The Spirit Concert:
The Spirit Of Haida Gwaii
by Bill Reid
Here we are at last, a long way from Haida Gwaii, not too sure where we are
or where we're going, still squabbling and vying for position in the boat,
but somehow managing to appear to be heading in some direction; at least the
paddles are together, and the man in the middle seems to have some vision of
what is to come.
As for the rest, they are superficially more or less what they always
were, symbols of another time when the Haidas, all ten thousand of them, knew
they were the greatest of all nations.
The Bear, as he sits in the bow of the boat, broad back deflecting any
unfamiliar, novel or interesting sensation, eyes firmly and forever fixed on
the past, tries to believe that things are still as they were. The Bear
Mother, being human, is looking over his shoulder into the future, concerned
more with her children than with her legend. After all, they wandered in from
another myth, the one about Good Bear and Bad Bear and how they changed, so
she has to keep a sharp eye on them.
Next, doughtily paddling away, hardworking if not very imaginative, the
compulsory Canadian content, big teeth and scaly tail, perfectly designed for
cutting down trees and damming rivers.
And here she is, still the ranking woman of noble birth, yielding no
place to the pretty Bear Mother. In spite of her great cheeks like monstrous
scars, her headdress reflecting the pointed shape of the dogfish head, and
her grotesque labret - in spite of all these, the most desirable and
fascinating woman from myth-time. More magical than the Mouse Woman, as
mysterious as the deep ocean waters which support the sleek, sinuous fish
from whom she derives her power, she stands aloof from the rest, the enormous
concentration of her thoughts smouldering smoke dreams behind her
Tucked away in the stern of the boat, still ruled by the same obsession
to stay concealed in the night shadows and lightless caves and other pockets
of darkness, in which she spends her immortality, the Mouse Woman lost her
place among the other characters of her own myth, an important part of the
Bear Mother story, and barely squeezed in at the opposite end of the boat,
under the tail of the Raven. No human, beast or monster has yet seen her in
the flesh, so she may or may not look like this.
Not so the Raven. There is no doubt what he looks like in this
myth-image: exactly the same as he does in his multiple existences as the
familiar carrion bird of the northern latitude of the earth. Of course he is
the steersman. So, although the boat appears to be heading in a purposeful
direction, it can arrive anywhere the Raven's whim dictates.
A culture will be remembered for its warriors, artists, heroes and
heroines of all callings, but in order to survive it needs survivors. And
here is our professional survivor, the Ancient Reluctant Conscript, present
if seldom noticed in all the turbulent histories of men on earth. When our
latter-day kings and captains have joined their forebears, he will still be
carrying on, stoically obeying orders and performing the tasks allotted to
him. But only up to a point. It is also he who finally says, "Enough!" And
after the rulers have disappeared into the morass of their own excesses, it
is he who builds on the rubble and once more gets the whole thing going.
The Wolf of the Haidas was a completely imaginary creature, perhaps
existing over there on the mainland, but never seen on Haida Gwaii.
Nevertheless, he was an important figure in the crest hierarchy. Troublesome,
volatile, ferociously playful, he can usually be found with his sharp fangs
embedded in someone's anatomy. Here he is vigorously chewing on the Eagle's
wing while that proud, imperial, somewhat pompous bird retaliates by
attacking the Bear's paws.
That accounts for everybody except the Frog who sits partially in and
partially out of the boat and above the gunwales: the ever-present
intermediary between two of the worlds of the Haidas, the land the sea.
So there is certainly no lack of activity in our little boat, but is
there any purpose? Is the tall figure who may or may not be the Spirit of
Haida Gwaii leading us, for we are all in the same boat, to a sheltered beach
beyond the rim of the world as he seems to be, or is he lost in a dream of
his own dreamings? The boat moves on, forever anchored in the same place.
Spirit Concert story
This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.