From the late 1800s until 1934 in the U.S. and 1951 in Canada, the potlatch—the great system of celebration, honoring, witnessing, and wealth redistribution—was banned in an effort to kill indigenous cultural ways. Potlatch-related activities, such as carving, were banned. Authorities confiscated regalia. People who went to potlatches were arrested and jailed. And yet, the cultural ways survived.
Among those who defied the unjust laws of the time were the artists who continued to carve regalia masks, house posts, great totem poles, and sea- and ocean-going canoes. Here’s a list of some of the carvers and their artistic heirs whose legacy is a culture that is living and thriving. This list is by no means complete.
Joseph Hillaire, Lummi (1894-1967) Hillaire’s art built bridges of understanding between peoples, and bridges of friendship between nations.
His Setting Sun Dancers still carry on Lummi songs and dances. He was instrumental in reviving the Lummi Stommish Water Festival; the 68th annual event was held this year. His knowledge of Lummi culture informed anthropologist Erna Gunther, curator of the Northwest Coast Native exhibit at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. And he traveled throughout the U.S. and to Japan, fostering inter-cultural friendships and bringing attention to Native culture.
Hillaire carved two story poles for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair—one to tour the United States to promote the fair and Northwest heritage, and one for Seattle’s sister city, Kobe, Japan. The touring pole was taken to 300 cities and towns before it was returned to Seattle for the opening of the fair. It stood at the nearby Port Madison Indian Reservation until 2008, when it was relocated to the Lummi Reservation. The other pole still stands in a park in Kobe.
Harris “Brick” Johnson, Jamestown S’Klallam (1912-1989) The S’Klallam master carver served as a member of the Peninsula College Board of Trustees from 1968-1978, during some of the earliest years of the college.
In 1971, Johnson carved a totem pole and gifted it to the college to honor the relationship between the college and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. His protégé and nephew, Terry Johnson, refurbished the pole this year and the pole was rededicated on April 29. Other poles Johnson carved can be seen at Pioneer Park in Sequim, Washington, and in front of the tribe’s Administration Building.
Johnson served on the S’Klallam Tribal Council in the 1930s, ’40s and ’70s, was commander of the local VFW post, and presented salmon and clam bakes to raise money for community causes.
“Uncle Brick was a tribal leader, a traditional artist, and a proud promoter of tribal culture,” his niece, Rosie Zwanziger, told the tribe’s newsletter. He and his wife Iris’s home was always full of local children, whom he taught traditional dances and songs, regalia making, and fishing. He also founded a summer academic and cultural education program for S’Klallam children.
Bill Reid, Haida (1920-1998) Working in traditional forms and modern media (usually gold, silver and argillite), Reid made jewelry before branching into larger sculptures in bronze, red cedar and yellow cedar to bring his ancestors’ visual traditions into a contemporary form.
Reid’s most popular works are three large bronze sculptures, two of which depict a canoe filled with human and animal figures: one black, “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii,” at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.; one green, “The Jade Canoe,” at Vancouver International Airport, British Columbia. The other bronze sculpture, “Chief of the Undersea World,” depicts a breaching orca and can be seen at the Vancouver Aquarium.
Reid created more than 2,000 works over his career, from the “monumentally small” to the “exquisitely huge,” according to the Bill Reid Foundation. “[He] was the pivotal force in introducing to the world the great art traditions of the indigenous people of the Northwest Coast.” He authored several books on Haida art and culture. Two of his sculptures, “Raven and the First Men” and “Spirit of Haida Gwaii,” were featured on Canada’s $20 note in 2004.
Reid was also an environmental warrior. He participated in the blockades of logging roads, which helped save the rainforests in his homeland; he also stopped work on his “Spirit of Haida Gwaii” sculpture to protest the destruction of Haida Gwaii’s forests.
Nathan Jackson, Tlingit (1938 – ) Jackson, an esteemed culture bearer as well as master carver and metal smith, learned Tlingit ways from his clan uncle and grandfather, Jack David. After serving in the military in the late 1950s, Jackson attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Over the course of Jackson’s career, his work has included carved doors and panels, canoes, masks, and formline bracelets in gold and silver. His work is part of the landscape and streetscape.
Jackson has carved more than 50 totem poles, some of which are on display in the National Museum of the American Indian, the Field Museum in Chicago, Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, and other museums in the United States, Europe, and Japan. He also carved totem poles on display in Juneau at Centennial Hall and in the Sealaska Building; and in Ketchikan at Saxman Native Village, Totem Bight State Historical Park, and the city’s Totem Heritage Center.
In 1976, he was commissioned by the City of Seattle’s Art in Public Places program to carve a Northwest Coast Native design that would be reproduced as hatchcovers, or manhole covers. His Tlingit whale relief was carved in wood and cast in iron; 32 of these hatchcovers grace the streets of Seattle.
Jackson shares his knowledge with those studying Tlingit culture. He taught apprentices through the Alaska State Arts Council, and conducted workshops and art demonstrations throughout Alaska and the Northwest. Honors bestowed on him include an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska, Southeast; National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; and a Rasmuson Foundation Distinguished Artist Award.
Joe Martin, Tla-o-qui-aht (1953 – ) British Columbia Premier Christy Clark called Martin “an ambassador for Clayoquot Sound and the traditions of the Nuu-chah-nulth” when the cultural leader received the 2013 BC Creative Achievement Award for First Nations Art.
Canoe carving is an art that has been passed down in Martin’s family from generation to generation and, true to tradition, Martin passes on his knowledge and skill to the next generation. In 2013, two of his students, father and son Steve and Josh Charleson, completed a canoe in Hes-qui-aht territory; two students from the Seitcher family of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation also completed a canoe.
In his career, Martin has carved 62 canoes, according to the British Columbia Achievement Foundation. A canoe he restored is depicted in a print by Tsimshian artist Roy Henry Vickers. He also carves totem poles, which he told National Geographic in 2013, he views as more than art—each pole embodies the traditional laws of the Tla-o-qui-aht. “It represents our rights and responsibilities based on the Natural Law of Mother Earth,” Martin told National Geographic. “It is a reflection of ‘Hishuk Ish Ts’awalk’—our understanding of the world where everything is connected.”
In 2013, Martin completed a pole that honors survivors of residential schools. It stands 20 feet tall and was raised in front of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation-owned Tin Wis Resort Lodge, former site of a residential school.
When he’s not sharing his culture through art, he takes people on boat tours of Tla-o-qui-aht territory and shares his deep knowledge of land and sea, and our responsibility to protect the environment that sustains us.