A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, by Robert Bringhurst, looks like a fascinating book, and this LARB review by Matthew Spellberg describes how the Haida material came to be preserved:
In 1900, a 27-year-old American ethnographer named John Swanton, newly minted PhD from Harvard, junior employee at the Bureau of American Ethnology, and disciple of Franz Boas, arrived on Haida Gwaii to study the culture of the islands and collect artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History. Swanton met a younger Haida, fluent in English, named Henry Moody, who would act as his translator and entrée into Haida society. Moody was a prince under the old system, and he could bring Swanton into the most refined Haida households, or at least what remained of them. By the end of the 19th century, nine-tenths of the Haida had fallen victim to ecological destruction and disease, especially smallpox. By 1900 the ancient villages, some of the largest pre-agricultural settlements in history, were cemeteries of fallen house-poles and rotting cedar-plank lodges. The survivors of the holocaust lived in two clapboard missionary towns.
Swanton realized that transcribing stories was the most important task he could set himself to while on the islands. He was a hard worker and a patient, self-effacing listener — a man who lived for a year on Haida Gwaii “as if nothing in the world were more important than to record what a Native American oral poet wanted to say in precisely the way that poet wanted to say it.” For six hours a day, six days a week, Swanton took dictation. His Haida informants would tell their stories a few phrases at a time. Then, Henry Moody, at Swanton’s side, would repeat slowly what they had said, and Swanton would transcribe the poetry into a phonetic alphabet of Boas’ devising. The Haida spoke a language that had never existed before in writing, except as the vessel for evangelical tracts and Bible passages.
Swanton believed that stories ought to be recorded exactly as they were told, in the original language, preserving the storyteller’s vocabulary and syntax. He did not believe that there was a single version for each myth in a culture; he thought that a storyteller’s variations on a story were conscious artistic choices, not mere corruptions of the original. In this he differed from Boas and most of his colleagues, who preferred to make English prose reductions of the myths, trying to distill some elusive standard version of each story. Swanton’s Haida texts are thus some of the only unadulterated mythtellers’ works to survive the eclipse of classical North American Indian culture.
Bringhurst doubles down on Swanton’s convictions: his trilogy champions the exact words of Native American poets, and makes the sweeping claim that those words are — niceties of cultural relativism be damned — products of artistic genius. The result is a true widening of the canon of world literature.
Swanton is a true hero who should be better remembered, and good for Bringhurst for presenting the material with such care. (He’s apparently been “criticized for his apparent use of western categories like ‘art’ and ‘genius’ to describe non-Western cultural practices,” to which I say “Bah, humbug!” Spellberg has a more thoughtful response, and the whole review is well worth your while.)