Interview with Native American Tsimshian Artist David Boxley
David Boxley, a Tsimshian artist from Alaska, has been producing high quality pieces of art for over twenty five years. In that time he has built up an international reputation having produced Totems (and other pieces) for a variety of high profile clients, including the Goodwill Games and, most recently, the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian.
David, first I’d like to thank you for chatting with me. As with all of my interviews I like to start at the beginning. Can you perhaps tell us how you first discovered an interest in art and why, specifically, you chose to focus upon the indigenous styles of your tribe rather than, say, modern art?
I have been interested in art in general since the 3rd grade. I drew for my high school newspaper and yearbook. I was raised by my native grandparents and the art and culture of my tribe has always been important to me.
You have described yourself as a culture bearer for your people, can perhaps explain what that means: what responsibilities have you given yourself as part of this?
I did not give myself the “culture bearer” title. It is how I am referred to by some people. I came along at a time when there was really no one in a position to lead, be an example, or to teach. So much was lost to my people as a result of missionary influence, and government regulations toward native people. It was not my intention to step into a leadership position, I just wanted our culture to not go away completely, and I was fascinated by the art and how beautiful the art of the cultures of the Northwest coastal natives is. I was fortunate to be interested in many areas, the art, our language, song and dance. They have all merged to become a part of my journey, and I am not the only one. There are many in these days from other tribes too, who are involved in the perpetuation of their culture.
How would you describe your typical client, do you tend to sell your art within or outside the Indian community?
There are no typical customers. I make art for my own people to use in ceremony, as well as non-native collectors, corporations and organizations. I also regularly trade my art to my own people to obtain native foods that I am not able to easily get.
In addition to sculpture you are also heavily involved in the Git-hoan Native Dance Group, can you tell us a bit about your involvement with that group?
I am the founder and leader of the Git-Hoan (people of the salmon). I have written most of our songs and created most of the masks and props we use.
Returning to your sculpture, I wanted to ask you about the piece you contributed to the 1990 Goodwill Games (between the US and USSR) . What role do you see art like yours playing in such events?
I was commissioned to make a “speaker stick” for the 1990 Good will Games. I eventually made a second copy that was presented to officials from St. Petersburg. It was used in the opening ceremonies instead of a torch. It was carried by Native American Olympic Gold Medallist Billy Mills. Then messages from President Bush and Gorbachev were removed from a hollowed portion of the speaker stick and read. I cannot speak about the use of art in international affairs, except I was proud to have been asked to include Tsimshian art in the opening ceremonies. There was a significant Native American participation in the opening of those games.
You were recently featured in an article by the BBC which claimed that you revived an “extinct” form of totem art. Can I ask you to clarify this?
The article was mistaken when they said I have revived an “extinct art”. That was a mistake, I never said that. I am only one of many artists from many tribes up and down the Northwest Coast. On the other hand, the influence of the missionary, the government, diseases and alcohol, took a tremendous toll on all indigenous people, and was instrumental in the loss of many facets of native culture. What we now call art, being a very important part of ceremonial life, took a big hit.
I’d like now to put you on the spot and ask which of your pieces means the most to you and why?
The memorial totem pole I made for my grandfather in my village in 1994, is the most important pole. Significant others are masks, rattles and drums I have made that are used for our songs and dances used by my own people.
Finally, I’d like to ask what you ultimately hope to achieve through your art – is there a larger goal and if so what is it?
My involvement with art has many aspects. I make my living as an artist. Collectors, galleries, native people buy my work, but I am very much involved in our cultural activities, Potlatch, dancing and language preservation. These are all very important to me. I am proud to be Alaskan Tsimshian and that I am very fortunate to be a part of the culture that means so much to our people.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank David for taking the time to answer my questions. For more on David Boxley visit his website at www.davidboxley.com