Artisan America
Nathan Jackson, a Chilkoot Sockeye clan leader, in front of a Beaver Clan house screen that adorns a longhouse at Saxman Totem Park. The house screen was carved on vertical cedar planks before it was raised and assembled on the house front. Jackson, who led the project, found his way back to his heritage circuitously after a boyhood spent at a boarding school that prohibited native languages and practices.
Nathan Jackson, a Chilkoot Sockeye clan leader, in front of a Beaver Clan house screen that adorns a longhouse at Saxman Totem Park. The house screen was carved on vertical cedar planks before it was raised and assembled on the house front. Jackson, who led the project, found his way back to his heritage circuitously after a boyhood spent at a boarding school that prohibited native languages and practices. (Fernando Decillis)

How Native Artisans in Alaska Bring Innovation and Humor to Their Craft

In Indigenous communities along the coast, a lively artistic movement plays with tradition

Smithsonian Magazine
SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE | January 2021

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.

Nathan Jackson
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)
Adze, totem pole drawing, raven helmet
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)
Third image-Nathan Jackson at the Totem Heritage Center
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)
Alison Bremner
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)
Decaf/Regular
Alison Bremner's silkscreen work titled Decaf/Regular. (Alison Bremner / Courtesy Steinbrueck / Native Gallery)
Sgwaayaans
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)
Making of the canoe
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)
Carrying the canoe
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)
Lily Hope and children
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)
Tlingit masks
Tlingit masks woven by Lily Hope during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Fernando Decillis)
Nicholas Galanin
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)
Nicholas Galanin artwork
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)
David A. Boxley and grandson
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)
Boxley carving
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)
About the Author: Fernando Decillis works primarily in the United States and in Colombia, as both an editorial and advertising photographer. His clients have included Coca-Cola and Reebok, and his work has appeared in Vanity Fair and Bloomberg Businessweek among others. Read more articles from Fernando Decillis
About the Author: Kimberly R. Fulton Orozco, a descendant of the Kaigani Haida nation, is a photography producer in Atlanta. Read more articles from Kimberly R. Fulton Orozco

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