The Life of a Northwest Coast Artist
Publication Year: 2003
Published by: University of Washington Press
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OVER THE SPAN OF FOUR DECADES, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Don “Lelooska” Smith emerged as a superb storyteller, performer, and Northwest Coast Indian artist. His family’s daytime educational programs and evening shows of Northwest Coast Indian and other Indian stories and dances exposed literally tens of thousands of people...
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THIS VOLUME REPRESENTS more than collaboration between Lelooska and me. Behind it are the influences of our respective families and networks of associations. For my part, my wife, Katie Walker, has been an indispensable friend and critic. She kept me on task, offered encouragement and support, and, as usual, went over...
Note to the Reader
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THROUGHOUT THIS VOLUME, I refer to Don “Lelooska” Smith as “Lelooska” or “Don” rather than as “Smith,” for two reasons. First, the public knew him as Lelooska or Chief Lelooska, and his family and close friends knew him as Don. Second, this is a personal narrative to which I am closely connected...
1. A Life (Un)masked: Placing Personal Narrative
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In the fading gray light of a rain-soaked April day in 1996, carloads ofpeople began to arrive at the Lelooska family complex of two coast-houses,* a museum, and an art gallery in Ariel, Washington. They cameto see the evening program of Northwest Coast Indian dances, songs, and stories that have awed and inspired children and adults for more than three decades. Most made the forty-ﬁve-minute drive north from the Portland-Vancouver area. Anxious for the show to begin but curious...
2. Growing Up Indian
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Strong ties to places, distinctive memories, and personal associations are at the core of Native American self-representations. The many autobiographies, as-told-to narratives, and biographies of Native peoples reveal that one’s family position, an identiﬁcation to a “tribe” (or tribes), and a more amorphous but nonetheless palpable sense of being Indian are layered one on top of another. Drawing on all these identiﬁers, Indians create a collective, though not uniﬁed, memory...
3. Family across the Generations
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Many cultures point to family relationships and understandings as a key, even a deﬁning feature. It is basic. The role models provided for children by family and friends profoundly affect how they grow up. One’s identity is formed, at least in part, out of these early learned experiences. Children develop patterns in which they operate for years to come. While this is by no means unique for Native American families, the particular sets...
4. Learning from People
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In the 1930s under Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier, the federal government sought to strengthen tribal governments on reservations. While this maneuver was meant to assimilate Indians into the political mainstream, it fostered a new tribalism and assisted in the growing legal and political challenges Native Americans mounted to assert treaty rights, especially regarding the use of resources and lands. In 1946, when the federal government established...
5. “A Kind of Hunger”
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Asearch for identity—cultural and political—was arguably one of the key features of Native American struggles in the twentieth century and continues to be so in the twenty-ﬁrst. Yet identity is a tricky, elusive matter. What choices individuals and groups have and how differences are given meaning make identity formation particularly political. This was certainly the case for Don. Aside from his family upbringing and his appearance...
6. Openings to New Worlds
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Well into the late nineteenth century, European and American exploration, the fur trade, and early mining, ﬁshing, and lumbering brought waves of change and devastation to the aboriginal inhabitants of the Northwest Coast—but they were not overwhelmed and the destruction was not wholesale. The Indian peoples did more than just survive depopulation and cultural change: they participated in it by choosing among limited options, creatively...
7. Producing Art
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In the 1970s and through the 1980s, Don excelled in his artistic work, his conﬁdence buoyed by his relationship with Jimmy Sewid. Just how important that connection was and how central a cultural understanding was to him as an artist comes through in his recounting of how he went about carving. For Don, possessing the technical skills to carve and knowing the practical and secular uses and histories of each ladle, rattle, mask, or pole was not enough. He sought knowledge...
8. Learning from Experience
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By the 1970s, Don had moved from being an apprentice of art, culture, and history to a journeyman, even a master, and this set the era apart from the earlier years of his life. Rather than just Don seeking people out, increasingly they sought him. Don embraced these new responsibilities, making deep and lasting relationships. Capturing the mall is impossible, but the few stories Don told of those years give a glimpse into where those associations took him. They also reveal his willingness...
9. A Family Complex
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Most people associate the coasthouses, the A-frame museum, and the gallery at Ariel, Washington, with the Lelooska family. For Don and his family, those same structures were never separate from the people who created and used them, from what the larger family did and had become at Ariel. Indeed, the family and the buildings contributed mightily to Don’s success as an individual artist. The same forces that generated success...
10. New Foes, Old Friends
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The last three years of Don’s life were ﬁlled with uncertainty. His mortal illness, despite the fact that neither he, those in his family, nor his friends wanted to confront it, stared him in the face. The uneasiness that the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 had injected into his life waned in comparison to the diagnosis of colon cancer midway through 1993, his various treatments and surgery later that year, and recurrent health problems for most of the next year. By 1995...
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Many people have mourned Don Lelooska Smith’s passing, whether they knew him as an artist, a storyteller and performer, a friend, or a family member. No doubt a great number celebrate Don’s exceptional achievements. They look to his career as a consummate carver. His art and sculptural forms grace numerous homes of private collectors and hang on many corporate walls. The Oregon Historical Society portrays his work prominently in its entryways and halls...
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Publication Year: 2003