The Hopeless Land

“How can you read the sky, listen to the wind and the spirits. The more I age the more I get worried. All these wounds are too large to stitch.”

Story and Photos by Icarus Blake - Icarus@citizenbrooklyn.com

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The hand that lands on my shoulder has fingers like the branches of a secular tree. I stumble forward with a grin. I know the guy. His name is Jim Hart. He has just been elected chief of the Eagle clan of the Haida tribe. We are in Masset, the capital of Haida Gwaii (Haida Nation), in the Northern part of the Queen Charlotte Islands, out at sea between Alaska and British Columbia.

It’s a silent, moonless night. In front of us, the fifty foot totem carved by Jim for his election. It has been erected by hand, with the whole village pulling on thick ropes. It took seven hours. The Haida have a bipartisan government: the Eagle clan and the Raven clan. Their politics are as different as the two birds…

“There are not many trees left like this one,” he says breaking the silence, “Our fight against logging? We won it too late. Now, when I ask a tree permission to cut it down to carve it into a totem, it answers me that it has lost all its brothers, that the forest is young and has no history.”

Eagle Clan Photo ©Icarus Blake

I don’t answer. Days before I had seen the destruction flying over the islands in a seaplane. Immense craters of logged forest filled the landscape. Not much green left. Somehow I feel guilty. I am the white man, after all. My legacy is of vicious destruction.

“I have decided to stop cutting down trees. From now on I will sculpt my totems in bronze. I hope my message will come across.”

A few years later in New York, it’s almost midnight and I am knocking on the door of the Museum of Natural History. A sleepy security guard opens the door.

“Are you with the crazy Indian?”

I enter shaking my head and find Jim sitting next to a dinosaur skeleton. He’s studying his bronze sculpture of the three Haida watchmen. Finishing touches, I guess. Tomorrow the Museum will be opening a new wing dedicated to the North-West Coast Native American culture. Jim has numerous totems and masks that will be part of the permanent collection.

Totem Pole Photo ©Icarus Blake

I help him with some detail carving on a totem. As usual, I cut myself almost immediately. As I look at my blood dropping between the wood cracks I try to recount how many times this has happened in the past.

“I just spoke to my mother,” he says smiling at my wound, “They can’t find the salmon. She says the water is too warm and the currents have changed. Nobody knows where they went. This, for us, is a problem. Stop bleeding on my totem, please.”

“The bees have also disappeared.” I answer, “Nobody understands what’s going on. Let me go wrap this finger with some toilet paper.”

I walk along dark and eerie corridors. The history of mankind flashes by from the displays. The quest for fire, the early attempts at harnessing a hostile nature… We haven’t changed much. We are still fighting the wrong battle. These encounters with Jim depress me. I want to eat a Big Mac, wash it down with a chemical drink, throw the trash on the street, and go home to watch some stupid TV. The symbols of my people.

Hand-Carving Photo ©Icarus Blake

I get back to Jim. From afar he looks so peaceful and humble. I envy him and his lack of guilt. It’s almost three in the morning. The totem and the story it tells are done. We go out into the crisp air of the night.

“All this cement,” he says looking up, “How can you read the sky, listen to the wind and the spirits. The more I age the more I get worried. All these wounds are too large to stitch.”

March of this year, Jim and his son Carl are working at casting some golden eagles out of bronze in a foundry in upstate New York. Frank Stella also uses this foundry. He and Jim have become unlikely acquaintances. Jim carves away singing a Haida song that tells how the raven stole the light and freed the world from darkness. We sit outside to eat a sandwich. I ask him about his people up North.

Jim Hart Photo ©Icarus Blake

“What can I tell you about my people? We get by between poverty and alcoholism. The first gifts we got from ‘civilization’ were blankets infected with small pox. Only six hundred survived out of twenty thousand. Early biological terrorism, I guess. Then they took our children away to put them in faraway boarding schools. They stripped them of their tribal clothing and shaved their heads. “Kill the Indian to save the man”… that was written at the entrance of one of these schools. They have also logged seventy percent of our forests, over-fished our ocean, and used up our fresh water reserves. Islands of floating garbage wash up on our beaches. What can I tell you about my people?”

A crow flies across the fall sky. Jim and I smile. Crows always carry a message.

A piece of ham falls out of my sandwich. Jim squeezes my arm with reassurance.

“We know the way of beauty,” he says, getting up.

Inside the foundry, the bronze eagles keep a solemn watch.

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