Among the indigenous nations of Southeast Alaska, there is a concept known in Haida as Íitl’ Kuníisii—a timeless call to live in a way that not only honors one’s ancestors but takes care to be responsible to future generations.

The traditional arts of the Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian people are integral to that bond, honoring families, clans, and animal and supernatural beings, and telling oral histories through totem poles, ceremonial clothing and blankets, hand-carved household items and other objects. In recent decades, native artisans have revived practices that stretch back thousands of years, part of a larger movement to counter threats to their cultural sovereignty and resist estrangement from their heritage.

They use materials found in the Pacific rainforest and along the coast: red cedar, yellow cedar, spruce roots, seashells, animal skins, wool, horns, rock. They have become master printmakers, producing bold-colored figurative designs in the distinctive style known as “formline,” which prescribes the placement of lines, shapes and colors. Formline is a visual language of balance, movement, storytelling, ceremony, legacy and legend, and through it, these artisans bring the traditions of their rich cultures into the present and ensure their place in the future.

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This article is a selection from the January/February issue of Smithsonian magazine

How Native Artisans in Alaska Bring Innovation and Humor to Their Craft
A carver of monumental art, Nathan Jackson works with a tool pictured below, called an adze. Jackson, who also goes by Yéil Yádi, his Tlingit name, carves a cedar panel depicting an eagle carrying a salmon in its talons. Fernando Decillis
How Native Artisans in Alaska Bring Innovation and Humor to Their Craft
Clockwise from left: Jackson's adze. Above right, formline designs drawn on paper will be laid out on a twelve-foot totem pole before carving; a raven helmet, inlaid with abalone shell. Fernando Decillis
How Native Artisans in Alaska Bring Innovation and Humor to Their Craft
At the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan, Alaska, Jackson wears ceremonial blankets and a headdress made from ermine pelts, cedar, abalone shell, copper and flicker feathers. Fernando Decillis
How Native Artisans in Alaska Bring Innovation and Humor to Their Craft
Alison Bremner apprenticed with the master carver David A. Boxley, a member of the Tsimshian tribe. She is thought to be the first Tlingit woman to carve and raise a totem pole, a feat she accomplished in her hometown, Yakutat, Alaska. Now based in Juneau, she creates woodcarvings, paintings, mixed-media sculpture, ceremonial clothing, jewelry, digital collage and formline prints. Her work is notable for wit and pop culture references, such as a totem pole with an image of her grandfather holding a thermos, or a paddle bearing a tiny nude portrait of Burt Reynolds in his famous 1970s beefcake pose. Fernando Decillis
How Native Artisans in Alaska Bring Innovation and Humor to Their Craft
Alison Bremner's silkscreen work titled Decaf/Regular. Alison Bremner / Courtesy Steinbrueck / Native Gallery
How Native Artisans in Alaska Bring Innovation and Humor to Their Craft
Sgwaayaans, a Kaigani Haida artist, carved his first totem pole at age 19. Last year, he made his first traditional canoe, from a red cedar estimated to be 300 years old. Once the canoe was carved, it was taken outside to a lot near the Hydaburg River. Fernando Decillis
How Native Artisans in Alaska Bring Innovation and Humor to Their Craft
Clockwise from left: canoe builder Sgwaayaans and his apprentices heat lava rocks that will be used to steam the wood of a traditional dugout canoe; the heated lava rocks are lowered into a saltwater bath inside it, to steam the vessel until it is pliable enough to be stretched crosswise with thwarts; more than 200 tree rings in the Pacific red cedar are still visible with the canoe in its nearly finished form; Sgwaayaans strategically inserts the crosswise thwarts and taps them into place with a round wooden mallet to create the desired shape. Fernando Decillis
How Native Artisans in Alaska Bring Innovation and Humor to Their Craft
Haida community members then carried the canoe back to the carving shed. Historically, the Haida were famous for their giant hand-carved canoes; a single vessel was known to carry 60 people or ten tons of freight. Fernando Decillis
How Native Artisans in Alaska Bring Innovation and Humor to Their Craft
Lily Hope, a designer of Chilkat and Ravenstail textiles, lives in Juneau with her five children. She is seen weaving Tlingit masks during the Covid-19 pandemic. Hope is well known for her ceremonial robes, woven from mountain goat wool and cedar bark, and often made for clan members commemorating a major event like a birth, or participating in the mortuary ceremony known as Ku.éex, held one year after a clan member’s death. An educator and a community leader, Hope also receives “repatriation commissions” from institutions that return a historical artifact to its clan of origin and replace it with a replica or an original artwork. Fernando Decillis
How Native Artisans in Alaska Bring Innovation and Humor to Their Craft
Tlingit masks woven by Lily Hope during the Covid-19 pandemic. Fernando Decillis
How Native Artisans in Alaska Bring Innovation and Humor to Their Craft
Nicholas Galanin, a Sitka-based artist and musician, draws on his native heritage to create conceptual artworks that diverge from tradition while also commenting on it. Examples include ceremonial masks carved from anthropology textbooks and a totem pole covered in the same wallpaper as the gallery wall on which it hangs, causing it to nearly disappear. Fernando Decillis
How Native Artisans in Alaska Bring Innovation and Humor to Their Craft
Architecture of Return, Escape (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Nicholas Galanin's map of the Met on a deer hide. It shows in red paint where the “Art of Native America” exhibition’s 116 artworks are located and suggests a route for them to “escape” from the museum and “return” to their original homes. Fernando Decillis; Courtesy the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York, 2020
How Native Artisans in Alaska Bring Innovation and Humor to Their Craft
Tsimshian culture bearer David A. Boxley with his grandson Sage in his carving studio in Lynwood, Washington. An oversize eagle mask used for dance ceremonies and performances sits on the workbench. Fernando Decillis
How Native Artisans in Alaska Bring Innovation and Humor to Their Craft
David A. Boxley carefully restores a cedar house pole that commemorates his journey as a father bringing up his sons David Robert and Zachary in the Tsimshian culture. Fernando Decillis