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Bringhurst breathes new life into old native stories

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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.