Quill and Quire


« Back to
Book Reviews

A Story as Sharp as a Knife: An Introduction to Classical Haida Literature

by Robert Bringhurst

The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art

by Allan J. Ryan

Scene: Christmas in Victoria, the parlour of a 1914 Arts and Crafts revamp. The floors are first- growth fir, there is dark wainscotting, the ceilings are high. A chatty cocktail soirée for periodical writers who compare per word rip-offs and copyright debacles.

Woman (in her 30s, bottled raven hair, black velvet mini, tight mock turtle, take-me boots): “God, I luuuuv Bill Reid’s stuff. I wish I had some, but we didn’t know him in Toronto. West Coast wasn’t east yet. Oh I luuuuuuv his boxes. I’d kill for a ring. Silver, even.”

Man (tweed, a lot older but same hairstyle as woman): “I know a poet who used his B-grant 10 years ago on a Reid bracelet. Think what you’d get for it now!”

Woman (her mouth leaking Rye Crisp and smoked salmon): “Okay. We’ve missed Reid. The trick now is to anticipate the next Reid.”

When the late Haida master carver Bill Reid brought international recognition to Canadian native fine art, a more contemporary generation of native artists suspected a double-cross. The commodification of native art – Portfolio diversification! Growth! – places the young practitioner in a bind. The market craves traditional images, but tradition means a colonized version of Indian.

Allan J. Ryan’s The Trickster Shift looks at 15 native artists he believes “share the same esthetic” and who “constitute a loose alliance of socially active, politically aware, and professionally trained individuals of roughly the same age.” For a couple of decades, artists such as Shelley Niro, Gerald McMaster, and Joane Cardinal-Schubert have formed a “school” of art; they write and lecture on each other, curate and show with each other.

And trade one-liners. For Ryan, what defines this group is their trickster humour. Conversations with the artists, and his degrees in native studies, anthropology, and visual arts convinced Ryan there is “a sensibility, a ‘spirit,’ at work and at play” for these artists, one “grounded in a fundamentally comic world view and embodied in the traditional North American trickster” – teaser, punner, wordplayer, meaning shifter. They laugh to keep from crying.

The Trickster Shift is busy, raucous, and weighty with hip footnotes; Ryan sees no other way to capture the spirit. He jigsaws together a funny, powerful group of artists with visual images, interview transcripts, and his own analyses. And like any good postmodern (white) academic, he slips into the background to moderate the artists as they slam any “notion of Indianness.”

The artists are both critical of and obviously indebted to classical forms. Laurence Paul Yuxweluptun, whose own images blend traditional curve and line with Salvador Daliesque excess, “contests what he considers to be the unduly elevated status accorded coastal carvers.” Ryan seems to agree, since his subject ends at the Coast Mountain Range: traditional artists of the rainforest are missing. This approach seems a little like leaving Alice Munro off a short list, but the problem with tradition, says Cardinal-Schubert, is that it traps native peoples and art in a quaint and inextricable past.

Robert Bringhurst wants to remedy the past, specifically the one missing from Ryan’s study. A Story As Sharp As a Knife, which is dedicated to the memory of Bill Reid, proposes a dynamic shift in the way we consider native art, starting with Haida literature. Ryan asks that we consider “Indianness”; so does Bringhurst.

As poet and linguist, Bringhurst has assembled his own polyphony of voices to teach us Haida oral literature and how to hear, read, and interpret its achievements. The narrative thread, though, is the story of how a shy Harvard linguist came, in 1900, to record renowned Haida poets. Other ethnographers, Franz Boas included, had been impatient and only glossed over the stories they’d heard. John Swanton, though trained by Boas, recognized the lie of colonial paraphrase and hired a Haida translator to dictate to him, syllable by syllable in the original language, the poets’ words. Swanton produced thousands of pages of Haida text.

Here’s Bringhurst’s take on the importance of that: “The Haida manuscript [is] a document potentially as vital…to the future life of North American culture as any classical manuscript in the Marcian Library at Venice or the Laurentian Library at Florence is to the continuing self-renewal of the heritage of Europe. As vital and, of course, just as easy to forget.”

The poetry is good, too.

Bringhurst compares these poems – he prints the original Haida, a pronunciation guide, as well as his English translations – to the works of Haydn and Beethoven, and to Homer’s Odyssey, and Beo-wulf. He argues that North Americans must read and hear these texts as classical, as crucial, and adopt them “with full honors into the polylingual canon of North American literary history.” It is a transformative notion and Bringhurst is exceptionally persuasive. He writes with passion, clarity, poetry, and nerve. While Ryan spoils the fun with academic jargon – The Trickster Shift
You see his point.

In Ryan’s book, traditional native artists are suspect tourist feeders, shadowed by those who are more self-aware and ironic. Certainly the visual images he moderates feel charged and hot, but the power of even the trickster myth “shrinks to a cartoon,” as Bringhurst would put it. Much of the art Ryan gathers is rich and beautiful and resonant and funny, but it is also reliant on the easy pun – “500 Year Itch”; “The Diners Club (No Reservation Required)” – or slapstick run at government. Bringhurst, on the other hand, suggests we position native art where it logically and esthetically belongs: at the beginning of our list. After a measly few hundred years, it is too soon to reject tradition as a throwback to the bad times.