The Day I Got My Song Back – Paddle

Yellow Cedar, Acrylic, Abalone

The title of this paddle refers to the blue jay’s point of view in the Coast Salish myth of Rescuing Songs from the Sky World. Shaun Peterson has illustrated this myth in a popular print, and he now uses it as inspiration behind this elegant paddle. The story goes:

“In ancient times the people decided that the Sky World was too close to the ground and it must be raised.  After much effort, the people were successful in their intention of raising the Sky World.  But they did not realize that through their actions the bird songs had become trapped in the heavens.  Distraught, the birds came together and agreed that someone must go and retrieve their songs.

The first bird to try his luck was Crow.  Upon his failure, Hawk came forth and said that surely he would be able to reach the songs.  When Hawk could not reach them, Eagle decided to try.  With hope in their eyes the birds looked at one another knowing that surely Eagle would succeed.  Eagle flew up high, quickly surpassing Crow’s and Hawk’s distance. But still the songs were out of reach, and even though Eagle could see them, he couldn’t quite reach them.  After much clamoring and disarray, Blue Jay called out “My brothers and sisters, I believe that it is my responsibility to rescue the songs of our people.”  At this, the larger birds broke into laughter.  “I’m sorry my brother,” said Eagle, “but if I can not reach the Sky World then I doubt that you can.”  Blue Jay became angered and proposed that they compete with each other to reach the songs.  Eagle agreed.  They both left the ground at once, but it wasn’t long before Blue Jay jumped on Eagle’s back.  When they reached Eagle’s limit, Blue Jay shot off of Eagle’s back and seized the songs tightly.  Returning with the songs, Blue Jay declared that from that day forth the beautiful songs would go to the smaller of the birds and that the doubt of the larger birds would be remembered by their callous squawks and calls.”

While Shaun was hard at work on this paddle he wrote an insightful blog post about his thought process. It is excerpted below:

“The day I got my song back (paddle) is about putting myself–the artist–into the point of view of a mythic character in the first-person. To imagine the story that goes beyond the legends and myths we summarize into tales of moral teachings. It is to see, in a singular form (or at least imagine) what the hero goes through in a journey that is so significant that it becomes a story retold to the present day. I imagine within the context of Blue Jay that the need to get his own song back had to be a huge motivation; that it drove him with wit and determination above great odds.

I originally thought, ‘I can just design a profile of the face and make a wing, maybe the tail feathers or the feet.’ I erased so much over a day I had to start a new sheet template. I paced the room, listened to some music took several breaks and sat back at the design table. I had the basic outline and head of the blue jay with some minor modifications with an eraser.

Somehow, somewhere in letting go I started to think of what Kai Kai (Bluejay) means as a being from our people. He was the rescuer of the songs. Long ago the sky was low and people were hitting their heads and worked together to push it back up which is a story of it’s own. But when the sky was raised somehow the bird people were separated from their songs. The bird people gathered and held a contest that whomever could retrieve the songs would be the winner and choose where the songs belong. In somewhat predictable fashion it starts with the underdogs, the smaller birds all the way up to Eagle, who fails in his attempt. The Kai Kai stood up, determined, and the people laughed at him, pointing out how they went through the ranks of flight power already. So he asked what they had to lose by him trying, and Eagle didn’t want to be shown up by his smaller stature, so he told him they would go at the same time. They flew up and Kai Kai made it nearly as high as Eagle, but just at that point he jumped on his head. And, Eagle’s frustration still climbing, Kai Kai pushed off his momentum to seize the songs.

It’s a story that tells us to value effort, and not underestimate the power of the underestimated and the power of what can be achieved when working together.

The breakthrough I had personally in my design struggle was to think about Kai Kai as an individual. Perhaps his song he rescued was a love song he treasured of his own for his mate. Maybe he had lost a bet with teti ed (Hummingbird) or maybe he’d been scorned by Eagle and had something to prove. Regardless, songs are important to us all and in that context, Kai Kai had his own song, and whatever it might be, it was his. When all was done, he gave the songs to the smaller birds who have the more pleasant of them to our ears today.

I decided to venture into that moment where Kai Kai found his own song amongst the stars and the other bird songs in that design. It is in itself in what western culture would deem “piggy-backing” on. All the same with all that explanation it’s only one painting and one idea among many and it’s by far not a process but what comes from the need to take time for a stillness and receive those ideas.”

-Qwalsius Shaun Peterson, 2018