Haida Manga: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas


This Magazine

Cultural Worker: a random review of alternative culture

January 1, 2003

About a year ago, the owner of a multilingual bookstore in Vancouver cornered me. He was brandishing a copy of a thin, illustration-heavy book and commanding me to read it. I did and it knocked my socks off.

Published by Theytus, a small British Columbia publisher of aboriginal titles, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas's A Tale of Two Shamans is a black and white comic/narrative hybrid based on traditional Haida legends. The work deftly interweaves three traditional (and rude) Haida stories with dark, playful representations of elders with Stalin moustaches, scrotums growing out of a shaman's armpits and sundry semi-scatological blasphemies.

Yahgulanaas believes that many people have misconceptions about Haida narratives. "It's like the 'woman meets bear has kid' stereotype of Haida legends or stories," he says. "The stories are far more complicated than that."

He argues that the iconography that defines most people's image of Haida culture is not art in the hang-on-a-wall museum sense at all. In Yahgulanaas' view, the geometric animal shapes are, like the hybridized iconography of his own pictures, part of a visual language that understands everything in the world is a metaphor.

"For the Haida," he says, "a smudged cloud on an ocean horizon carried a message that could mean the difference between a safe or a final crossing. There was a time when this system of signs was displayed in every town inland for many hundreds of miles—all along the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to Washington State."

On Haida Gwaii (a.k.a. the Queen Charlotte Islands), Yahgulanaas adds, even houses are placed in "relationship to their cosmological and physical world, not positioned helter-skelter based on how many metres of sewage pipe they happen to have."

The Last Voyage of the Black Ship, Yahgulanaas's new book, is also a legend in comic strip form. Yahgulanaas describes it as Manga, the Japanese word for comic, both because of the connection he sees between Japanese culture and that of the Haida and also because of the way North American high culture looks down on comics. In what might be a sign that this prejudice is waning, the University of British Columbia's Anthropology museum, home to a giant collection of aboriginal art, recently purchased all of the original panels for Last Voyage.

Co-published by Vancouver-based environmental activist group, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, Last Voyage is much more overtly political than Yahgulanaas's earlier works. It's an original, legend-like story that traces the devastating impact clear-cutting of red cedar forests has had on Haida Gwaii.

Yahgulanaas is clear about his motivation for hooking up with the Wilderness Committee and the central importance of the logging issue on Haida Gwaii. "The forest is shrinking far faster than it can regenerate," Yahgulanaas says. "Changing the land has the same impact on us as physically removing us from that land. And Canadian institutions expend great effort to keep Haida society away from the levers of power."

Yahgulanaas has a long history of political involvement. For many years he was an elected Chief Councillor of the Old Massett Village Council and a member of the Council of the Haida Nation. Of the pile of pieces he plunked on my office floor, one of my favorites was a playful poster-size comic series encouraging Haida citizens to get help from the nation's legal aid program. Featuring a pair of cherubs adrift in the legal wilderness, the posters are a far cry from the earnest aesthetic of most social service agency advertising. (Yahgulanaas is also quick to point out that the program the posters advertised was recently killed by B.C. Liberal government cutbacks.) And, with the forest disappearing, local salmon being infected by sea lice bred in fish farms, a looming constitutional battle with the province over off-shore sea bed jurisdiction and an ongoing title claim, it's likely that advocacy will remain a key component in Yahgulanaas's multi-faceted artistic arsenal.