Why artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas believes ancestral stories are more relevant than ever

The author and graphic novelist behind War of the Blink explains the topical meaning of ancestral stories.
Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas is an award-winning Haida Manga artist. (Farah Nosh/Locarno Press )
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Consider a world where superheroes could face off against each other and the fight would end when one of them blinked. That's the premise of War of the Blink, a graphic novel by artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. It features two warring groups who clash over the fate of a coastal village in Haida Gwaii, B.C. It's a retelling of a traditional Haida story, told in a genre called Haida Manga that Nicoll Yahgulanaas. created. This interview originally aired on Jan. 15, 2018.

Passing a message along

"As I was growing up, we knew little bits of the story in War of the Blink. My peers and I would share it from time to time and fix our versions up. The story occurred before there was a Canada, and here we are talking about it because it's relevant today. It persists because it's also a contemporary parable. It's about the relationships between people when it looks like things can erupt into conflict, but there is still always a way out. There's an appetite for this message — that there is another way. This strange, petulant attitude that we see, certainly south of the border, is scary. I'm very hopeful based on my experience working with the leadership of Haida Gwaii. I saw loggers and Haidas on opposite ends of the blockade sitting in a forest eating lemon meringue pie together — those people should be in conflict. When I see that, I have so much faith in ordinary people."

Cautionary tales

"In the story, there is a fellow called Gunee who out fishing. When he comes back and tries to tell the influential people that he's observed something strange, they dismiss him because he's a nobody. And yet he persists and goes out to stand guard and, through that action, stops the raiders from a successful attack on the building. It speaks to the notion of inclusivity and a collective action as opposed to severing our life off into specialties, such as letting the elite make decisions about who we are and what we do. It's this disengagement that is so dangerous — a disengagement of the citizen from actually being involved in a positive way."

Ancient, but not irrelevant

"I appreciate the access to amazing history on Canada's coast and I think across the country we should appreciate this Indigeneity — the parables, knowledge and science — that is before us. Where I think there is a blip in this is when we see Indigeneity as some sort of ancient moment, as a bygone era that has been replaced. It's not so. Indigeneity, as demonstrated by War of the Blink, deals with taking those lessons and applying them to the contemporary moment to make them relevant. If you can't apply them, we don't need them. Never before in the history of our species have we been faced with so many challenges. We now need to pull together all the experience and the wisdom that is available to us."

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas comments have been edited and condensed.