Brick 65/66

The Sealion Hunter


Translated by Robert Bringhurst
Brick 65/66

Introduction to “The Sealion Hunter”

Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas was a Haida speaking mythteller, born around 1851 in the Haida village of Qaysun, “Sealion Town.” It is an empty beachfront now, but it was home, in the early nineteenth century, to three hundred people or more, and it was then only one of some forty big villages peppering the thousand-mile coast of an archipelago known as Xhaaydla Gwaayaay. No such places are now listed in official gazetteers. Qaysun is an unmarked spot near the northwest corner of an island known as Moresby, in a cluster of islands mapped as the Queen Charlottes and locally known as Haida Gwaii, south of the southern tip of Alaska and west of the British Columbia mainland. On the map and in the tax collector’s ledgers, these islands are a part of Canada, the Commonwealth of Nations and the continent of North America. Ghandl did not know or use these names. He knew instead the land, the plants, the animals of the islands, the speech of his own people, and the ever-present, ever-changing sea. Qaysun is on the edge of the continental shelf, facing seven thousand miles of open ocean.

It was at Hlghagilda (now Skidegate), in November 1900, that Ghandl dictated the texts I have translated as Nine Visits to the Mythworld. John Reed Swanton, a linguist, commissioned him to tell the stories and hired another Haida, Henry Moody, to serve as the principal listener. Ghandl dictated, usually six hours a day, six days a week, for roughly three weeks. Moody repeated his words sentence by sentence, hour by hour, and Swanton wrote them down in laborious but usually quite accurate phonetics. Early the next year, Swanton and Moody went over the transcripts word by word to make a literal interlinear translation. Those interlinear translations would be very welcome now, as the best record of how Henry Moody understood what Ghandl said. But after Swanton used these interlinears, in 1902-3, to make his running prose translation, he apparently destroyed them. What we have to work with now are the Haida texts as Swanton typed them, in Washington, DC, in 1902, and his English prose translations.

Tradition is important in Native American cultures, as it is in every functioning culture, but the major works of Native American literature are major works of art, and the makers of these works are every bit as individual as any artists anywhere. It seems to me quite wrong to describe such works as “folklore” or as “Indian legends.” They are never, at root, anonymous. Nor are they works of corporate authorship, mindlessly recited by nameless, faceless agents of the tribe. If Ghandl’s poems are folk tales, then the paintings of Andrea Mantegna are folk art and the sonatas of Franz Schubert are folk music. None of these works could come to be without the force of a living tradition, but none of them is the fruit of tradition alone.

Erna Gunther, a respected and respectful anthropologist, worked for many years among the Coast Salish peoples of Puget Sound, a thousand miles south of Haida Gwaii. In 1925, she published Klallam Tales, an anthology of stories told to her in the Klallam language—but the stories were interpreted on the spot by a multilingual colleague and written down in English only. Gunther makes a point of naming the narrator of each story, but she did not record as Swanton did, any narrator’s actual words. Gunther presupposed—correctly, I am sure—that stories told by Klallam individuals could give her a kind of insight into the mind of the Klallam nation as a whole. But I am puzzled by another of her assumptions—one widely shared by some in the present day. Gunther says in the introduction to her book that “One of the problems in the study of oral literature is the influence of the narrator on the literary style of the story.”

I imagine that by reading French or Russian novels I can learn quite a bit about the mind of the French or Russian nation. It would not, however, usually occur to me to say that one of the problems in the study of written literature is the influence of the writer. The effect of the narrator on the story is a problem in the same sense that the hinges are a problem for the door.

Are individuals in cultures that are literate always predisposed to undervalue those in cultures that are oral? I do not know. I know however that the habit can be broken and the prejudice unlearned. Jeremiah Curtin, who died in 1906, was one of the earliest outsiders to make a serious study of Native American oral literature. Curtin understood quite well the vital role of individual creativity in the work of Seneca, Wintu, Yana and Kiksht-speaking mythtellers he knew. Edward Sapir, who began serious work with Native American texts in the same year Curtin died, registered his own enlightenment on this point a few years later, in a tribute to Saayaacchapis, his old Nuuchahnulth teacher. Melville Jacobs made a similar discovery working with Sahaptin, Kiksht, Hanis, and Miluk speakers in the 1920s and early 1930s. Other writers have experienced equal revelations through contact with other oral cultures elsewhere in the world. Marcel Griaule’s account of what he learned in Africa in 1946 from his Dogon tutor Ogotemmêli, and Victor Turner’s vivid portrait of Muchona, his Ndembu teacher, are two notable examples.

Ghandl is not here now to show us all, in person, how an individual talent interacts with the tradition in an oral culture, but it is also possible to learn this lesson less directly, through the study and comparison of artefacts or texts. Bill Reid, who taught me much of what I know of Haida art, was intensely aware of the identities of carvers who had died before he was born. He knew the older masters through their works, although he never knew their names. Dell Hymes’s detailed studies of Native American texts, conducted over nearly half a century, point strongly in the same direction. When we study Native American art as art and Native American literature as literature, this is where we head. We learn that the insights and the styles of individual human beings are essential to the symbiotic life of the tradition. Then we can accept them as a treasure, not a problem.

That spark of recognition is dimmed, if not extinquished, where the works are not transcribed in the mythteller’s actual language. The major literary works in nearly every Native American language are now apparently condemned to a life lived mostly in translation. But translation that is too quick and easy strips the other’s otherness away. And when you take the other’s otherness away, the other’s sameness and humanity go too.

Like Shakespeare’s plays or Rembrandt’s paintings, Ghandl’s poems reach far beyond the world in which their maker lived, yet they never lose their touch with the environment he knew. Ghandl makes the story quintessentially Haida at the same time that he makes it his alone. He roots it in the heart and in the ground that is his home. That is how he makes it human, and thereby universally germane.

The Sealion Hunter

A MASTER CARVER HAD FATHERED
     two children, they say.

They saw game on the reefs,
so he made the harpoon.
He bound it with cord, they tell me.
He used something strong for this purpose, they say.
And he put a detachable barb on the shaft.

They herded the sealions into a pool on top of a reef,
and he was the one who harpooned them.
One thrust, and he pulled out the shaft
and fastened another barb on the end.
This is the way he killed sealions, they say.

When he had been doing this for a while,
they paddled out early one day
and they put him ashore on the reef.
Then they pushed off
and left him.

His wife’s youngest brother turned toward him.
There in the midst of the crew, he tugged at their paddles.
He struggled against them.

The hunter was watching.
He called them again and again.
They paid no attention.

They were unable to kill the sealions.
He was the only one who could do it.
That is the reason they left him, they say.

Alone on the top of the rock, he wept for his children.
He wept for a while,
and then he lay down by the pool.

After he lay there in silence awhile,
something said to him,
<<A headman asks you in.>>

He looked around him.
Nothing stood out,
but he noticed that, there in the pool, something went under.

When he had lain there a little while longer,
something said the same thing again.
Then, they say, he peeked through the eye
of the marten-skin cape he was wearing.
Then he saw a pied bill grebe break the surface of the pool.

After swimming there awhile,
it said, <<A headman asks you in,>>
and then it went under.

HE WRAPPED his fingers round the whetstone
that he wore around his neck,
and he leaped into the pool, they say.

He found himself in front of a large house,
and they invited him inside.
He went in,
and there they asked him,
<<Why is it you are murdering so many of my women?>>

He answered,
<<I have done what I have done
in order to give food to my two children.>>

In a pool in a corner of the house,
he saw two baby killer whales spouting.
Those, they say, were the headman’s children, playing.
In all four corners of the house, he saw
the dorsal fins of killer whales
hanging up in bunches.

Then, however, they offered him food.
There was a sealion sitting near the door.
They dragged it to the center.

They lifted the cooking rocks out of the fire
and dropped them down its throat.
They dropped a halibut down the throat of the sealion too.
When the halibut was cooked, they say,
they set it there before him.

When the meal was over,
they brought one of the fins down from the corner.
They heated the base of the fin.

When they made him bend over,
he slung the whetstone around so it hung down his back.
When they tried to fasten the fin to his spine,
it fell off.
The fin lay on the stone floorplanks, quivering.

They went to get another.
They heated that one also, right away,
and they forced him to bend over.

Again he moved the whetstone.
When they tried to fasten the fin to his spine,
it fell off like the other,
and it dropped onto the stone floor of the house.

Then they got another.
When the same thing happened yet again,
they went and got a tall one.

After they had warmed it there awhile,
they forced him to bend over once again.
He moved the whetstone round again.
When they tried to fasten that one to his spine,
it too fell shuddering on the stone floor of the house.

After they had tried four times,
they gave it up.
<<Let him go,>> the headman said.
<<He refuses the fin.
Put him into a sealion’s belly.>>

Then the headman told him what to do.
<<After you have drifted here and there awhile,
and after you have washed ashore four times,
let yourself out.
You will find that you have come to a fine country.>>

They put him into a sealion’s paunch right away.
He sewed it shut from the inside,
and they set him adrift.

WHEN he had floated on the ocean for a while
and washed ashore for the fourth time,
he crawled out.
He had drifted ashore on a sandy beach.

He sewed the paunch up tight from the outside,
and he put it in the water.
It faced upwind
and disappeared to seaward.

Then he walked in the direction of the village.
He waited until nightfall on the outskirts of the town.
After dark, he peeked in at his wife.

His wife had singed her hair off.
He saw soot stains on her face.
He saw that both his children sat there too.

He tapped against the wall just opposite his wife.
She came outside.
He said to her, <<Bring me my tools.>>

She brought him what he asked for.
<<Don’t tell anyone I’m here,>> he said.
<<Don’t even tell the children.>>

When he left that place,
he grabbed another of the children who were playing there.
He took the child up the hill.

AFTER walking for a while,
he came to a big lake.
There was a tall redcedar standing on the shore.

He cut the trunk across the front.
When he made another cut across the back,
the cedar dropped across the surface of the water.

He split it from the butt end.
After splitting it part way,
he braced it open.

Then he stripped and twisted cedar limbs,
splicing them together to make line.
When the line was long enough,
he tied the child to one end.
Then he lowered it into the lake
between the split halves of the tree.

After letting it touch bottom,
he jigged with it awhile.
Then the line began to jerk,
and he began to haul it in.
By then the lake was boiling.

Its forepaws broke the surface first.
When its head broke the surface just behind them,
he sprang the trap by kicking out the brace.

The creature thrashed and struggled.
He clubbed it again and again,
until he had killed it.

Then he pulled it from the trap.
He touched his knifepoint to its throat,
but then a lightning bolt exploded,
so he started his cut instead from the base of the tail.

He skinned it.
He liked the way its tail looked especially.
It was curled.

Then he built a fire,
and he dried and tanned the skin.
It was a Seawolf that he caught, they say.

After he had tanned it,
he rolled it up
and packed it back to town.

On the outskirts of town stood a hollow redcedar.
He hid it in there.
He put moss over top of it.

THEN he walked away from the edge of the village.
He carved redcedar into the forms of killer whales.
He fitted them with dorsal fins
and pushed them under water with his feet and let them go.

Just out beyond low tide mark, some bubbles rose.
Then he said, <<You’re on your own.
Go wherever you can live.>>

Those are harbor porpoises, they say.

Next he carved some western hemlock
into the forms of killer whales.
When he had ten of them,
he pushed them under water with his feet and let them go.

After they had left,
bubbles rose a little farther seaward.
After that he turned it over in his mind.

Then he said, <<You’re on your own.
Go wherever you can live.>>
Those are Dall’s porpoises, they say.

All this time, the weather was good, they say,
and as long as it lasted, the men were out fishing.

ON THE FOLLOWING DAY, after thinking again
about what he would use,
he made ten killer whales out of yew wood.

Their skins were shiny black and splashed with white,
their underbellies white,
and they had white patches up behind their mouths.

The dorsal fin of one was nicked along the fore edge.
The dorsal fin of one hooked backward toward the tail.
As he was making them, they moved.

He laid down skids for them to rest on.
Then he launched them,
and he pushed them with his feet to deeper water.
Bubbles rose a long time later, out at sea.

Then he called them in
and hauled them up on shore.
They had snapper, salmon and halibut in their jaws.

EVENING came again,
and he went to see his wife.
Once again he peeked inside,
and then he tapped on the wall beside his wife.
She came outside.

He said to her, <<Tell your youngest brother
he ought to wear a feather in his hair
when the men go fishing in the morning.>>

Next day, when they were fishing,
he gave the killer whales their instructions.
<<Do away with all the humans who are fishing.
Rub your fins on their canoes,
and only save the one who wears a feather in his hair.>>

Then he nudged them to sea with his feet, they say.
Bubbles rose a while later,
seaward of where the canoes were riding at anchor.

Then the killer whales closed in on the canoes.
Bubbles rose among the boats.
The killer whales rubbed against them with their fins
and chewed the canoes and humans to pieces.
Only one, who wore a feather in his hair, continued swimming.

When the whales had destroyed them all,
the one who wore a feather in his hair
climbed aboard a chewed canoe,
and the pod of whales brought him to the shore.
They left him on the beach in front of town.

THEN he called the killer whales again.
He told them what to do.

He said to one who had a knothole in his fin,
<<Pierced Fin will be your name.>>
To one whose fin was wavy, he said,
<<Your name will be Rippled Fin.>>

Then he told them this:
<<Go to House Point.
Make your homes there.
That is a fine country.
People of the Strait will be your name.>>

Then he went to see his wife
with fish the killer whales had brought him in their mouths.
Both of his children were happy to see him.

WHEN he had been in the village awhile,
he went outside
while others were still sleeping.

He dressed in the Seawolf skin.
There at the edge of the village, he reached out
and touched the water with one paw,
and he had half of a spring salmon.

His mother-in-law, who nagged him all the time,
always got up early in the morning.
He laid the salmon down at the door of her house.

Early in the morning, she came out.
She found the chunk of salmon
and was happy.

That night again, he dressed in the Seawolf skin.
He went into the water up to the elbow.
He came back with half a halibut.

He set it down beside his mother-in-law’s door.
She found it in the morning.
The people of the village had been hungry up till then, they say.

Again that night, he dressed in the skin of the Seawolf.
He put his foreleg all the way into the water,
and he got a whole spring salmon.
He set it at the woman’s door as well,
and she found it in the morning.

He dressed again the next night in the Seawolf skin,
and then he let the water come over his back.
He brought in the jaw of a humpback whale
and left it at his mother-in-law’s door.
She was very pleased to find it there.

HIS MOTHER-IN-LAW started to perform
as a shaman then, they say.
They fasted side by side with her for four nights.
He was with them too, they say.
It was his voice that started speaking through her —
through the mother of his wife.

The next night again, he got inside the Seawolf.
He swam seaward.
He killed a humpback whale.
Fangs stuck out of the nostrils of the Seawolf.
Those are what he killed it with, they say.

He put it up between his ears
and carried it to shore.
He put it down in front of the house.
She had predicted
that a whale would appear.

And again, as they were sleeping,
he went out inside the Seawolf.
He got a pair of humpback whales.

He brought them back to shore.
He carried one between his ears
and the other draped across the base of his tail.
He swam ashore with them
and set them down again in front of the house.

When night came again,
he swam way out to sea inside the Seawolf.
He got ten humpback whales.

He carried several bundled up between his ears.
He carried others in a bunch at the base of his tail.
He had them piled on his body,
and he put one in his mouth.
He started swimming toward the shore.

He was still out at sea when daylight came, they say,
and when he came up on the beach,
the mother of his wife was there to meet him
in the headdress of a shaman.

He stepped outside the Seawolf skin.
<<Why,>> he asked her, <<are there spearpoints in your eyes?
Does the spirit being speaking through you
get some help from me?>>
She died of shame from what he said, they say.

THE SEAWOLF SKIN swam out to sea alone.
Then the hunter took the string of whales
and said that no one was to touch them.

The sale of those whales made him rich, they say.
And then he held ten feasts in honor, so they say,
of the youngest brother of his wife.
He made a prince of him.

This is where it ends.

“The Sealion Hunter” and Robert Bringhurst’s introduction appeared in Brick 65/66.
From the book Nine Visits to the Mythworld, by Ghandl and Robert Bringhurst, published in 2000 by Douglas & McIntyre: an imprint of D&M Publishers Inc. Reprinted with permission from the publisher and author.

Brick 65/66