A Story as Sharp as a Knife – inside the vibrant art of the Haida

A new book from The Folio Society republishes an important text on the mythtellers of the indigenous North American Haida people and how this distinctive oral tradition has been preserved. The edition features a striking series of artworks from Haida artist, Don Yeomans

The visual art of the Haida, the indigenous people who mainly live on the collection of islands known as as Haida Gwaii on the coast of British Columbia and Alaska, is highly distinctive. Bold colours and block shapes give form to all manner of characters and animals – the subjects of a long-standing oral mythtelling tradition which goes back thousands of years.

The majority of what is known about these stories comes from the transcripts of linguist and ethnographer, John Swanton. Travelling to the islands in 1901, he spent three and-a-half years in the company of the last great Haida poets, Skaay and Ghandl. Together they effectively created a treasury of oral literature and helped to preserve a mythology that is rich in imagery and symbolism.

Illustration by Don Yeomans from The Folio Society edition of Story as Sharp as a Knife
Illustration by Don Yeomans from The Folio Society edition of Story as Sharp as a Knife

Examining both the culture and the story behind its preservation, a new edition of author, poet and typographer Robert Bringhurst’s A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World has has just been republished by The Folio Society in a beautiful new edition, complete with artworks by Haida artist, Don Yeomans. Bringhurst’s book was first published in 1999 and is the first volume in a trilogy called Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers.

Illustration by Don Yeomans from The Folio Society edition of Story as Sharp as a Knife
Illustration by Don Yeomans from The Folio Society edition of Story as Sharp as a Knife
Illustration by Don Yeomans from The Folio Society edition of Story as Sharp as a Knife
Illustration by Don Yeomans from The Folio Society edition of Story as Sharp as a Knife

For the Folio edition, Yeomans – who is one of the most established and respected Northwest Coast artists in Canada – created six original pieces of artwork, one to sit at the opening of each chapter and a frontispiece. “These vibrant images, steeped in Haida culture, along with researched photographs of people, places and artefacts, are another opened door, revealing the rich mythological landscape of the Haida people,” say The Folio Society. Yeomans works in two-dimensional design, wood carving, as well as gold and silver jewellery, say The Folio Society, and has mastered ‘formline’ design, the basic visual language of Haida art.

In the new book, Bringhurst – who published Elements of Typographic Style in 1992 – writes that, “a work of oral literature is rooted like a tree, in time and place and the person who is speaking…. We must try to make the pilgrimage to the poem.” The original Masterworks series features Bringhurst’s translations of oral stories, poems, and histories transcribed by American anthropologist John Reed Swanton at the turn of the twentieth century. The second volume, Nine Visits to the Mythworld (2001), is devoted exclusively to translations of Ghandl; the third volume, Being in Being (2003), collects the works of the storyteller Skaay.

Bound in cloth, blocked with a design by Don Yeomans, A Story as Sharp as a Knife (£80) is set in Arno Pro and Cronos Pro and features integrated colour and black and white images. Published by The Folio Society, it is available from foliosociety.com

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