Forgotten Heroes: Ghandl and Skaay

Forgotten Heroes is a series of posts about extraordinary men and women who are (probably) not remembered by the average person.  Previous heroes include John Howard, Alvin Ratz Kaufman and Fred and Cela Sloman

If you know of a forgotten hero who should be included in this series let me know about him or her in the comment section or via my contact form

Time: November 1900

Place: British Columbia

Ghandl of the Quysun Aqyahl Llaanas and Skaay of the Quuna Quiighawaay were some of the last traditional oral storytellers of the Haida people.  Both men were exquisite poets who were keeping the oral traditions of their people alive. Both men were also handicapped. Ghandl lost his sight in what we believe was either a smallpox or measles outbreak in the 1890s. The records aren’t clear but both diseases are known to have this effect on some people.

Skaay had been active and vigorous as a young man but by 1900 was described as crippled. I wasn’t able to find out what happened or the specifics of his injuries.

War and waves of diseases like smallpox and the measles had decimated their numbers. At the time it was assumed that their culture was dying.

Enter John Reed Swanton, a 27-year-old linguist from Main.

Beginning in November of 1900 Swanton paid Ghandl, Skaay and other traditional storytellers to share their stories with him. Some epics took hours to recite from beginning to end. Had they decided not to participate we would have lost beautiful verses like these:

A woman was hoisting a pile of stones.

The cedar-lime line she was using kept slipping.

He watcher her a while

and then he went up to her.

‘Excuse me,’ he said,

‘But what are you doing?’

The woman replied,

‘They told me to hold up the mountains

of the Islands on the Boundary between Worlds

That is what I am doing.’

Or this excerpt of a poem from Skaal:

And he took one more step

and the earth and the house shuddered, they say.

And he took one more step,

and the house and the earth quivered.

And all together they cowered.

She said once again

‘Raise yourselves up!’

As she lifted her chin,

something powerful came to her,

and their heads rose like the tide.

Often heroes perform grand gestures – they save a life, fight against injustices long since swept under the rug, stir up a peaceful protest to bring about real change. But sometimes the most heroic thing to do is whatever it is you’ve been doing all along. Sometimes, in fact, there’s nothing this world needs more than exactly that.

Interested in reading more? Most of the information in this post was gleaned from A story as Sharp as a Knife : the Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World.

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