Art Is An Instrument for Change: A Look Into Three Coastal Salish Artists

The United States is a fast-paced society with easy access to information from around the world; we are only limited by the speed at which we can navigate the Internet. Basic education is now available to more people than ever in history (Roser & Ortiz-Ospina). There has never been an easier time to reevaluate how people are represented, specifically those groups that have been abused throughout colonial history. The Internet is a great platform that artists, who use their creations as a promotion of social awareness, can use to reach a broader audience. Art can provide insight for the outside world about the inequalities the Native artists and their communities are currently facing. Art can be an instrument for social change.

I was interested in how Native American artists might use their art and platform to share the modern truths of their people, and I wanted to focus on artists who are from the land I live on, land that was stolen by European settlers. As of the 2010 census, there are 5.2 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives living in America. In the Washington State Puget Sound area, sometimes referred to as the Salish Sea, that would be the Salish people. Salish is the broad term for the Native groups that occupy land reaching into Canada and down all the way into Oregon covering 645,000 acres (Coast Salish Gathering). Salish refers to the language group of the people who live/d there (Wright). Photographer Matika Wilbur is Swinomish and Tulalip, Qwalsius Shaun Peterson is a Puyallup multimedia artist, and Roger Fernandes is a storyteller from the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe. They are all Coastal Salish artists who seek to educate their communities about the realities of modern Native Americans and combat their negative and primitive portrayals in mass media.

Historically the Salish were known for living in large Longhouses, containing immediate and extended family. The ancestral people fished salmon freely; they hunted deer, elk, moose, birds; they gathered roots, herbs, and berries. For most of the year they lived in temporary camps and migrated to their permanent winter villages where many of their traditional ceremonies took place. The Coastal Salish created Story Poles and celebrated at Potlatch events, called Sqwigwi, where they gathered and shared their wealth with each other (Northwest Heritage Project). Much of their culture was lost in the aftermath of American western expansion and through the forced assimilation in the 1800-1900’s, some of which has been slowly recovered. Today, the Coastal Salish groups continue to honor their past with many of their historical traditions and can include anywhere from 500 to 2,000 members (Jack).

Matika Wilbur is a social documentarian who is travelling across the United States for her current photography piece, Project 562. The project is intended to provide a better representation of contemporary Native Americans than what is seen in media and history books. The number “562” is for the number of federally recognized American Indian tribes at the time she started. For Wilbur, “giving power to a number was important… even though finding an accurate number is difficult, given the ever-changing political climate” (Stretten). Since starting the project, that number has grown to 573, which she believes “is indicative of the progress Native Americans are making today” (Moya-Smith), progress towards national cultural recognition.

Around 2012, she left her life in Seattle to go work and live out of her car in efforts to complete this project. Living off funds raised by two Kickstarter campaigns and the generosity of her subjects, Wilbur has photographed over 300 tribes and traveled to 40 different states. What is important to her, is how the subjects see themselves, and so they lead the sessions. “I am not shocked by poverty…. I don’t think it’s the only thing worth photographing. [Those] are the pictures that come out about our people. It’s always the same thing,” (Graves). Instead she asks the subjects to choose where they would like to be photographed, asking only that it is on their tribal land. They dress however they like, pick a spot, and she waits until “she can feel what she calls ‘the connection’,” (Graves), and then she takes the photos. In this sense, she differs greatly from the photographer that she is most commonly compared to, Edward Curtis. Curtis was a very famous Non-Native photographer, known for a producing similar work as Wilbur, except he was not as welcome in the native communities. He intended to catalog all the groups because at the time it was thought that Native groups were going extinct. He was known for bringing his own props and dressing his subjects, “[he] wanted to show Indians in their pristine state” (Kidwell & Velie 125), which often meant stripping them of their modern artifacts. This simply contributed to the ongoing stereotype of a cultural group “stuck” in the past, instead of recognizing them as modern people. Wilbur allows her subjects to present themselves as they wish to be seen – in a sense delivering self portraits of a greatly unknown, unrecognized, and variant culture. She explores a variety of topics in her interviews with her subjects; on how they feel they are misperceived; on what they dream of accomplishing; of their favorite memories. When asked how she personally navigates being Native American in the modern world, she responded “We walk in two worlds…. We learn to navigate with a moccasin on one foot and a tennis shoe on the other” (Stretten).

Not all contemporary American Indians agree with this dual-world narrative however. “We are a contemporary people and I don’t agree with the idea of ‘walking in two worlds’, as if my Native identity was incompatible with modern life. I attend ceremony, participate in my culture, and can feel no guilt about interacting with the world of today” said multimedia artist, Qwalsius Shaun Peterson in an interview for with Asia Tail for the Tacoma Art Museum. Peterson, a member of the Puyallup tribe, has been a professional artist for nearly 21 years, and while he has commissioned work across the globe, his work has been primarily installed locally in the Salish Sea area.

Previously, it was mentioned that the Salish people were known for their Story Poles. This information was lost until recently, and the fight to recognize the true history has been led in part by Peterson. One of the first pieces of public art that Peterson would create was for the newly built Chief Leschi Schools in Puyallup around 1996. The board initially commissioned a Totem Pole from First Nation carver Bruce Cook III. However, Cook was uncomfortable with the task because he wasn’t from the local Coastal Salish groups, and because Totems are not a part of Coastal Salish culture (Farr). This misconception was established itself in the Pacific Northwest in 1899, when “the city of Seattle erected a Tlingit Totem Pole of the Raven Clan, stolen from a village in Alaska” (Farr). After the loss of cultural knowledge that was in part due to the forced assimilation of native children, many Salish people do not even realize that it is historically not their iconography. Instead, traditionally the Salish people carved Story Poles, which were stationed outside of their longhouses. The important distinction, according to Peterson, is that “A Totem Pole takes from family crest iconography, and because we are not organized by clans in our culture, here we create Story Poles where the stories essentially belong to the community, not one singular family” (Farr). Peterson took over the Chief Leschi project and the scope changed from designing a Totem Pole, to a designing a Coastal Salish Story Pole. It was the first large carving project that Peterson was a part of, and while he had mentors and a community to help him carve, there was little guidance as to the proper design he should follow. He spent much time researching and collecting information on true Coastal Salish art traditions and iconography. After it was erected, not everyone was happy with the change that had taken place. “Some tribal members weren’t happy about it” said Peterson in an interview with Sheila Farr, “They wanted a Totem Pole, the familiar iconography; they were like ‘what is this type of work you are doing?’ It was unfamiliar to our own people.”

Since then, Peterson has been a key figure in reviving the Coastal Salish art traditions. The Coastal Salish aesthetic is distinct from the other groups is many ways. The most obvious way is its fluidity, varying greatly from the art style more commonly found in northern groups called Formline. Coastal Salish art can also be distinguished by the shapes it uses. The Coastal Salish basic design utilizes three shapes: the circle/oval, the crescent and extended crescent (similar to the Formline U-form), and the trigon (Peterson). It is believed that the design originates from low relief carvings (Wright; Peterson). This is evident through design development; Coastal Salish work relies on carving out the negative space to create the design – Formline designs are created by building up shapes using the positive space (Wright; Peterson).

Peterson is also very outspoken about how he feels his people have been treated. “Our people are part of this land and its history, but most importantly we are part of the present. The art I create will aim to communicate that and, in the process, create space for dialogue” (Tail). But the space he has created goes beyond his artwork. He also has a blog that features several op-ed pieces that could be a discussion on about how Native American’s are portrayed in the media, or a behind the scene look at his most recent public work commission (Qwalsius). He uses the aesthetics and design traditions that are not well known in hopes of bringing the knowledge back, that artwork itself largely inspired by his people’s stories and characters. “I believe that the art itself has been most responsible for preserving our stories…. Though I work in a variety of media I keep in mind that it’s not the media that drives the works themselves but the story or feeling it is supposed to carry to the observer” (Stonington Gallery). His public works installed around the Salish Sea area have opened up a cultural and historical education to, not only non-Native Americans living locally, but also the high number of tourists who travel from all over the world to see the great city of Seattle and it’s surrounding areas.

Unlike Wilbur and Peterson, who utilize social media and pop culture to educate their audience on Native issues, Roger Fernandes as hardly any internet presence. Fernandes, a member of the Lower Elwha Band of the S’Klallam Indian band in Washington state, is a well-respected artist and educator. He is the Executive Director at the grassroots non-profit South Wind Native Arts and Education Foundation; he is also on the arts advisory committee for the Potlatch Fund, a Native-led nonprofit that provides grants and leadership development to local tribal members. But primarily, Fernandes spreads awareness about Native American issues in a more traditional form, arguably the most traditional form. Roger Fernandes is a Storyteller.

Storytelling goes beyond the literal reciting of a story, it is an entire performance that includes music and dance. The power lies in repetition. Learning the stories begins as a child, hearing the stories over and over until the point they “[know] the story well enough to tell it, as the story [is] now a part of them and their memory” (Fernandes). The stories evolve as the listener hears them again and again. Initially, they serve as literal lessons to teach children what is expected of them, and real-life dangers. As they get older, they can explore those metaphors to help guide them through adult issues. At a cultural level, “These stories explained the world and how it worked and demonstrated how human beings were to live in the world in balance with each other and all living things” (Fernandes). Fernandes is an active educator in his community and surrounding communities at events, such as the “Native Oral, Visual, and Digital Storytelling for Social Justice” hosted by Antioch University, or Native Storytelling sessions with local libraries. He helped create a lesson plan for grades k-5 with Washington State Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform (LASER) project, so that teachers have a Native American story component while teaching science lessons. “Books and television and the Internet have replaced storytelling. We believe they are the new and improved way of communicating and teaching” he says, “[But] the true power of storytelling comes when the moisture of the teller’s breath gives life and power to the story” (Fernandes).

These stories are fundamental for one’s health, “Stories lead to a spiritual and emotional understanding on how to live in the world….  Spiritual health that people need is told in stories that convey how a human being is to live in balance with family, community, and nature” (Wisdom of The Elders). Fernandes’ storytelling is for all people, “sharing these types of stories Native people can teach non-Natives about the aspects of their culture that go beyond food, shelter, and clothing. These stories actually define the culture of the tellers” (Wisdom of The Elders). While the stories can be shared with people outside the tribe, to tell these stories as an outside citizen is to directly insult the practice itself. “To truly know the meanings of the beings represented in Coast Salish art, the owner or artist would need to tell us, or the story would have to have been passed down” (Wright). It takes more than pure memorization to tell the stories, it takes cultural knowledge and years of fundamental analysis of one’s self and their environment. Fernandes’ willingness to perform these stories for outer communities allows Non-Natives to not only learn from tribal wisdom, but better understand the modern voice of a marginalized group which they may have previously misunderstood due to stereotypes that still persist.

While it is important that we work collaboratively to revive cultures, and to help limit the destruction to cultures, it is also important to ensure that the people leading those projects are from the culture itself. Such as was seen with Peterson and his work with the Chief Leschi schools. The knowledge necessary cannot be taught in a class or a book. There are techniques and resources that cannot be mimicked. Art is something that is enjoyed across cultures, and interacted with on a regular basis, even if we are unaware of it. From huge sculptural pieces, to photographs, to Storytelling – art is all around us in its variant forms. Art is accessible across languages and perspectives. By using art as a tool to talk about their present culture, while using the methods of the past, these artists have found a beautiful way to take back the narrative and create representation that is raw, honest, and cultural. We need to open a dialog for change, and art is the perfect instrument to do so. Fernandes said it best, “Art raises questions” (SAM).


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I wrote this VERY LONG paper as my final project at Bellevue College in my Native American Studies class. I spent many hours on it, had many friends look and edit and reedit, and I am very proud of how it came out despite the challenges that I was dealing with while writing.

I was drawn to write about these artists because they were local to where I live. When I first started that quarter, I realized that I didn’t know very much about the indigenous people of my own backyard. It felt very hypocritical to pursue my goal of archaeology without knowing about the living people that have been in my own city for thousands of years. Because we live in an age of social media I wanted to include a bit of that, but that really isn’t the main focus. The main focus was the people themselves and the culture they are fighting to keep alive.

If anything, I hope that you come away with VERY BRIEF insight to the Salish people, and that you investigate the culture of the people in your area that were forcibly removed so that you could live there. 🙂

~Raelee

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