even a relatively undistinguished work of baroque music sounds like all baroque music.


It is the voiceless implicit text evoked during the performance that holds the meaning. An oral tradition is a complexity of interpenetrating stories. Where common memory upholds it, where right behaviour and occasion checks its efficacy, and the land checks its validity, and especially where a spoken language keeps it all in tune, oral literature may still be performed in the old way.


A mythology must be incomplete – otherwise it would fossilize into a religion, a way of obeying instead of a way of seeing… Skaay weaves a theory about closed dogmas and open mythologies into his practice…


It frustrated Swanton… the hope of unearthing a unified structure of [Haida] belief, like the Bible. That imaginary structure turned to water in his hands because relations of relations cannot be grasped. Oral memory cannot be held; it can only be inhabited and, once inhabited, awakened. The performed awakening is a myth; the sets of relations a mythology.


… allusion in the hands of an oral artist pulls a whole invisible myth into the story…. one myth is being spoken, the other is being summoned… They pass through each other like sounds in the forest.

Like a visual pun or reversible image of a chalice or two faces or of a Necker Cube, Haida artists ‘“weren’t bound by the silly feeling that it’s impossible for two figures to occupy the same space at the same time.”

This is dream literature, marvels Kane. One being can be in two places. You are sure of relationships but never quite sure if you are meeting the same person.

An oral mythology is a co-habitation of worlds. A being in that mythology can be real in one world, while equally present and real in others. Since there is no map to the oral domain beyond a few elemen- tary directions and convenient landforms, everything depends upon one’s perception at the site of intersections—that-seeing-by-being-seen moment. Such a moment will be one in which each world, each partici- pant, alludes to the other. The allusion may be gay, like the bows and curtsies of dance partners, or ironic, like the mocking of each other’s individuality by spouses from the comfort of a long, successful marriage. In any case, the allusion is one of courtesy. This contrapuntal seeing is the gift of oral literacy.

This polyphonic double voicing, is a product of the way myth casts a world with a specific temporal and spatial character, in this case intersecting, polyphonic. There is an epic, mythological story grounded in the village. This is done through the creation of an oral space of the story when it is told, performed. The art or performance dwells in the genealogy of an occasion such as a celebration.

Works by Sean Kane

Kane published Wisdom of the Mythtellers in 1994.