Sunday, 5 July 2015

How Far Will You Go to Write? asks Kathleen Jones

This is my journey to the Edge of the World, where Captain Cook accidentally stumbled into Haida Gwaii while he was looking for the Pacific exit of the fabled North West Passage.  Beyond this expanse of sand is the Pacific Ocean - the biggest mass of water on the planet;  to the north is Alaska and the North Pole.


“Where your world ends, ours begins”
Haida saying

For months I’d been feeling depressed, anxious and powerless. There seemed to be no solution to the perfect storm of economic and environmental chaos that was (and still is) approaching. My own personal life felt just as stormy and unsolvable. But at the moment when I felt most depressed, I read a book by an American poet called Robert Bringhurst. It was called A Story as Sharp as a Knife. At first what drew me to the book was the discussion about narrative. I’m a writer, and I’m fascinated by narrative. Story telling is fundamental to the human psyche, even our brains are structured to construct narratives. Every time we access a memory, our brain re-assembles its components as a story, making it slightly different every time. So this new and poetic approach to story-telling had a deep fascination.

Bringhurst was writing about a First Nation people called the Haida, who lived on remote islands off the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska, on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean. Over a hundred years ago their oral literary tradition, which had been developing for nearly ten thousand years, was transcribed by an anthropologist. Most of the stories, told as poems, had never been translated until Bringhurst began to study them. The way the Haida structured their poems and stories was quite different to the literary traditions we have here in the west, and that fascinated me.  Here was a tradition as old as the Greeks, but offering a different model to follow.
A Haida village before it was abandoned.
They also had a mythology which was not simply about a group of humans who were gods in disguise, but which was animist in origin - regarding animals as supernatural beings and placing humans firmly within the world’s ecology as a cog in the works, rather than a superior being who was in charge of it all. ‘Everything is connected to everything’, was one of the Haida sayings and it summed up their philosophy. There had to be balance in all things in order for the world to function. This was reflected in their literature too, their literary forms involved a balancing of themes and events.

I read all the translations I could source, and everything I could find out about the Haida.


Haida sculptor Bill Reid's carving of the myth 'Raven and the First Men', where the Raven finds human beings in a giant clam shell.

Here, it seemed, was a people who knew how to live in the world without killing it. Perhaps they had an answer to the ills of the twenty first century. Perhaps they could teach us how to live without destroying the planet that supports us. I knew that somehow I had to get there.

Riding the Dog - it's more than 9 hours to Port Hardy
It took a long time to find the money, but I finally made it (thanks to the Royal Literary Fund) in May 2015, flying to Vancouver, crossing over to Victoria, making my way up Vancouver Island by Greyhound bus, and finally a flight to the islands of Haida Gwaii - over a thousand miles from Vancouver. I was incredibly nervous - would I be disappointed?  Would there be anything to write about? I needn't have worried. The big surprise was that I didn't write about any of the things I'd planned;  the story I found when I got there was far bigger than anything I'd imagined.
Alison, a Haida woman in her Haida robes which she is now free to wear.
I found myself in the middle of the nation-wide debate about a process called Truth and Reconciliation - arriving on the eve of publication of an important Commission's report into the treatment of First Nation people and particularly their children.  The chair of the Commission used words such as 'cultural genocide'.  When the colonists arrived in British Columbia there were three indigenous people to every European immigrant, yet they were never consulted about what should happen to their land and laws were quickly passed (a succession of 'Indian' acts) to ensure their dispossession and marginalisation. Their traditional ceremonies were made illegal (you were imprisoned for taking part), their language forbidden and their children removed for 're-education'. One British Columbia politician actually stated that the policy was 'to kill the Indian in the child'. But what happened was that they often killed the child too.  There are those who believe the genocide was not just cultural and there's a lot of evidence on their side.

From the age of 5 to 15, children were placed in residential schools (known as the Schools of Sorrow), run by various religious and state organisations.  Many thousands of children died from neglect and cruelty.  They weren't fed or clothed properly and their emotional needs were ignored - including contact with their families.  Many thousands of others were physically and sexually abused in a manner that became routine. The last school in British Columbia closed in 1986; the last in Canada not until 1996.


In the Haida communities a population of more than 20,000 was reduced to about 500 over two decades in what became known as 'The Great Dying' as epidemics of TB and Smallpox swept through.  The Haida had become displaced, their lives disrupted, their traditional medicines and healthy lifestyles outlawed and they had become vulnerable to European infections in the same way as natural disasters all over the world often lead to outbreaks of disease. There are even stories of the deliberate infection of communities in order to solve 'the Indian problem' by removing them.
The rotting house poles at one abandoned village - Skedans
This was not the story I had come to write, but it was one I couldn't escape.  It was all around me. The abandoned villages, the tenacious survivors putting their languages and traditions back into place, using the very legal system that had dispossessed them to regain possession of their lands and their rights. What also excites me is that the First Nation people are now leading the way in the environmental battle against pollution and exploitation.  They aren't going to allow the west to trash their communities again.  No Enbridge signs were everywhere, as they fight an oil pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands that would put their World Heritage status islands, and their livelihoods, at risk. We need to give them as much support as we can.

And I had a wonderful time in the vast wildernesses of Haida Gwaii.  I slept in Margaret Atwood's bed (she loved it apparently, despite having to traipse through the kitchen to find the bathroom).


I met a multi-millionaire still driving his own taxi at the age of 89, a poet married to a bank robber (seems a good way to fund poetry!) and one of the script-writers for Frasier and House.  I had an encounter with a bear on a remote beach (well.... its footprint at least - it was too scared to introduce itself!)

Grant A Mincy wrote in The Ecologist that ‘The joy of the wild is rooted deep in the human spirit and without it our lives are starved of a vital nutrient.’ That was how I felt when I arrived, but I found the peace and calm I needed between forests and oceans. Did I find 'The Wild'? Kathleen Jamie writes that ‘Wild is a word like ‘soul’. Such a thing may not exist, but we want it, and we know what we mean when we talk about it.’  I went a long way to find it.



Now I'm writing a book about the journey, which seems to be writing itself at the moment.  Will it be any good?  Or will it be a kind of  'What I did on  my holidays' essay?  Until I finish it I've no idea, but I'm loving every moment as I re-live the experience!



Kathleen Jones is a biographer, novelist and poet who publishes on both sides of the fence.  She blogs at 'A Writer's Life', is often to be found wasting time on Facebook, and Tweets incognito as @kathyferber 

Her latest novel, which was included in 'Outside the Box',  is The Centauress, available on Amazon.


"Bereaved biographer Alex Forbes goes to war-ravaged Croatia to research the life of celebrity artist Zenobia de Braganza and finds herself at the centre of a family conflict over a disputed inheritance. At the Kaštela Visoko Alex uncovers a mutilated photograph, stolen letters and a story of indeterminate gender, passion and betrayal. But can she believe what she is being told? In order to discover the truth about Zenobia, Alex travels to Istria, Venice, New York and London and, in working through the narrative of Zenobia’s life, Alex begins to make sense of her own and finds joy and love in a new relationship."






15 comments:

Umberto Tosi said...

What a powerful story, vividly told! Good luck with the book. The Haida narrative echos that of Native American peoples everywhere, carrying over into today. Less has been written about contemporary resurgence and the struggles of such peoples today, which have become emblematic of the aspirations and challenges all who love this good earth. Your narrative will serve us all well.

Chris Longmuir said...

I agree with Umberto it is extremely powerful, sad and yet inspiring. In these modern times it is hard for us all to imagine how the colonists could have been so insensitive, and how they all but eradicated native cultures. A lot to think about. Good luck with the book, if it's as powerful as this post it's bound to be good.

Wendy Jones said...

I loved this Kathleen. What a way to get the message out. Very inspirational for a Sunday morning

Sandra Horn said...

Wonderful post! Thank you. The horrors of the past and the sadness are part of the story but not the end - it's inspiring as it goes on and gains strength.

Jan Needle said...

Marvellous stuff, Kathleen, thanks very much. Closer to home, I read that our own savages are upping the ante in their determination to destroy the BBC. The culture exterminators never sleep.

Kathleen Jones said...

Thanks everyone for being so encouraging - I feel really passionate about this, so a bit afraid of soap-box banging!
As to our own savages - it's no wonder I was in a state of despair before I went. Now I think if enough of us get together and make a loud noise ..... ?

Bill Kirton said...

The passion comes through strongly, Kathleen. It's a marvellous piece, with so many echos in other cultures where 'superior' invaders have imposed their own alien values. I'm all for making that 'loud noise' but such are the limitations of those responsible that I wonder whether they even have ears. Nonetheless, you're right. We shouldn't just let it happen. Keep us posted about the book please.

Áine said...

Thank you for bringing Bringhurst to our attention. I shall be very interested in your book and in his about the Haida and your pilgrimage to visit them. I am just finishing 'From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides' by Margaret Fay Shaw, who with her husband, John Campbell, transcribed the Gaelic songs, folklore, proverbs, folk medicine of the Hebrides for posterity. As some will remember the Highlands were "cleared" and the residents burned out of their homes, their language (Gaelic) suppressed by heavy-handed legislation - and yes, some would say they were "cleared" by "colonists" from England. In Ireland, children in the 1790s had to wear a "tally stick" around their neck. Every time they used their own language, a notch was cut in the stick and the child punished. When I was young, I went out to an island off the coast of Sea Island, Georgia, to seek out one of the remaining speakers of Gullah or Geechee. To seek out one of the last refuges of another people whose language, culture, stories were suppressed by Europeans. So, Kathleen, there is definitely a market for your work-in-progress - you have at least one customer already. I agree, yours is a wonderful piece for a Sunday morning.

Kathleen Jones said...

Thank you Bill - and Aine. I was very aware while I was in Haida Gwaii of the parallels with the Highland Clearances and the way the Irish were dispossessed. Sadly it seems to keep re-occurring. The language is really interesting - the Haida had some fascinating observations on its suppression, linking it to the land they were being separated from - the parallels with Gaelic here were blinding!

Lydia Bennet said...

Wow what an inspirational post, how adventurous you've been just going there and no wonder you are burning to tell the story. Good luck with it and I'm sure it'll be a vitally important story many of us need to hear.

Dennis Hamley said...

Yes, wonderful post, Kathleen. It's reminiscent of the Europeans in New Zealand dispossessing the Maori (a process slowly being reversed!) I don't really feel that Aaitangi Day should be a national holiday. And Jan, how right you are about the cultural exterminators. They'll be after the writers next. Well, the are already.

julia jones said...

Yes to what they've all said already. I go obsessed by Native American history when writing early Strong Winds books and I KNOW I'm going to want to read your account of the Haida

Lee said...

Kathleen, any chance you've got a spare bank robber up your sleeve? Just the person my filmmaker daughter could use ( and yes, I'm a Jewish matchmaker mama).

Susan Price said...

I come late to this, Kathleen - but it's superb!

Thank you, Aine, for your very pertinent comment - my partner is of Highland descent (though raised in Edinburgh and Fife) and I'm very aware of the bitter history of the Clearances - and the way this is repeated the world over.

The repercussions go on and on - much of the bitterness towards the English in Scotland today stems from the time of the Clearances. I have met with anti-English feeling myself - and yet I was born centuries too late to have any responsibility for the outrages committed - and of a class that was also dispossessed and persecuted by the English rich and powerful. I'm not asking the Scots to feel sorry for me here, but pointing up how complicated this whole mess is.

'The working-class of a foreign country are my friends. The rich of my own country are my enemies.'

Kathleen - lead us in making a noise!

Kathleen Jones said...

That's a fantastic quote Susan. I expect David Cameron might suspect us of communist sympathies!
Lee, unfortunately, I don't know any bank robbers, but could always ask my contacts!
Thank you Julia and Dennis for your encouraging words.