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Bringhurst breathes new life into old native stories

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WHO: Robert Bringhurst

WHAT: Dialogue Café

WHERE: Adele Campbell Fine Art Gallery, lower lobby level of the Delta Whistler Resort

WHEN: Sunday, Feb. 8 at 4 p.m.

There are thousands and thousands of old stories stored away in the languages of North America’s indigenous people but only a few people are uncovering the tales.

Robert Bringhurst is among the handful, blowing off the dust and breathing new life into Haida oral stories that were first written down 100 years ago.

He calls it "just marvelous stuff" that’s just as relevant today as it once was when it was when it passed down from person to person in the oral tradition. And while he admits the stories may lose some spontaneity in his translated form, his work ensures that the stories are remembered and authenticated.

"I think in every good story there are layers of information, there are layers of revelation," said Bringhurst from his home on Quadra Island this week.

"There is the human layer which is something that ties all of us together, something that’ll be essentially the same in stories wherever they’re told. There’s cultural information... that is particular to the culture, the language and the world in which the story is living... and then there’s individual information, the fingerprint of the storyteller himself.

"All of those are extremely important. Every one of those is reason to listen to the story because it’s what we share with all other humans and it’s what distinguishes one culture from another and it’s what distinguishes one human from another."

It’s this sense of value from these old stories that has pushed Bringhurst to learn the Haida language and translate the old oral literature from the turn of the 20 th century, when it was first written down.

"I’m not attempting to order a hamburger in Haida," he joked.

"I want to be able to read the transcripts that were made of the works of the great storytellers."

Bringhurst studied linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has been using it since then. He later moved to Indiana University to work on a degree of comparative literature.

He first began the challenging task learning the Haida language in the early 1980s.

He compares it to studying ancient Greek.

"You can’t learn Haida the way you learn French," he said.

"You can’t go someplace where the language is spoken by everybody. There is no such place anymore."

It can be tedious and challenging work learning a language that is no longer spoken but when the old stories come to life once again it makes the work worthwhile.

Since his work began Bringhurst has written a series of critically acclaimed books.

A Story As Sharp As A Knife was shortlisted for the 2000 Governor General’s Literary Award, and he was also shortlisted for the 2001 Griffin Poetry Prize for his work on Nine Visits to the Mythworld.

"You really have to make the effort to put yourself in the world of the Haida story teller," said Bringhurst.

"We don’t live in that world anymore. We live in a world with refrigerators and central heating and automobiles and things that were not there in 1900. That’s one of the things literature is for, one of the things story telling is for – it allows people to travel from one world to another a lot better than airplanes."

But there is a sense of urgency to his task.

There is a danger that these stories could be lost forever as native languages are eroded over time.

It was in this century that the native cultures were being systematically exterminated. And now there are challenges like TV and computers and radio. The oral tradition is not playing the same role in the culture that it was at one time.

"There’s a kind of urgency to this business of learning the stories and the responsibility is more acute... in the native world," he said.

It is crucial to share the stories, find some way of translating them from one culture to another without ruining them or watering them down or sanitizing them he said.

Bringhurst said there are roughly 500 indigenous languages stretching from the Arctic Circle to the Panama Canal. Roughly half of Canada’s 60 indigenous languages are spoken in B.C., one of the most culturally and linguistically rich areas in North America.

Indigenous people could live very close to each other in B.C. and yet have totally separate languages because of the rugged terrain.

"If you look at British Columbia, you live in an area that is incredibly rich in terms of its indigenous culture and I think it’s good for people to know something about that. But how are you going to go about it?" asked Bringhurst.

He questioned how someone growing up in a "colonial household" in a city would learn about the cultures that have been here for thousands of years.

"Story telling is the best way I know of to pass information from person to person and culture to culture," he said.

"If you grow up just in one language, in one culture, in one religion, you don’t know very much about the breadth of the human possibility, and stories are the medicine for that, and very fine medicine, very tasty medicine at that."

Bringhurst will lead off the discussion at the next Dialogue Café. Everyone is welcome to attend and talk about "Story telling in Native and Non-Native Cultures."