A look at the indigenous art in Alaska

Interview with artist and Tsimshian Culture Bearer David Boxley

Sketch by artist Eli Pasco of David working on wooden masks with his sons, in the open artists’ studio, a space created by the Burke Museum, part of the University of Washington’s Museum of Natural History and Pacific Northwest culture. “This space, created for artists to present work that is in progress and to give them a chance to interact with the public and share their craft and knowledge”(Pasco, 2019).

David Boxley, a Tsimshian artist, and carver from Metlakatla, Alaska, owes the inspiration for his art to his Tsimshian Tribe ancestors, who hail from Northern British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. Having dedicated the bulk of his adult life (over 40 years) to the revitalization and rebirth of Tsimshian arts and culture, David strives not only to be the best artist he can be but he wants to inspire and influence the continuation of this beautiful art form and cultural practices.

David has received three important Sm’algyax names in his lifetime, which are either passed through family lines or are given to mark important life passages or accomplishments. It is the responsibility of each person who is given a name to live a good life and to make the name honorable and strong so that when it is time to pass the name on, the name is good. David takes pride in each of his names and works every day to make his names good. His three Sm’algyax names are: “Nuketsismaask, which means “Works with the Cedarbark,” given to David in 1987 by his Grandfather;
Ksgooga Yaawk, which means “First to Potlatch,” given to David in 1982 by Alfred Eaton;
and Niis Bupts’aan, which means “Grandfather of Totem Poles, Given to David by Laxskiig (Eagle Clan) in 2019.”

Below is a summarized transcript of the interview with David, but we highly recommend viewing the entire interview for yourself at: https://youtu.be/GKbR6FShH3U

Bryanna’s Questions:

Q: Were you able to find any other traditional Tsimshian carvers to share their stories and methods with you? Or was this something you did on your own?

A: When I first started, I was really enthusiastic. I was crazy about doing it. So I bought some books, a bunch of wood from a lumber yard, and some Exacto tools. I just started copying model totem poles. I Had no one to teach me; I just dove in 100%. There were people I could have gone to, but I didn’t know who they were at the time.

I did have a teacher who was a Tsimshian carver in Metlakatla. When I returned to Metlakatla as a schoolteacher, I took my first two or three classes from him; he has since passed away. He taught in the public school there in Metlakatla for 30 years or so. He taught a lot of folks on the northwest coast. Those class times were cut short because people would drop out, and I’d end up being the only one left, and he would just end the class.

I met a non-native Carver in Washington who was really good and asked him if I could come in and do some things for him. I got an Alaska Council on the Arts grant for a summer, and I went in to work with him.

In a total of 41 years, I’ve had about three months of instruction from two different guys. I’ve had no help at all on totem poles. I’ve made about 80 full-size totem poles and dozens upon dozens of models and things like that. Still, it all came from my own research, just looking at old pieces, studying Museum pieces, and I learned a little bit from both those guys on masks and design paddles along the way.

Q: I watched a beautiful video performance of your dance group, the Git-Hoan dancers. You write in choreographed new dances, but I read that your ancestors were forbidden to practice their culture. Did this prevent the passing of most traditional stories, be passed down, or did some of that traditional song and dance survive?

A: My people, the people who are from Metlakatla who moved from British Columbia with a missionary, they were forced to leave everything behind, and the only thing that they could keep was the way they could gather food, and the language stayed okay for a while. The missionary that was with our people learned our language, they used it in church and things like that, but as time went by, it died out even then. In my village right now, there is one left. My son David Robert is a fabulous artist; he lives in our house in Metlakatla; he and I lead my dance group. He is dedicating his life to becoming a fluent Sm’álgyax speaker.

My people were punished physically. They punished my mom; my uncles were physically beaten. In the boarding schools that they went to, they had their mouths washed out with soap and things like that for speaking their own language; so as they grew up, they wouldn’t pass it on to their kids; they didn’t want the kids to have to go through the same thing. They wanted to make it in the non-Native world. I don’t blame them, you know, economically you got to get a job, and you pay your bills. There are parts of town, not in our village, but parts of the other towns close by where natives couldn’t even go. All of that old tradition; singing, dancing, the language, carvings, arts, and ceremonies things like that the potlatch they were all but lost.

( In 1982, he gave the first potlatch in 100 years in his village to honor his grandmother.)

Q: You spent three months working with your son on an amazing piece of art for the National Museum for the American Indian. Can you tell us a little bit about the story it represents? What were some of the emotions you felt while creating this piece with your son?

A: Having my son working side-by-side with me was and is very gratifying. I really love working with David Robert, my oldest boy. I have four sons, two of my own sons, and two are my wife’s sons, but I call them all my sons. They’ve all worked with me on totem poles or other projects.

David his son David Robert

David and I were out in Washington, DC, at the Museum of the American Indian for an art show. We had a table with some art pieces; the museum director came to look at all of the artists at the art show; he and I were talking, there was this big column just to the side of where my table was. I said, “That would be a great place to have a totem pole.” Two years later, they called me on the phone and said, “would you still like to put a totem pole on that big column? We’d like to hire you to do a totem pole?” I was very excited; we got the tree and did 90% of the carving in my shop, then we shipped it out to Washington DC. We finished it at the museum so people could watch. They were live-streaming us all day long. A couple of friends of mine, who are native school teachers in Metlakatla, had the live stream on for their students the whole two weeks we were carving. Every once in a while, we would receive a text from the teachers saying, wave at the kids they want you to wave, so we look up and wave. We got a lot of media attention; we were in newspapers, television, interviews. For two weeks, I was very proud to say my little village, Metlakatla, and our people, Tsimshian, going around the world for two weeks. I’m really proud of that, almost as proud as having a totem pole in the Museum of the American Indian.

David’s Totem at DisneyWorld
Isabella’s Questions:

Q: An article from the Juneau Empire showcases your son’s artistic process. What was the experience like to pass on your skills to him, as well as teaching others?

A: I’ve always loved teaching… I’ll even start virtual classes, which I’ve never done. I really like one on one teaching. I’m looking forward to it; I hope I can get to everyone, and I’ll be leaning on my sons for assistance. My son Davey (David R. Boxley) has always had advanced artistic ability since a young age. I’ve kept many of my kids’ art pieces throughout the years. I predict Davey will have books written about him as he may be the best artist our people have ever had. He calls me almost daily for help, but he doesn’t need it; he is so good. He started carving at six years old and sold his first mask for $75. You couldn’t get that from him now for $7,500.

At a certain point, when artists are selling work, they stop learning. They are fooled by the buyers, and you can tell in their work there is no growth. In 41 years, I want to learn something every single day.

Q: Turning your passion into your career can be taxing. Have you had any difficulties with inspiration or motivation working as a professional artist?

A: No, not at all! I have a commute of 10-12 steps to my workshop. I look forward to it every day as if it was the first time. I love to create and make what I make *holds up some current carvings.* In 1986, I had been doing art for 5-6 years while teaching. Being a school teacher, running a business, and being an artist became too much. One day I dropped my keys on the principal’s desk and said, “Bye, I’m going to go be an artist.” After moving from Metlakatla to Seattle, I almost immediately received commissions for totem poles, which really is the only way to do it is to have people buy your art to make it.

Q: During a lifetime in art, you’ve created close to 100 totem poles. How does your thought process and artistic process differ between large 30 ft carvings and smaller carvings, like masks?

A: **This last question can be merged with Lisa’s last question.**
Lisa’s Questions


Q: You’ve been quoted as saying that your greatest honor is the title bestowed on you by your people, the Tsimshian tribe of Alaska and British Columbia, of “culture bearer – one who revives preserves and carries on their culture.” Can you tell us a little bit about what
that means to you?

A: I never call myself that…other people do, and I’m happy that they think that way. It was a long struggle, too, when I first got started trying to bring it back and asking questions and doing things. I got a lot of pushback from my own people because they were saying, “why do you want to do that stuff it’s all in the past.” Even the people who were really religious, too, were calling me a devil worshiper and all this kind of stuff. It was just a lot of heartbreak for me because there were a lot of my own people… Not lots, but enough to hurt your feelings. All I was trying to do was be proud of my heritage and help others to understand it a little bit more.

This man, his name is Albert Bolton (**holds up a picture of his grandfather), but his Sm’álgyax name is Gamaas. he gave me his brother’s name Nuketsismaask. It means “works with the cedar bark,” and this guy was a huge influence on me when we were just trying to get things going at home, and I wanted them – both my grandparents – to be proud of me. That title – to be a culture bearer – the reason I put the picture of my grandfather up is because he put his hand on my shoulder once when he was watching me carve in my shop, and he pushed down on my shoulder, and he said “that’s a good weight,” and I said, “what do you mean, Yaya?” Yaya means grandfather in our language. I look at these pictures every day. I talk to them and share what I’m doing … but anyway, he said, “what you doing, David, you teaching the people…it’s a good weight, responsibility to pass on the culture, is a good weight, boy.” I’ve lived by that.. and one the other one that he taught me is “do what you say you’re gonna do.” Good lessons for anybody.

“Nuketsismaask, which means “Works with the Cedarbark,” given to David in 1987 by his Grandfather;
Ksgooga Yaawk, which means “First to Potlatch,” given to David in 1982 by Alfred Eaton;
and Niis Bupts’aan, which means “Grandfather of Totem Poles, Given to David by Laxskiig (Eagle Clan) in 2019.”

I have three Sm’álgyax names that I’ve been given. In 1982 I was given the name Ksgooga Yaawk, which means “First to Potlatch ”… when I gave that first potlatch in 1982, given by an eagle clan elder in 1987. My grandfather gave me his brother’s name at the 100th anniversary of our village potlatch, and as I said, it’s “Nuketsismaask”- “Works with the Cedarbark” and then last summer I was given a surprise by my entire clan, the Eagle Clan, in my village. We had just finished giving a whole bunch of names… It was an Eagle naming feast… and the place was full of people, and I picked up the cedar mats you stand on (we have these mats people stand on when receiving a name, and people come and put their hands on you, and then you’re given a name)..and the people representing the other three clans all come up and take part in the ceremony and they say your name and everybody says your name, and then there’s a big gift distribution to pay everybody for witnessing, so I said “okay good,” and I was just about to pick up the mat and just as we were going to finish that part…I think some another group was going to dance… my son says “wait a minute, dad, wait, wait,” and they had this secret plan to give me a name and then the song. My son and these others wrote this song, and they came in, and the entire clan came up to the front of the hall and stood behind me, and they gave me the name “grandfather of totem poles” because I’ve made 80 totem poles in 41 years and I didn’t know anything about it. It was a complete surprise, and so those three names, they’re potlatch names. I only use them in ceremonial times…Big honor… big surprise … considering the path and the bumpy road that I had to take to get to where we are now, and I’m really happy that my own people give me that honor. I’m very humbled by that kind of thing… absolutely. Anyway, let me tell you, names are really important. Lots of native people don’t have names. It’s just the way it is, and it’s too bad, but lots are getting names now in potlatches and things like that. A name made you a human being, you know, it gave you status and what you did with that name was up to you. How you live your life either makes that name a real good, strong name or or a bad one. All of us are the canoes by which our life and name travel. The name doesn’t actually belong to you – you’re holding that name, and that name lives past you, so in the future, that name is going to be passed on. I’ve already been talking to my son about who we should consider in my clan … relatives or just people that are earning these things… who would be getting these names. I’m going to be 70 pretty soon, so I’ve already got some ideas as to who’s going to get those names when they’re ready to be passed on, and then there’s a responsibility of anyone getting a name to make their name good.

52:52 – 63:00
Q: you’ve done extensive research into your people’s culture, your stories, your art, all of that we talked about can you talk a little bit about what that extensive quest for lost knowledge has been like for you, like the difficulties and exciting new discoveries when you were finding it all out on your own

A: Well, let me let me answer that first by saying when you try to revive a culture…if there’s something left, then it’s easier than if there’s a vacuum …with me, there was a vacuum …there was nobody that I could talk to. The elders that I grew up around were great at subsistence …gathering, fishing, hunting, all that stuff. My grandmother’s generation …I learned the language from listening to them. I used to follow my grandmother around as she went to visit her friends, and she’d take me with them and put me in the corner, and I’d eat a popsicle and listen to them talk or whatever, and if it wasn’t for that …I mean it gave me all my knowledge …I just kind of absorbed secondhand, I guess you could call it …

It hasn’t stopped …the coolest part (of finding the lost knowledge) is that it’s ongoing. I’m working right now with the Museum of Natural History in New York …I’m a consultant …they’re redoing the Northwest Coast hall, and when I first saw it when my sons, my kids were tiny, I went out there to visit, and I walked into the hall … I took, I don’t know, one or two steps into the hall … it’s a big long hall and a whole bunch of cubbies all the way down that different tribes were represented all the way down this hall, and I couldn’t go in …I couldn’t take another step. It felt like the air turned to jello. I was just so emotional and backed up out of there. I couldn’t believe that all of our art …all of this cultural stuff was in this place. I’d never seen it before, so I went and looked at dinosaurs and other stuff for about an hour, and then I came back, and I took a deep breath, and I walked in, and it took like three or four hours for me to get from one end to the other end. Now, kind of coincidentally, I’m this representative of my people with a bunch of other Native consultants, and we’ve had a number of in-person meetings, and now because of the COVID, we’re having these zoom meetings, and it’s about a year or so away from opening again. It’s going to be fabulous because the hall of Northwest Coast it was really dark, and it was poorly labeled, and there was some beautiful things, but they were hard to see, and it hadn’t been updated for like 100 years, but now it’s going to be just absolutely amazing and because everything’s going to be a high tech and they’re going to have videos and showing the people that we’re still here that we’re doing things… still potlatching and dancing and carving and things like that …so anyway, we have things like that and the journey for me personally, I don’t want to harp on this, but for me personally, the hardest part was sometimes my own people …the opposition or ignorance or things like that …or christianity …that kind of influence. I was sitting in church one time when my kids were very small …Sunday school and the minister was our Sunday school teacher, and I sat down in one of the chairs, and we’re just about to have Sunday school before church, and we were good friends because I was his basketball coach …we had a church basketball team that I coached and played with …and he said “Hey Dave, how you doing? What’s going on? How’s the totem pole carving?” …he was a pretty good guy about things like that too, anyway the lady right behind me said in a low voice, kind of looking down, “devil worship” – I felt like somebody hit me on the back of the head. I got up, and I left and as I was walking down walking down the street from the church …I don’t remember if I had tears in my eyes or what, but I was really upset, the preacher came running out after me and brought me back. “Don’t pay any attention,” he said. I said, “yeah, but this is 1986 or so, this isn’t this in 1886. Why are people so ignorant about this kind of stuff?” and it still happens that way, too …here’s another example. I did a totem pole for an elder Tsimshian man who taught for years at the University of Dubuque in Iowa, and we went out there, and I did a totem pole. We took four of my apprentices …we went out there, and we sang, and we danced and dedicated. Have you ever heard of the movie Field of Dreams? Kevin Costner movie? Anyway, not far away from this place was that field – it’s still there. It’s really a tourist place …so these guys went to that place to see it, and of course, there was a gift shop, and on the wall in the gift shop was this plastic covered toy, and it was a cowboy and an Indian and a totem pole. Cowboys and Indians never had totem poles. The plains Indians never had totem poles. Totem poles are from my culture … from the Northwest Coast …from the six major totem pole tribes. When I was 10 years old I got a Christmas or birthday present …it was called Fort Apache …so I opened it up, and there’s a whole bunch of soldiers and a whole bunch of little plastic plains Indians land and a plastic fort and sagebrush and cactus and totem poles …so this I was 10 years old and this lasting (stereotype) at the Field of Dreams …nothing’s changed. People think totem poles …just because you’re Indian; you have a totem pole …it’s just crazy. The struggles with trying to pass on a culture that has been ravaged by rules and laws and churches and ignorance …it’s hard, it’s ongoing. I told myself, “David, you know we’re doing this for the right reasons, and even those who don’t agree with us, we’re doing it for them too.”

78:07 – 87:00
[Isabella and I each have a question that are very similar. We’re going to combine them.]

Q: You’ve been prolific in the different types of artistic expression you’ve created, yet totem poles are what you’re maybe most known for, but bentwood boxes masks, rattles drums songs dances and for her part of it as well during a lifetime of art, you’ve created close to 100 totem poles. How does your thought process and artistic process differ between those 30-foot carvings and the smaller carvings like the mask then do you have a favorite of your artistic expression

A: The most important objects that I have created over the 41 years I’ve been doing this have been pieces that have been made for what they were made for 100 years ago or more. That totem pole I did for my grandfather in 1994 …and the first one I did for my grandmother was also really important …but the one I did for my grandfather was part of the four-day potlatch that we had in my village. That’s the number one most important pole. The second most important pole was the one I did for my wife’s sister, who passed away of cancer just a few years ago, and we had a big potlatch for her. (**holds up a photo of the memorial totem pole for sister-in-law) I don’t know if you can see that, but that’s the pole. It’s standing in front of the entrance to a hospital in seattle… All my boys all worked on it with me, and my wife and her mother helped paint it. I’ve made lots and lots and lots and lots of artwork for galleries for private collectors, but on the other hand, I’ve made a lot of stuff that’s used at potlatch, I’ve made a lot of stuff that is used in things that people are wearing – either my designs on their regalia, their headdresses, their drums that they sing with, rattles, lots and lots of stuff that I get such a feeling of gratitude and pride to watch them being danced and used for important things, not just on some wall. Lots of my stuff is on people’s walls all over the country too, and I’m happy about that because it’s helped me to survive and, you know, make a success of my hard work, but that’s two different kinds of success. One is towards furthering the culture and having our people be proud of who they are and to recognize that the totem poles are the signboard by which we tell people who we are – this is who lives here, these are the stories of the people of this house or this village or this clan, and I’ve had lots of good opportunities to do that. Even the totem poles that I have made for non-native people, and they’re all over the place; I did two for a couple of years ago that took us out to Pennsylvania into this far out from Philadelphia, and we went out there and danced and potlatched for those totem poles and the figures on the poles, even though the people who own the poles were not Native, it was still the story of their family, and the totem poles do that …that’s what the story is. The totem pole that’s in the Museum of the American Indian is my third favorite because of what it represents. I’m really proud that a Tsimshian pole is in that museum, and its story is a good story. The eagle and the young chief …it’s a good uplifting story, and having those opportunities and the opportunities to work with my boys, anytime I get to, is pretty amazing.

David and his family working on and dedicating the totem, “Eagles’s Spirit” created to honor the memory of David’s late sister-in-law, Cindy James. This totem stands proudly at the entrance to the Northwest Hospital in North Seattle where Cindy received her treatment for cancer. The pole was a suggestion by Cindy, herself, to the hospital and was created in collaboration by David and his sons, with his wife and mother-in-law helping paint the totem. (Photo credits: Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times).

**Unplugs laptop and turns it to show his step-son, Dylan, working on the other side of the workshop and then begins a walking tour around his workshop** Dylan’s working right now …he’s making a feast bowl. That the little one is his model, so he’s making a big one like that …it’s a very nice shape …he’s over here working hard. I’m going to show you a little bit of a tour here. I don’t know what you can see, but here this is my little storebox, but these are pieces that are a bentwood box there that’s a panel I hope I’m fixing so you can see there’s some boxes.

Q: how do you decide what stories – you’re talking about the eagle and the chief – how do you decide what stories go on your totems?

A: uh, speaking with the people that I’m doing the pole for …sometimes they have very specific wants or to tell their family stories, other times like with the Disneyworld pole, the first pole I did for Disneyworld.
I’m gonna show you this panel right here, it’s all covered up, but this is gonna be picked up tomorrow, going to a family in Oregon …
* continues tour of workshop* Oh, then the last thing here is this: back in 1999 that I’m refurbishing. I did it to honor my kids …I’m cleaning the gray off of it, and then these are little pieces for my show that are coming along …


Your Grandparents were very self reliant and sufficient as people that continued to practice traditions. This was very integral to you growing up as you have spoken many times on lack of discipline, people losing connection to the earth, or becoming overly reliant.
Do you have any thoughts on how this lack of self-reliance has affected the local art community?

Well that’s a really broad question. I’m going to step off away from this, – I want to show you something

*David steps away for a moment to grab a portrait of his grandparents*

This is Albert and Dora Bolton, they were born in the 1800s and I was lucky enough to be their grandson. They saved me, they literally saved me. My Mom had a lot of alcohol problems and she wasn’t around very much when I was growing up but these two were angels and they took me everywhere with them.
People were jealous and still talk, give me a hard time about how everywhere they went they took David, and I don’t care – they were wonderful people.
My Grandfather was my hero. He lived to just about 98 years old, my grandma passed when she was 80 but they were wonderful. I got to go every year, ever since I was a tiny guy, we got to go hunting, fishing, camping, food gathering, berry picking, sea food, deer hunting, – Y’know everything.
What I know of my language came from my grandmother, it’s a joke I tell people now; I say I sound like an old lady in our native language because it was my grandmother who would talk to me all the time.
Neither of my grandparents went past the third grade because when the fall time came it was time to catch halibut or to go to the fish camps. The parents took their kids out of school because of obligations to the family or the community. The more hands you had the more food you had for winter – but I never met a smarter man than my Grandfather.
Very Smart guy and he could do everything, he belonged to a American union and ran our steam powered canary for 50 years and I have great memories of him.

But as to your question about how everything has changed. One of the real glaring examples I see, and this has no dispersion toward any other race or culture, but I see alot of our young people being affected not only by this medium that we’re on right now but out cell phones.

Have you seen our dance group? There’s a 2016 celebration in Juneau and I wrote a song about cell phones and it’s kind of a social commentary about the cell phone being your boss, the phone taking your mind and saying “What are you going to do without your mind?”

*David recites some of the song in the Sm’álgyax language*

And that means, “See that the cell phone is your boss, he’s taking your mind”
So anyway there’s a lot of outside influence and everybody is influenced by inner city rap and that kind of culture.
Our northwest native culture is a beautiful thing but by my Mom’s generation that was crushed out of them, they were made to feel ashamed and for a lot of reasons. Economic reasons, Churches, Government actions and rules, and it was really hard. I came along at the right time. I always loved our culture because of my grandparents and I guess I was a catalyst for the revitalization of our culture in my village and when I moved to Seattle I did the same thing with the native people there and I have been lucky enough to be a positive influence on those folks.

In your biography entry on the website for Native Arts & Cultures Foundation you say: “I have much more to learn and create and will listen to the old voices tell us “create us again”, use us again, celebrate us again”

With all the work & research you’ve had to do to discover and revive traditions; what has it been like helping other tribes regain do the same? And have there been any particularly interesting traditions that caught your attention?

I’ll be right back to answer that.

*David brings a photo album showing his time working on a totem pole for a village in Alaska*

I did this 35 foot Totem Pole for the S’Klallam tribe over on the Olympic Peninsula.
My son David was six years old in some of these pictures with me

*David points to a couple of the photos showing his son*

The village there had lost everything; their culture, their language, everything. The Chief of the tribe asked me if I would carve this pole and I said, “ok this is what I charge”
He said “Oh we can’t afford that. We got $7,000” (that’s basically the tax for the totem pole at that time)
But I was so excited. The village started working. They build a carver shed and their carvers started carving more regularly and I began to oversee a totem pole longhouse project.
We carved this killer whale screen that went inside their longhouse that they built and built four totem poles, I taught them how to make the pole. They look a little like Tsimshian poles *laughs* but (Video cuts out a little) I got to be really good friends with the people in that village and I feel proud of the relationship I have with them for 30 years so that really stands out for me.
And I’ve had other opportunities to pass things on to other tribes to teaching other classes. I’ve found out second and third hand how much of an influence I’ve was and I didn’t realize that I was being to these up and coming people, those are really satisfying kinds of things.

David: You all know what Blood Quantum is right?

Jacob: No

David: It’s what percentage of you are native or African American or Asian. Y’know that we’re the only native American group that have to prove our blood quantum? That’s a pretty sad thing. If you’re a quarter native that means you’re not native in the eyes of some of our people. Unless you’re half or more, you’re not really Indian to some people but like me you are what your Mother is, or your Father. My boys, their Mother is white and their Father is Tsimshian, my boys are Tsimshians. And that Blood Quantum of having to prove how much native you are – my son is very fair and so is his girlfriend but both of them are about as native as you could be. The arts, putting up food, speaking the language, dancing, singing, they might as well have been born in 1850.

Lisa: I think in Fairbanks there’s a lot better revival for that because of the Native circle of chiefs – guys help me out here

Jacob: the Alaska Native Corporation?

Lisa: That’s part of it but it’s that no one has to prove being native there

David: It’s less than it used to be

Lisa: Oh Yeah it’s still a factor

We’ve been learning and looking over culture and how it’s changed over the years. Would you care to expand on your views on the concept of “Tradition”. In your years working to revitalize lost art and practices, what makes something traditional in your eyes?

That’s a really good question, that’s probably the best question I’ve heard today.
We make tradition. The very first potlatch I gave in ‘82 in my village – no one knew what to expect, nobody knew what was going to happen, nobody knew about potlatches, like I said I just knew the basic tenets, the three main rules.
It’s my belief that we make tradition. It’s traditional in my village now to have potlatches, it’s traditional to wear button robes, and head-dresses, and to sing in our language, it’s traditional now. It wasn’t when I was a kid and there was nothing and this whole generation of people from 40 on down it’s tradition for them to be in a dance group, y’know those kind of ceremonial things. It’s a continuity with fishing and hunting and smoking fish and preserving berries and stuff like that.
Which is really a strong thing in my village, and I’m sure in other villages, there are people who are really good at that and everybody relies on them to do it or teach it and that’s tradition.
That kind of tradition has never really stopped but the tradition and pride in ceremonies, singing, and dancing, that went away. But it’s been revived and it’s become tradition. We make tradition. That’s my answer.

That’s been my life for forty years, to bring back tradition so people are proud of who they are. When I taught school in my village I taught a ninth grade native history class, I created the class and I taught two semesters. In my tribe there are four clans; killer whale, raven, eagle, and wolf. The students in the class were ready and the very first thing I asked them, I say “how many killer whales?”

*David imitates a student raising a fist in the air with a look of pride on their face*

David: How many eagles?

*David imitates a student raising a fist in the air with a look of pride on their face*

and it was the same with the other two and then I’d say “Ok are you proud?!”

I would ask them “Why? Why are you proud?” No answers. Because at the time it was in the 80’s and there was nothing, or almost nothing.

My grandfather at one time put his hand on my shoulder and said “that’s a good weight” and said something in Sm’álgyax which meant “You can’t be proud unless you do something to be proud of” (I suppose that could be in any culture)

So I tried to get them to understand the need to learn our language, learn how to dance, learn how to carve, earn our history, preserving foods, being a good hunter and fisherman. All of those things, as my son David would say, “It’s not just dancing and beating on a drum, that isn’t culture – it’s part of it”

So being proud of who we are requires us to live who we are and teach who we are, y’know pass it on.

Do you have any thoughts or words of advice for those not part of any Native Alaskan Tribe who would wish to contribute, learn, or perhaps take part in the traditions in efforts to decolonize Alaska?

Lisa: and to add on to that would it be appropriate? Or would that be cultural appropriation?

It’s a very touchy subject. Over the years a lot of mistrust has come from people doing things that they probably shouldn’t have done. My advice has always been for non-native people, who admire and want native culture to live and to experience it, is to be respectful at all times. Try to learn as much as possible, lend a hand when it is needed, don’t be afraid to participate as an observer to begin with, learn as much as you can, ask questions, like I said be respectful. Understand that our culture, just like lots of indigineous cultures, are under attack all the time still. Even though it’s 2020, there’s still a lot of negative stuff.
To participate and appreciate native culture, it’s OK to do it honestly and with respect is my advice.

There was a group of artists when I first came down here to Seattle in the 80’s, when I decided to become a full time carver, I realized there was a group of non-native artists who were predominant in the number of galleries (quite a few galleries at that time, not anymore) who were making native art and making a good living off of native art but none of them were native and they called them “The Seattle Tribe”.

Lisa: Oh Boy

David: Just kind of a derogatory reference, but then they had their students continue on after them. They’re quite old now but they had others. I noticed over time that the galleries got fewer and fewer but the ones that continued realized that they should promote and concentrate on native artists in their galleries and not so much non-native artists whose only obvious reason for being there was to make money, which its a free country they should be able to do that.
But I found that the more I learned about, even though a couple of those guys I got to be friends with, I found myself moving in a more of a direction where I was standing up for and protecting our own culture.
I thought “Hm I am in a position where on this side of me is my grandfather, on this side of me are my sons and what am I going to do?
Am I gonna pass on from him to me to them, the pride that I have come to learn about and who we are and all the terrible things that have happened to our people in the past?” And then our language is almost gone and stuff like that, the arts are flourishing, the ceremonies are flourishing again up and down the coast for many people.

So that’s my answer, it’s a good thing to learn about our culture, it’s a good thing to experience it, it’s a good thing to get rid of the stereotypical kind of treatment. I really enjoy looking at other cultures but I knew I wasn’t a part of that but I could enjoy it and appreciate it.

Lisa: So you kind of think, if I understand it correctly, it’s important to know who you are in relation to these native cultures. Like; Don’t try to be it but learn about it and celebrate it and be respectful of it but remember who you are in your place in the world as well.

David: everyone has something to contribute to this world. Every culture is beautiful regardless of where it originated.

Some of David’s other, non-totem art:

Annotated Bibliography
David Boxley

Source #1
“David A. Boxley.” Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, 13 Mar. 2019, www.nativeartsandcultures.org/david-boxley
Money was awarded to Boxley from the national artist fellowship. This money gave him the ability to take time to carve masks for his dance group. This website shares a video of Boxley’s dance group which displays the carved masks. Pictures of Boxley’s ancient Tsimshian carvings are also shared on this site.
Source #2
“David Boxley.” Steinbrueck Native Gallery, 29 July 2020,
This article talks about how Boxley came into carving and how he made the choice to leave teaching to do more research into the art of his people and doing commissioned art. Although he left teaching as a full-time career he is still teaching by demonstrating his art and showing the world about the Tsimshian people.

Source #3
Stromberg, Joseph. “The Art of the Totem Pole.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 5 Jan. 2012, www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/the-art-of-the-totem-pole-15380874/
This article shares the story about how David Boxley and his son who have worked tirelessly on a piece of art that they are making for the National Museum of the American Indian. They have been working on and will be doing the finishing touches to a totem pole that tells the traditional Tsimshian tale called “The Eagle and the Chief”.

Source #1
Cummins, Bethany, and Garland Cary. “Celebrated Totem Pole Carver, Alumnus David Boxley, Restores Tshimshian Traditions.” SPU Stories, 31 May 2018, spu.edu/stories/articles/celebrated-totem-pole-carver-alumnus-david-boxley-restores-tshimshian-traditions/.
An article by Seattle Pacific University that discusses the influences, works, and worldwide recognition of his expertise and knowledge of the Tsimshian culture, arts, dance, and language. Discussing his background and self-taught skills and quest for cultural knowledge that David has gone on to not only become a subject matter expert but also gone on to be one of the world’s most sought after teachers.
Source #2
“David A. Boxley.” First Peoples Fund, www.firstpeoplesfund.org/artists/david-a-boxley?rq=david+a+boxley.
A brief biography of David A. Boxley, Tsimshian artist, celebrated as both an artist and teacher of Tsmimshian arts, carving, dance, and song, that tells the stories of the Tsimshian people of Alaska. A master carver, and creator of totem poles, doors, ceremonial masks, boxes, and teacher of the native ways and language of the Tsimshian people, sought out by people all over the world.
Source #3
“David Boxley.” Artist Trust, 3 Oct. 2019, artisttrust.org/artists/david-boxley/.
An artist profile of David A. Boxley, done by the Artist Trust for their Meet the Artist series for his 2013 Fellowship, this profile talks about David’s multi-medium art and dance, as well as accomplishments, including that which is most important to him – the title of “Culture-Bearer” bestowed on him by his own people.
Source #4
Pasco, Eli. “Connecting with culture and natural history inside the Burke Museum”. The Daily, 2019. Online. Internet. 8 Dec. 2020. . Available: http://www.dailyuw.com/features/article_d74ddc5c-ee59-11e9-86b2-bb51b9ae4ba6.html.
Focused on the re-opening of the University of Washington’s Burke Museum, the “Campus Sketcher” Eli Pasco, sketches pictures of the scenes, while discussing the reopening of the museum along with highlights featured in the new venue, including David Boxley and his sons in the Open Artist’s Studio.
Source #1
Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. (2018, August 09). Indian Market and Festival: David Boxley. Retrieved November 08, 2020, from https://eiteljorg.org/indian-market-and-festival-david-boxley/
This article boasts of Boxley as a featured artist. It emphasizes their inspirations, awards, and other activities, including leading a dance group around the US. This article also makes several notable mentions of Boxley’s family, especially their father and how they appeared to have an important role in Boxley’s life as an artist.
Source #2
Judd, R. (2017, June 22). A master carver creates a totem pole to honor his sister-in-law. Retrieved November 08, 2020, from https://www.seattletimes.com/pacific-nw-magazine/a-master-carver-creates-a-totem-pole-to-honor-his-sister-in-law/
This article showcases Boxley’s “latest vertical masterpiece, a majestic, 27-foot totem.” The Seattle times emphasizes the importance and many influences of this piece, including how it is an homage to Boxley’s sister-in-law. This article goes on to explain the significance of some of the many intricate details of the piece.
Source #3
Raven Makes Gallery. (2020). David A. Boxley. Retrieved November 08, 2020, from https://www.ravenmakesgallery.com/pages/david-boxley
This biography describes Boxley’s background, and highlights major events in their career. In early life, Boxley was a coach and teacher. About six years in, they made the bold choice to leave teaching and focus all of their energy on the arts, specifically carving. As their artistic career advanced, they were commissioned for pieces that would be seen around the US.
Source #4
Pasco, Eli. “Connecting with culture and natural history inside the Burke Museum”. The Daily, 2019. Online. Internet. 8 Dec. 2020. . Available: http://www.dailyuw.com/features/article_d74ddc5c-ee59-11e9-86b2-bb51b9ae4ba6.html.
Focused on the re-opening of the University of Washington’s Burke Museum, the “Campus Sketcher” Eli Pasco, sketches pictures of the scenes, while discussing the reopening of the museum along with highlights featured in the new venue, including David Boxley and his sons in the Open Artist’s Studio.

Source #1
Lotmore, Mario. “World Renowned Artist Passes on Skill and Culture to Apprentice.” Lynnwood Times, 19 Sept. 2019, lynnwoodtimes.com/2019/09/19/world-renowned-artist-passes-on-skill-and-culture-to-apprentice/.
Dylan Sanidad was selected by the Washington State heritage Arts Program to be an apprentice of David Boxley, a renowned artist from the Tsimshian Tribe. Boxley tells how art is integral to the community and the importance of people’s participation in it to continue the memory of their ancestors.
Quote from the article:
“It’s really important that this art be passed on. Having these teaching opportunities is good for our culture,” Boxley said. “It’s good for young, up and coming artists, and it’s good for me because I get to pass on what I know.”

Source #2
Quinn, Steve. “Prominent Tsimshian Artist David Boxley Reclaims the Past through Carving, Dance, Song.” Anchorage Daily News, Anchorage Daily News, 30 Sept. 2016, www.adn.com/arts/article/prominent-tsimshian-artist-david-boxley-reclaims-past-through-carving-dance-song/2013/03/21/.
The article goes into detail about Boxley’s early life and how that influenced him growing up as well as his views on the current state of Native Alaskan culture, particularly the community he grew up in. Independence and Self-Reliance were crucial parts of his journey to adulthood and beyond. These are relevant aspects concerning his views on Tsimshian tradition and arts, as well as the Native Alaskan community as a whole.
Source #3
Import, Archive. “David Boxley Talks Native, Tsimshian Art Revival.” Juneau Empire, Juneau Empire, 11 Nov. 2015, www.juneauempire.com/life/david-boxley-talks-native-tsimshian-art-revival/.
David Boxley discusses some of the results of his hard work in reviving his culture. Not only Tsimshian but Metlakatla as well, despite everything that they have gone through. It’s also a unique time for his family who were not exactly born into the culture but more so in it’s revival. With more tribes getting involved David mentions that he hopes that this encourages people to raise the bar for quality work.

“Just because it’s Native-made doesn’t mean it’s good,” he said. “We want to pull everybody up.”