Non-Fiction November 2018: Week Three (Haida Mythtellers)

Non-Fiction November is hosted this year by Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Julie (JulzReads), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Katie (Doing Dewey) and Rennie (What’s Nonfiction).

It’s a month-long celebration of everything nonfiction with a different prompt and a different host each week.

Week 3 is hosted by Julie @ JulzReads: Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert.

Of the options, I’m putting out the call for good non-fiction about indigenous peoples.

And here’s one I really enjoyed reading, to start things off!

For years, Robert Bringhurst’s book about Haida mythtellers was on my TBR (if I remember correctly, it was originally recommended by Margaret Atwood, which is perfect, because this November also happens to be Margaret Atwood Reading Month).

This summer, I finally read it, taking my time, reading just a few pages in a sitting.

Robert Bringhurst’s A Story as Sharp as a Knife: Haida Mythtellers and Their World (1999)

Suggesting that we think of the hundreds of oral literatures indigenous to North America as “parts of the old-growth forest of the human minds”, Robert Bringhurst’s passion for these stories is palpable.

He likens the act of reading these stories as being more like reading musical notes or reading paintings than it is like reading books. And he believes that, just as one doesn’t necessarily understand string sonatas by only listening to one – but, rather, by listening to some Mozart and some Haydn and Beethoven and and and – it’s only by listening to a variety of Haida mythtellers and a variety of their stories that one can gain a sense of the depth and breadth of their art.

Nonetheless, A Story as Sharp as a Knife offers readers an introduction to the field, considering the work of ethnographers and the recorded tales they were told. Some portions of the tales are presented in the written indigenous language, with translations alongside or following, but most are presented in translation, in a kind of verse that feels both epic and accessible.

And even when the stories themselves feel strange and disorienting, the way that Bringhurst describes them feels like another artist’s vision: “In its lovely glove of words, Skaay’s poem has the structure of five fingers, or four fingers and a thumb. If we are experienced listeners, that is enough. We imagine the palm, the invisible bones that join in a wrist; we remember the echoes, allusions and names that link these poems, and the larger poem they make.”

If you are looking to add another dimension to your reading about indigenous peoples, this volume is engaging and informative.

Do you have an indigenous author or story to recommend? Are you reading with Non-fiction November in mind?



  1. Katie Wilkins (@DoingDewey) November 22, 2018 at 8:19 pm - Reply

    The closest books I’ve read to this topic are: The Indian World of George Washington, which is mostly about native Americans, but mostly from the perspective of their interactions with British colonists/early Americans; and A Warrior of the People, which was a great book about the first Native American to graduate from an American medical school.

    • Buried In Print November 25, 2018 at 5:00 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Katie. Joe Starita’s biography sounds like something that I would enjoy reading. I feel like my interest in American founding fathers, even tangentially, is strained these days (with so much talk of American politics crossing our border since 2016, more than usual) that I think I’ll start with that one for now, but I’ll keep the Washington one in mind for another time! 🙂

  2. WordsAndPeace November 16, 2018 at 9:00 pm - Reply

    neat, I had never heard about Haida Mythtellers, thanks!
    My post is here:

    • Buried In Print November 19, 2018 at 3:36 pm - Reply

      Thanks for stopping by, W&P. I enjoyed reading your post about books on books. Hope you find some new faves there.

  3. The Paperback Princess November 15, 2018 at 10:37 pm - Reply

    Ohhh this could result in a lot of difficult reads for you but I applaud the effort.

    I’ve only dipped my toe into this area – I have Bob Joseph’s 21 Things You Didn’t Know About the Indian Act on my shelf right now, hoping to read it this month. I really think everyone should read Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers, about the deaths of seven Indigenous youths who had moved to Thunder Bay to get a highschool education and how no one has done anything to figure out what happened, or how to prevent the same from happening again.

    And not a book but have you listened to Connie Walker’s CBC podcast, Missing and Murdered?

    • Buried In Print November 16, 2018 at 4:48 pm - Reply

      That’s a good one! My review’s here. Feel free to respond with a link to yours too: I do remember, now, that you were terrifically impressed.

      And, yes, yes, yes!!! I absolutely love that podcast. It’s one of my favourites. I’m actually trying to figure out how to post about it (despite it’s not being a “print” thing in which I’ve been buried in)! Have you listened to the “Somebody Knows Something” series about the American civil rights movement? (I know, I know, not exactly on topic, but justice-related.)

  4. Naomi November 15, 2018 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    Not quite the same thing, but this book that James reviews came to mind…
    And this one…
    I would like to read them both!

    • Buried In Print November 16, 2018 at 4:42 pm - Reply

      Those are good ones; I didn’t have the one about eastern indigenous peoples on my list; the other one is the one that I was trying to remember when we were chatting about indigenous peoples and literatures back-channel re: Survival. Let me know if you pick one up in the next while!

  5. callista83 November 15, 2018 at 10:20 am - Reply

    Unfortunately I don’t have any indigenous books to recommend but I’m sure your book would be interesting as the stories they tell can be captivating.

    • Buried In Print November 15, 2018 at 10:41 am - Reply

      That’s why I included one book here myself, just in case the topic was completely new to other readers and maybe it would spark a new reading interest! Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Brona November 15, 2018 at 5:35 am - Reply

    I see that Sue from Whispering Gums has already jumped in with the Australian connection, so I will leave you in her very capable hands 🙂

    • Buried In Print November 15, 2018 at 8:43 am - Reply

      And how did I not notice that you are from the same neck of the woods as Whispering Gums?! Silly me.

  7. BookerTalk November 12, 2018 at 9:32 am - Reply

    What an interesting subject you’ve chosen. I’m realising mine is going to be very dull and worthy sounding in comparison

    • Buried In Print November 14, 2018 at 4:36 pm - Reply

      That made me very curious indeed, and I would never have guessed what it was. (And won’t say, so that others can now quietly invent their own subjects for you as well!)

  8. whisperinggums November 12, 2018 at 6:23 am - Reply

    Oh dear, I think my Weeks 1-3 were taken from the wrong year? How did I do that? I must have clicked on some wrong link. Oh well, I’ll try to get Weeks 4-5 right.

    Last year I did my Expert one on indigenous issues. There’s a lot of great writing about indigenous issues in Australia right now. I was wondering what I would do this year, but now I don’t have to because I did a different Weeks 1-3! haha. However, if I did have to think for this year, I might have chosen Historiography as it’s an issue that appeals to me, and I have couple fo relevant books on my TBR. I might mention it in my Week 5 response.

    • Buried In Print November 14, 2018 at 4:35 pm - Reply

      That’s a topic I didn’t even knew existed until I was almost finished my university studies and I immediately felt as though I wanted to start over and head down that path instead (and managed to twist all remaining essays in that direction after that point): it’s one of those instances in which I felt I had been given a word for something I had always been intuitively drawn to without being able to articulate what was so fascinating about the idea! I think one could choose indigenous issues for a number of years before one had even begun to uncover the stories which need to be told and heard. Whatever you decide to do and un-do for the month, I know there are plenty of good recommendations in there and out there, so it will work out just fine!

      • whisperinggums November 15, 2018 at 12:38 am - Reply

        I think you’re right Buried re indigenous issues.

        Re a topic existing, do your mean historiography? I did a fascinating course in second year university called Man (!) on His Past which was all about historiography – it opened my eyes and Ive been interested eve since.

        As for doing and undoing my first three weeks, I’m just going to do the “right” ones for the last two weeks of the month and leave it at that. It’s all about the conversation in the end isn’t it.

        • Buried In Print November 15, 2018 at 8:43 am - Reply

          So you hadn’t realized the word existed either (yes, that’s the word I meant)? It was the subject of a course in my last year of school (whereupon it might not have been too late to adjust and include if my situation had been different, but I had to take loans to go to school and was working 40 hours a week the entire time and reaching my limit in every way) and I was just floored by the concept. I bought and read the texts for that course, and chose topics related to the idea whenever I could in the remaining courses I studied) but I would have loved to have studied it properly!

          That sounds like an excellent approach. It is all about the conversation and, honestly, the topics overlap very quickly. Just last night I was recommending novels to go with people’s non-fiction suggestions. Oh, wait, I guess that’s my fault. Heheh

  9. A Life in Books November 12, 2018 at 3:52 am - Reply

    This sounds absolutely fascinating, and beautifully expressed too. I love the idea of a ‘lovely glove of words’.

    • Buried In Print November 14, 2018 at 3:22 pm - Reply

      He is a beautiful writer, definitely, and his inherent respect for the culture and the artistry (and the respect of the individuals whose work he studies, whether the creators or the ethnographers, too) makes it feel like a very powerful reading experience.

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