A look at the indigenous art in Alaska

David Boxley

>> Jennifer: Where are you from?

>> David: I’m from Metlakatla, AK that’s Southeast Alaska, just south of Ketchikan, a Tsimshian Village.

>> Jennifer: How long have you been an artist?

>> David: Been quite a while. Been a professional artist for the last 40 years. But I’ve been drawing for longer than that.

>> Jennifer: What types of art do you create?

>> David: Well, I guess you could call it Northern, Northwest Coast kind of art, Tsimshian art. Tsiamshian is my tribe, but I do that style of art from the North. When you think of Southeast Alaska, British Columbia and Puget Sound, the art variation is drastically different as you go to those different regions. So I do Northwest style, Northwest Coast art.

>> Jennifer: I looked at your website and I saw you basically do Formline design, is that your main motif that you use in your art?

>> David: Formline design is a very old and intricate art form and an important part of everything that we make. Whether its totem poles, masks, boxes, paddles, rattles, you know all that stuff. Formline, Northern Formline art is on everything. It tells people who you are, what clan you are, it helps to tell the stories.

>> Jennifer: Do you consider yourself a traditional or contemporary artist? What makes that distinction for you?

>> David: I’m a traditional artist in a contemporary setting. I guess you could say I want my work to look like it was made in the 1800’s. I’m really adamant about that. I work very hard and studied the old pieces and that, but we live in a modern world and sometimes have to adapt things. But I, for the most part, I am pretty strict about what I make and how I make it and what I want it to look like.

>> Jennifer: So do you use modern tools or do you craft your own, maybe speak of another time before they had power tools?

>> David: No, I use power tools. But all of my traditional tools in essence are all exactly the same as they were back in the old days. Except that the steel, the metal is a better grade. But all of the hand tools that I make are all really the same as what the old people used. Using power tools makes sense because it lessens the time it takes to make something. Especially in the rough out stages, you’ve got a big block of wood or a big log, something would take months longer to carve a totem pole if you didn’t get a power or chain saw to take wood away that you don’t need. You don’t carve with it, there are people who carve with a chainsaw you see them on the roadside and at fairs and things like that. That’s not at all what people like me do.

>> Jennifer: Some of the totem poles are 24’ high, is that the average height?

>> David: That’s kind of a middle to small. My biggest ones are over 40’, I’ve made bigger ones.

>> Jennifer: What materials do you use? (If a traditional artist, do you gather traditional materials?)

>> David: Well, mostly I carve in old growth Western red cedar and I use alder too, depends in what I’m making. Western red cedar, yellow cedar, some people call it white cedar and alder. People use maple too, I don’t get maple too much. I use alder for masks, rattles and bowls, things like that. Cedar is for totem poles, bent boxes and paddles, things like that.

>> Jennifer: I saw your bent boxes as well, bentwood boxes. Do you steam them like they would have in the old days? Or do you have a more modern twist on how you get the wood to bend?

>> David: They’re steamed, but I use propane to make hot steam in what they call a crab cooker. It uses a lot of heat, I have my own system to steam boxes all day. In the old days, they would dig a hole, and put seaweed and hot rocks and put water on it. That was a pretty slow process. You want it to be very hot, the hotter the steam, the cleaner the bend.

>> Jennifer: Are there any events that have happened in your lifetime that were responsible for influencing your artistic style?

>> David: Oh, I was thinking about that and I’ve been very instrumental in the renewal and revival of my culture, especially in my village. And with my people too here in the city too in Alaska and here in Seattle. The opportunity to pass on knowledge and teach dancing and singing and carving and things like that all came along at a time when I was just getting going as a working artist. So it really, all those things dovetailed. My progress as an artist, dovetailed with my opportunity to help our people revive our culture. In 1982, I gave the very first Potlatch in a hundred years in my village. Made my (inaudible) totem pole all that stuff was starting to be, was a kick off for the beginning of that revival and also for the (inaudible) I was trying to do too. I produced a lot of things that people were using for singing and dancing, ceremonies as well as selling my art for the commercial market.

>> Jennifer: I also saw on your website that you have a dance troupe as well and you teach your Native language?

>> David: Yeah, I’ve been a leader of a couple of different dance groups. But the group that I have right now has existed since 1996. We’ve traveled to Europe, through Canada, all the major national festivals in the US. We going to Juneau this June for a bi-annual celebration. They call it celebration, a gathering of over fifty dance troupes. We have it every few years in Juneau, we’re practicing now getting ready for that. Two years ago we were the lead group. What that means really is that you sing for an hour and a half with a couple thousand dancers that get a grand entry, and then at the end of four days, you sing them out again. It’s quite a celebration, there’s a lot going on there, quite a fun gathering. As for the language, it’s a very threatened language, very few people speak it anymore. I’ve been trying my best over the years, I’m not fluent, I’m more what they call a functional speaker. My oldest son has moved back to my village and his organization is a foundation, with three of his friends they’re working on a daily basis with the very few elders that speak it. They’re trying to learn as much as they can so they can teach the next generation. It’s a very scary thing, a very scary thing. Most of those folks, every time an elder dies, it gets closer and closer to being gone. But with their help and their work, it’s not going to happen too soon.

>> Jennifer: It would be a shame to lose that.

>> David: It’s terrible and it’s not our fault either. Our people were punished, my mother’s generation, they were punished for speaking and using their language, it’s discouraging, it would be a shame.

>> Jennifer: Why did you decide to pursue art originally? Is it something you just started doing? Did you have intentions of bringing the culture back to your village?

>> David: I never thought about that when I was starting. I just always really liked what I saw, the art. I just went to a hardware store and bought myself a set of Exacto tools which are very untraditional. Tools and pieces of cedar. I looked in some bookstores and found some books with old pictures of historical stuff I’d try, but I really didn’t know who to ask. I didn’t know there were people that I could go to learn from or anything. I started making a pile of chips making bowls. It was kind of a backwards way to do it, you should learn design first before doing any sculpture. But at that time, that’s the only way I knew. For the most part, self-taught. I had a time of about three months in the early 80’s with two different established artists. A month here, a couple of months there. But for the most part I just went into museums and looked at old pieces, and like I said made a pile of chips. You know, practice, practice, practice. I don’t recommend that. I wished that I had had extended apprenticeships with two or three or four different artists. The guys who are starting now have much more available to them. Pictures of the steps, native artists who they can learn from. But in the meantime, the good thing about it I guess, it was a struggle for me, but I established an individual style that people recognize. So my work is well thought of, but it took years to get to that point.

>> Jennifer: So basically, you’re self-taught. Have you ever studied with anybody else as far as taking a class here and there or just completely on your own?

>> David: Well like I said, I worked with a non-Native artist for two months down in the Seattle area. Before that I studied about a month altogether with Native artists in my village. I took 2 or 3 classes but they were very short. So all together, in forty years, in the very beginning I had two months instruction. But it’s, you know, you just study, do hard work, and research, that kind of stuff.

>> Jennifer: So you did a lot of researching on the style of people where you came from?

>> David: Yes, eventually, that’s what I focused on for most of my career. When I first started though, I was copying Tlingit and Haida totem poles, copying designs out of books and things like that. But eventually, I got away from that and tried to go to as many museums and look at their collections as possible. And those are the guys, those so quiet and ancient guys that taught me through studying their work. And eventually, I moved closer and closer and closer to finish the whole Tsimshian style, and that’s what I hope I produce now.

>> Jennifer: What does your art mean to you?

>> David: It’s a really strong connection for me to the old people. It’s given me the opportunity to affect people with singing and dancing. The art is connected to that, designing dance regalia, the regalia says who we are. Making masks and drums and rattles. The headdresses that are used for ceremonies, song and dance for our people has really been a big way for me to contribute, in a positive way, to the amazing revival that has happened over the last 30-40 years. I feel pretty fortunate that I’m able to pass it on to new generations, it’s satisfying.

>> Jennifer: What is your favorite piece you’ve worked on or your greatest accomplishment?

>> David: Well I’m known for totem poles. I’m going be starting my 79th totem pole in June. But my favorite of those was in 1994, I made a 30 foot totem pole in honor of my grandfather who raised me. I was raised by my grandmother and grandfather. My second favorite is a recent totem pole my son and I did together to honor my recently passed sister-in-law, my wife’s sister down in Seattle, for the hospital where she was treated. My third favorite one is the totem pole I did for the Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. The reason that’s one of my favorites is because we got a lot of press and a lot of media for that, and they did a live stream camera on us on the computer. They were watching us carve, the last two weeks of the carving, we finished at the museum. A couple of elementary school classes in my village had the opportunity to watch us the whole two weeks, finish the pole, and they would text my son a few times a day and ask us to wave, they’d wave back at the monitors in the classrooms, and that was really fun. I knew our people in my village were watching us, and were very proud we were doing that in the name of my village and in the name of our tribes, for a couple of weeks we went around the world in the cloud, I guess they call it. That was pretty satisfying. Then the other one that really was a once in a lifetime, really means a lot to me is my son and I did a large, fully carved and painted house front that’s in the building in Juneau. That took us six months to do, it’s quite beautiful, you should look it up. It’s called the Soboleff Center in the Sealaskan Heritage Institute. That’s a one of a kind, it’s the only one that exists that’s carved and painted, and the largest that exists in the modern days. And like I said before, all of the pieces I’ve made for Native dancers and for ceremonies and for people to wear and really important cultural occasions, those are pretty important to me. The stuff I’ve made for my dance group too, they’ve become very well known as a mask and mask dancing storytelling group.

>> Jennifer: Do you think its okay for non-natives to learn and practice traditional Native art?

>> David: Well you know, that’s a really touchy subject. I’m pretty set on what side of that controversy I’m on, but I know people, who I consider friends, who are not Native and make the art. My opinion, without being too hard, is that it’s a free country, and people can have hobbies, take classes, and learn how to make art from different cultures. People do that all the time. Where I have a problem with that is where, especially in the Seattle area, there are artists who make and sell their work to galleries. At least one major gallery, who focuses their attention on non-Native artists. And then there are people who collect art from non-Native artists. They’re good artists, but this is our art. My people who lost it. It hurts me to see that sometimes because I know what my mom, my uncles, and my clansmen were punished for being Native. So, that’s my opinion, selling our art, I don’t agree with.

>> Jennifer: How do you think colonization has affected Native art?

>> David: That word colonization and decolonization, I have some objections to that word. So many years have passed now since the days of, some of it has changed, the prejudice, the cultures, the acculturation and all that stuff still exists. So many years have gone by. There was a huge disease epidemic, laws passed, all those things really decimated our people and put us on a different path. The people who came into this area, non-Native people, wanted us to be colonized people I suppose. So because so many people died, and they were sent off to schools, there’s a big loss of knowledge, lost by a combination of people dying and then people being forced from a young age to give that stuff up, and actually be ashamed of it. But in modern days, since the 50’s and 60’s, before the 70’s and 80’s, the big revival by tribes up and down the Northwest coast, the Salish people in the Puget Sound area, the new culture has had a huge revival. Every summer they have these big gatherings with the new tribes battling the different villages and celebrations. As you go further north, there are dance groups that have been formed, and the language revivals. Each town now has multiple carvers that are producing totem poles, masks (inaudible) culture. We’re trying, we learn what can be learned, but it’s not the old days. One of the things about decolonization is we really can’t go back to the 1800’s, it’s impossible. There’s not a Native I know that would give up electricity and automobiles, things like that. But we have to balance that with trying our best to respect our culture, to respect the way we are and who we are without losing it. My language is a really big part of that and it’s just severely threatened. My language, the people that speak my language, there’s somewhere around fifty left on the planet. So that’s not very many, and they’re all older than me. We are who we are, we can’t go back or blame too much. We have to stand up, preserve, and celebrate what we have, and do our best to make sure in a hundred years we’re still here.