It Begins with the Art
-- Part I
September 26, 2002 11:04 PM
NOTE: This is a rough draft and, thus, not factual gospel. Some
information may be inaccurate. I may also have screwed up the tenses here
12:28 Haida Canoe Shed; Old Masset, BC :: MON 23 SEP
On the way to Sweet Treats for a milkshake lunch, I am cycling down
a residential street in Old Masset. It's a drab day, threatening precipitation
as most days do on the Islands. Perhaps on a sunny day, the neighbourhood
would seem more cheerful, but in the grey overcast Old Masset feels overcast
as well. It's quiet, no one is about, the houses are dark. Aiming for
a cheerier mood, I anticipate cold chocolate and an ice-cream headache
when a booming, resonant voice rises out of the silence . The resonant
male voice, singing in an unmistakably native North American cadence,
emanates from a large building constructed of unpainted plywood and planks,
weathered to a deep, deep grey. A small red flag of the Haida Nation flies
from its peak.
In the open field beyond the shed lay cedar logs in lengths up to 80
feet. Many are cut in a hexagonal pattern. When viewed end-on, they look
a bit like a stop sign cut in half. This shape is a familiar site in the
side-yards and backyards of Masset (including Old Massett) and Skidegate,
the primary Haida settlements on Haida Gwaii. These logs are pre-cut,
either for carving into totem poles, or as support beams for log houses,
the purpose of these I will later be told.
23:50 Missing Link "Hostel"; Masset, BC :: MON 23 SEP
5:10 Missing Link "Hostel"; Masset, BC :: TUE 24 SEP 02
Don't let the dull, weathered grey look fool you. These are extraordinary
logs, revered. Old-growth red cedar, hundreds of years old, with a tight,
straight grain and very few knots. These are to Haida technology what
iron was to western industrialism.
For hundreds of years, the Haida ruled the northern Pacific with massive
cedar canoes 10 meters or longer in length, dugout from a single cedar
trunk. The gunwale of these great ships was widened using steam, a process
which gave the beam a characteristic curve, raising bow and stern. Together,
these innovations improved the canoe's seaworthiness. In them, Haida traded
and raided the Pacific coast from Alaska to Washington State, and some
think even further, as far as Central America.
Due to the tight, knotless grain, cedar is easily split to form the
thin, straight planks used for building longhouses. A light, soft wood
that shapes well with simple carving tools, it is excellent for making
masks, paddles and many other objects. Cedar totem poles record stories
and history. They mark the resting place of the dead and display the clan
seals on the upright posts of longhouses.
Cedar bark and spruce root provide the tough, long fibres for making
rope and weaving baskets and hats. When moistened or steamed, the fibres
expand, making a tightly woven basket watertight and suitable for cooking.
10:18 Marj's Cafe; Masset, BC :: TUE 24 SEP 02
I'm taking all this in, coasting past the last of the logs, thinking
about what they mean to the Haida. I know what this place is, and turn
the bike around. I know that inside the building, the shed, someone will
be carving totem poles, masks, paddles. Inside, there may be canoes hollowed
out, carved and steamed into shape. I want to listen to the songs, learn
about the making of masks, poles and canoes. Learn some of the stories
that go along with them.
It begins with the art. Finding your identity, re-establishing a sense
of self, belonging, purpose. I've seen it elsewhere, along old Route 66
in the US. There the resurgence of Art Deco and neon reinvigorates the
diners, the gas stations, the grand old hotels. The lines, colours and
style, the whole aesthetic of a time lost, for a time, is resurrected,
and along with it the stories that codify a way of being, a way of belonging,
to place, to each other. A way of feeling right about self. A feeling
that spreads from individual to community.
I walk the bicycle into the yard, listening to the booming voice that
calls to me. Nudges something deep inside.
Haida make music with two instruments only, drum and voice. The drum
varies in size from not much larger than a tambourine, to a metre or so
in diameter, the skin stretched tightly to a circular frame which is held
in one hand, like a tambourine. A stick, usually with a leather-padded
head, is held in the other hand, and wielded with a flourish. It is a
simple enough instrument which, as all drums do, plays to an emotional
centre-point in the human psyche.
Perhaps it is that emotional centre which is drawn to the singing emanating
from within the shed. Without knowing the language, the song sounds to
me like a chant, the primary musical element being rhythm, the melodious
lines drawing their power from the cadence.
13:16 Haidabucks Cafe; Masset, BC :: TUE 24 SEP 02
The song ends. I sigh, an internal reverie. Another begins, this time
with drum and two voices, a woman's and a man's, a different man than
the first. It's then that I realise I'd created a mental image of a carver
at work, singing a traditional working song. But I am listening to a recording.
A small starburst of thoughts and emotions ensues. Revelations of patterns
of thought. It's then that I realise I have something, the germ of an
insight, a beginning of an understanding about culture itself, about my
own place in it all, about myself. It is then that I pull the computer
from my backpack and begin to write down these thoughts that days later
continue to gel, to form, to lead me somewhere.
The initial charge, the one that unleashes the starburst, is a nostalgic
feeling of loss for an old way. A time when the creation of art was an
act of life, of living. A time when one filled their personal aural space
with music only by making it. There was no radio, or CD player, only the
listener 's own voice.
I recall my visit to a Penan longhouse in Malaysian Borneo, where young
children clapped exotic rhythms.in ensemble, singing melodious harmonies
over them. A moment of beautiful musical creation my own culture often
neglects to introduce its children to.
A feeling of loss accompanies this recollection. At the longhouse it
was a feeling of loss for my own culture, that such a pure and beautiful
act as the making of music was a gift we so often failed to endow in our
children. And here, standing outside a Haida carving shed, I feel a sense
of loss for the Haida. And immediately I am struck by the ridiculous and
misguided nostalgia motivating this sense.
Though there seems always to be a tune running through my mind, and
usually a tune completely of my own inspiration and improvisation, I myself
do not play an instrument. I can pick up an Australian didjeridoo and
rumble along, sometimes even following a rhythm line drawn by one or more
drummers, but I rarely do this. More importantly, who am I to feel sorry
for the Haida? What if they listen while they work, rather than whistling?
This way of thinking, when carried out in action and expectation by
whole cultures and their institutions, is as limiting and destructive
to a targeted culture as any attempt to assimilate or directly undermine
it. A culture is a living thing and efforts to preserve one in stasis
destroys its vitality. All cultures adapt to changes in the environment,
failure to do so can be more destabilising, even destructive, than well-considered
change. Encounters with new cultures and their technologies bring both
adoption and adaptation.
Music can be enjoyed by making it, but it is also a pleasure to listen
to it. One can argue the relative quality of a pre-recorded listening
experience versus a live performance, but the simple fact is that music
soothes us, motivates us, awakens us, and this is true no matter how it
comes to our ears. One hundred years ago the question was academic: if
one wanted to hear music while working one either made it themself, or
cajoled others into making it for them.
As I'm formulating these thoughts, and trying to find some way to introduce
them with words, a young man in ballcap and sweats comes from the backyard
of a house behind the shed. "Hello," he ventures, inquisitively, to which
I respond, "Hi." He must duck into a side door of the shed because moments
later he emerges from the front door. "Are you looking for Christian?"
he asks. "No, I was just cycling by and heard the music. Decided this
was a good place to sit and write for a bit." "Oh," he says, then after
a moment, "You could've come inside the shed." I shrug my shoulders, pointing
at the hours on the sign, "but it's not one o'clock yet, and I didn't
want to disturb anyone." He laughs, lightly, "well, I'm the only one here
today, and I'm just waiting for the paint to dry on my restoration box.
Come on in and I'll show you around." I don't resist his invitation.
15:15 Hanging by a Fibre; Queen Charlotte City, BC ::
THU 26 SEP 02
Inside, I am filled with the sense of cedar. The smell, like the cedar
closet that was my favourite hiding place when playing at a childhood
friend 's house. The sight of cedar, carved into a massive raven, two
totem poles, works in progress laying horizontally, hip high, shavings
piled high on the floor around them. Canoe paddles lean against the walls,
masks and head dresses scattered on work benches. Everywhere there is
cedar. Cedar given a second life by the hands of carvers.
The youth, B.J., shows me the works in progress, tells me the stories
they tell. One totem pole represents the story of Raven creating the heavenly
bodies. Eagle is there, as is the moon, and men, and a girl, and of course,
Raven. The pole itself is fairly well shaped out, the carving of detail
nearly complete. Most elements have been painted. Let's see if I can recall
It seems back before the world was as we know it now an old
man kept the light in a box-within-a-box-within-a-box-within-a-box. He
was afraid that his daughter was ugly, and kept the light from illuminating
her. Raven heard of the man and his hidden light. Being Raven, meaning
being curious, wily and precocious, Raven sought the old man's house and,
after transforming into a boy, over time (a very long time!) won the old
man's confidence. Raven convinced the old man to open the boxes within
boxes within boxes until the light was revealed. Raven grabbed all the
light, transformed back to feathered form and flew away, escaping. But
Eagle happened by (or had been watching) and gave chase, attempting to
take the light from Raven. In the battle, the light broke into many pieces,
most of which escaped Raven's grasp and scattered into the heavens. The
smallest pieces became the stars in the night sky. One large piece of
light became the moon, bright enough to cast light upon both night and
day. But Raven managed to hold the largest piece, and this became the
sun, brightest of all celestial bodies.
I can't recall now if, when the light is initially freed from the boxes,
whether the girl is revealed as being ugly, or plain, or beautiful. I think
it's because B.J. does not include this in the story, and I do not ask.
And now, while I'm thinking on it, I realise that tying up all loose ends
in a story is a convention of modern western storytelling. The young girl
of unknown physical appearance sounds to me, to us, as a sub-plot to the
story, an element with which we can develop, perhaps, a theme of the value
of or quality of light. But in this story it is perhaps only a device for
motivating the old man to hoard and hide the light. The story is about the
light and how it came to be put in the sky. Once the light is no longer
possessed by the old man, he and his daughter are no longer essential to
But the old man and the girl appear on the totem pole, along with Raven,
in half-transformed human form, and Eagle, and the moon and sun and stars.
The cap of the totem pole is a bent wood box, the one in which the old
man kept the light.