The Haida are a native people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, and this book documents some of their myths and legends that remain to us. It is beautifully illustrated by Bill Reid, and written by him and Robert Bringhurst. It’s published by the University of Washington Press (Seattle and London), and a new copy will set you back something in the region of £11:00, or $16:68.
There are nine myths in this book, but it begins with a preface by Claude Levi-Strauss, a prologue by Bill Reid and an explanation about where Haida Gwaii is and the fact that you may have heard of the islands by a different name. All three are worth reading, to get a little context for the stories that follow – because there are no explanations for the meanings of these myths. They’re presented as they are, and I think without reading these first three sections you may feel a little lost at times unless you already know something of the Haida people.
The myths themselves are beautifully written – normally I have a tendency to ’embellish’ (read; completely subvert) myths when I tell them, but with these I couldn’t change a thing. They hop from funny to mysterious to weird (and kinda gross) to terribly sad, but never once boring. They begin with myths about the great trickster God Raven, and then move on to a few myths about other Deities, Spirits and humans before returning to Raven (because you have to return to Raven. He’s fantastic). Best of all, each tale begins with a beautiful traditional Haidan illustration. I’ve been a fan of this style of art since my early twenties; there’s so much detail and life in it. It’s the sort of art you just sit and look at, reading the entire story in that one image.
If you are hoping for a feel-good read, skip the epilogue. It’s called The Dogfish Woman, and if it doesn’t break your heart then there’s something wrong with you. It does end with a flicker of hope, but by then you’re too crushed to notice. I’m not American or Canadian and don’t know as much about the struggles of Their native peoples as any readers I may have from that area of the world, but I suspect it is very difficult to write a book on native mythology without mourning the loss of so much of the culture and legends of those people.
This book is poetic, engaging and tantalizing – something the Raven approves of entirely, no doubt. I would love to read more – more myths, explanations for those myths, how they impact Haidan culture…In fact, if anyone has a book they can recommend to me, I’d be very grateful! Likewise, if anyone has also read this book, or has any further thoughts, I’d love to hear from you.