Haida Gwaii :: SEP -- OCT 2002

Subject: It Begins with the Art -- Part I
Date: Thursday, 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 and there.


12:28 Haida Canoe Shed; Old Masset, BC :: MON 23 SEP 02

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 02
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 the story.

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 the story.

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.