#935 Haida cosmology transformed

Carpe Fin: A Haida Manga
by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2019
$29.95 / 9781771622240

Reviewed by Molly Clarkson


I can’t help but chuckle as I read through the reader reviews on goodreads of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’ Carpe Fin: A Haida Manga, two of which read:

Exuberant art and a non-linear story that I didn’t fully understand.

The story is a little hard to follow, but I’m still glad I got to read the book as a companion to the art installation.

At its surface, Carpe Fin flows around a carpenter returning to his coastal village. A recent oil spill has contaminated the beaches, and community members are unable to harvest their traditional foods. To make matters worse, the expected shipment of “ferry food” has failed to appear. Carpe joins a group of villagers on a canoe voyage out to “Lord’s Rock” — thirty kilometres offshore — to hunt for sea lions. But Xyuu — a powerful Haida god associated with southeasterly winds — drives his group back to the sea, and Carpe and the sea lion he has just killed are left stranded on the rock.

From here, the tale dives below the comprehension of those unfamiliar with Haida cosmology. Carpe, wrapped in the skin of a Sluuguu River Otter, follows a voice below the waves to an underwater village. There, he meets his grandfather — the Lord of the Rock — who has summoned Carpe to seek reparations for the killing of the sea lion cow. Satisfied with Carpe’s account, the Lord gifts him a ceremonial rope that, in this telling, takes the form of a Navajo wool jacket, but with Haida formline, to be worn backwards like a hospital gown. The Lord of the Rock also offers to transform Carpe into a supernatural being by affixing a whale fin to his back. When this offer is refused, the Lord of the Rock becomes angry and commands that Carpe be stitched into a sea lion skin and cast out to drift.

Later, when the skin releases him, Carpe finds he has been returned to his village. But it is not as he left it — and neither is he. Invisible to his fellow villagers, Carpe observes how the forests have been clear cut, there are people sitting out in the streets with nothing to do, and the villagers have forgotten how to fish. Carpe imagines a series of economic development projects to save his community — a massive fishing fleet, finfish aquaculture — but changes his mind when he foresees their implications.

Carpe despairs: “A tide now running a wretched course has washed me onto a troubled shore.” As he recovers from his despair, Carpe carves a supernatural being that takes the form of SGaana Orca that awakens and sets off to fish for the villagers, leaving salmon along the shore. Inspired, the villagers begin to relearn how to fish. Then an earthquake strikes offshore, and a tsunami races towards the village. The tsunami is the Lord of the Rock and his undersea companions, who have come to feast with the villagers. Carpe, his work done, hitches a ride with the SGaana back to Lord’s Rock.

A prequel to the 2009 Red: A Haida Manga, Carpe Fin began as an original mural commissioned by the Seattle Art Gallery in 2018, and now on display there. Yahgulanaas subsequently transformed it into a hand-painted book that blends Haida artistic traditions and Asian manhwa/manga. As this brief summary suggests, Carpe Fin calls its readers to an unfamiliar world — a world where the everyday and the supernatural are interwoven, where interaction between the human and more-than-human worlds are commonplace, where time swirls like an eddy against the current. In other words, Yahgulaanas is inviting the reader into a Haida world. In turn, this world provides an alternative point of view to explore the complex relationships between human, animal, and supernatural worlds that we are embedded within.

In this review, I explore the ways Carpe Fin asks us to think differently about these relationships through the framework of three Haida laws: Seeking Wise Counsel, Balance, and Responsibility.

Gina k’aadang.nga gii uu tll k’anguudang—Seeking Wise Counsel

In Carpe Fin… time’s calculated sequence is distorted. It folds back on itself. […] I remind myself that the work done 150 years ago and the work we do today is always done in service of the contemporary living moment. Distorting time allows me to play out this idea. – Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas interviewed by Alyssa Hirose [see endnote 1]

The Queen of the North sinking, March 2006. Photo courtesy Victoria Times-Colonist

Yahgulanaas’ masterfully plays with time throughout Carpe Fin. The opening scene takes place on the deck of what could be interpreted as the Queen of the North, which infamously sank in 2006 following a collision with Gil Island in Gitga’at territory. It is there that Carpe learns of the recent contamination of the beaches near his village due to a recent spill by a fuel barge, a clear reference to the American tug Nathan E. Stewart, which ran aground in Heiltsuk territory in 2016. The ferry then docks at Snug Cove, a marina on the east coast of Bowen Island, where Yahgulanaas lives with his family. On their way to Lord’s Rock in a canoe, Carpe and his fellow paddlers encounter the seventeenth century Japanese merchant ship Zeta with a steel shipping container on its deck — perhaps a reference to the “Zeta-class” cargo shuttle from Star Wars, whose vertical “wings? echo the vertical ribbed sails of the merchant ship.

The sunken tug Nathan E. Stewart, November 2016. Photo courtesy Heiltsuk Nation

For those picking up on these references, the effect on the linear, western mind can be bewildering: time simply doesn’t work this way! And yet, coming back to Yahgulanaas’ comments above, “the work done 150 years ago and the work we do today is always done in service of the contemporary living moment.” In other words, the sequencing of events is less critical than the use of these events to create a narrative that helps us to reflect on the present moment. While the invocation of a seventeenth century Japanese merchant ships named after a fictional space shuttle is certainly playful, Yahgulaanaas is also challenging us to approach time not as a series of discrete events occurring in sequence, but as stories within stories that help us to make sense of the present. In this way, these stories of sunken ferries and fuel barges are the “wise counsel” that can help guide us to live in a good way.

Giid tll’juus – The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife

The story in Carpe Fin … starts off with the … premise, which is that someone has developed the capacity to be a very efficient predator and goes out to the ocean and harvests sea lions. […] And so he is abandoned by his community because he is too efficient – he is destroying too much. […] That is what the story is about – what happens when you go too far too fast – you become invisible, you disappear — Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, January 2020.[2]

Echoing the Haida oral history of the first spear, prior to embarking with the others on the hunting trip to Lord’s Rock, Carpe works through the night to construct a deadly weapon — a multi-barbed spear with a detachable spear head. With the assistance of his spear Carpe is successful in his hunt for a sea lion cow, but the efficiency of his new weapon angers the Lord of the Rock and his marine entourage. When Carpe returns, invisible and alone, to his village he despairs. The balance has tipped: the way of life that has sustained his village for millennia has ended.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. Photo by Ivan Thompson

This theme of “going too far too fast” repeats throughout Carpe Fin. For example, the effects of industrial logging, fishing, and vessel traffic pervade Yahgulanaas’ renderings of Carpe’s coastal village — desolate landscapes of clear-cut forests, abandoned canneries, rotting vans, and poisonous beaches. In turn, the effects of these industries on the villagers themselves are felt in the new dependency on “ferry food.” For those who live, have lived in or travelled through the coastal villages of the northwest, these scenes are unnervingly familiar, challenging us to ask: have we already arrived at the knife’s edge?

Isda ad dii gii isda — Giving and Receiving

I wanted to create this graphic interpretation of old narratives — and not just old narratives — but maybe get down to some of the messages embedded in these old narratives and parables, and I want to extract them and compare them to the stories we need to hear in the living moment.– Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, January 2020.[3]

When Carpe returns to his village and sees the effects of industrialization, he initially devises industrial solutions. Envisioning first a trawl fishing fleet, then a finfish aquaculture farm, Carpe declares: “industry; efficiency; profit; maximum production; jobs! An ever expanding economy will save us all.” But Carpe rethinks these plans when he receives horrific visions of their effects. Instead, through the carving and animation of a supernatural SGaana, Carpe invites supernatural beings back to the village and, in turn, invites the re-establishment of the reciprocal relationships that have existed between the villagers and the ocean for millennia. The villagers and the supernatural beings share fishing techniques and recipes, and enjoy the food that they have harvested together in a feast. In other words, in this tale reciprocity is re-established through the embodied practices of taking only what you need, and sharing what you have.

Seize the End?

Carpe Fin is directly translated from Latin as “Seize the End.” However, within a Haida cosmology there is no such thing as a finite ending. Time “folds back on itself” and we are, through Carpe Fin, reminded that there is no better time to act than when we feel that we have come to the end of something. In this way, Carpe Fin may be understood as both a call to action and a reminder of the imperative of hope — hope that we will listen and learn from stories of exploitation and contamination; hope for the establishment of balance between the needs of human and more-than-human worlds; hope for the rekindling of respectful relationships between human and non-human worlds.

And yet, as I conclude this review, I’m left with the sense that this has been only a shallow dive into the interpretive possibilities of Yahgulaanas’ masterful Carpe Fin. Perhaps Yahgulanaas will end up with the last chuckle, after all.


Molly Clarkson

Molly Clarkson has a BA and MA in Human Geography from the University of British Columbia. She lives with her partner in Hlg̱aagilda / Skidegate on the Haida Gwaii archipelago, where she works for the Council of the Haida Nation’s Marine Planning Program.


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[1] Alyssa Hirose, “Author Q&A: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Haida Manga Writer,” Vancouver Magazine, 2019

[2] “Art is Not a Noun, It’s a Verb: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas on ‘Carpe Fin’.” Quotation from the Seattle Art Museum interview with Yahgulanaas, January 18, 2020, on YouTube.

[3] “Art is Not a Noun, It’s a Verb: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas on ‘Carpe Fin’.” From Seattle Art Museum interview with Yahgulanaas, January 18, 2020, YouTube.

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