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Prominent Tsimshian artist David Boxley reclaims the past through carving, dance, song

KINGSTON, Wash. – The minute David Boxley strikes his deer hide drum, everything changes.

An empty stage quickly fills with the Git Hoan dancers, stealth in each dancer's stride, driven by respect for Boxley and a shared love for their Tsimshian culture.

The acoustics go from the crowd's restless murmurs to Git Hoan's drums and voices belting out songs reflecting respect for tradition.

Some dancers wear masks taking you to a Tsimshian past, nearly each designed by Boxley, widely recognized as one of the best of contemporary Native American carvers.

Now, you're hooked. You and thousands packed into Juneau's Centennial Hall convention center.

Most sit largely unaware that Boxley wrote nearly each song, choreographed each dance and carved masks specifically designed for each dance.

He stands wearing a red cedar shaman hat, yellow moccasins and button robe with a raven's tail trim.

He's fiercely proud of a heritage that went decades lacking cultural identity and sense of place in Metlakatla, the state's only federal reservation. It's a knowledge gap Boxely began closing 30 years ago, filling the void one carving (be it a totem pole, bentwood box or mask), one dance, and one song at a time.

He fills that void on stages nationwide, but mostly from his carving shed on Puget Sound's Kitsap Peninsula.

The shed sits slightly cut off from his home, on one of Kingston's few main arteries. It's spacious enough to work comfortably on a box drum, or mask and rattles for new dances. Work benches sit against the front and back walls of this rectangular shed, hardly cluttered so Boxley can quickly find what he wants, like the first wood adze he built with his grandfather's help.

Window sills feature some of Boxley's earliest carving attempts – two-foot totem poles – that seem to ground him, despite the fact there are now 70 of his poles standing throughout North America.

Depending on where Boxley sits, the portrait of grandparents Albert Bolton and Dora Heyward seem to watch over him. They are "the steady rock, I built my life around," Boxley says.

Boxley can spend 12 to 15 hours a day in his shed, sometimes losing track of time. If he isn't there, he can be found either en route to a Git Hoan performance – the group logged more than 15,000 flight and highway miles in 2012 – or on stage.

Every two years, Git Hoan (people of salmon) perform at Celebration in Juneau, one of the nation's largest Native dance gatherings, attracting groups largely, but not exclusively, from Southeast Alaska.

Boxley and about 15 other dancers, ages 3 to 60, pack crates that get barged to Juneau. Then they fly nearly 1,000 miles to perform two 30-minute dance selections.

After a particular dance ends and the group prepares for the next offering, Boxley addresses the crowd, now silent.

"A long, long time ago, our people were strong," Boxley says. "Our culture was strong. We had a closer tie with nature than we do now. Something happened though. Strangers came and said what's yours is no longer yours and you can never be the way you were before.

"That was a pretty awful and sad time for our people. It's not that way any more. All of us are celebrating our culture and who we are."

Boxley pauses before delivering his most pointed message:

"Please folks," he says, "learn our languages. Learn our languages. It's what makes us what we are.

"All of us are salmon eaters. All of us are people of the water. But it's the languages that sets us aside and makes us beautiful. Don't let our languages die."

Back then, few Tsimshian signs

Born in 1952 in Ketchikan, David Boxley grew up due south across the Revillagigedo Channel in Metlakatla and was raised by his grandparents.

He grew up at a time when the village had few signs of his family's Tsimshian history. No totem poles stood, no potlatches took place, homes lacked traditional artwork: masks, rattles, blankets. Dances replete with regalia and songs didn't exist.

No one produced traditional art, nor did anyone teach cultural history or the language.

On his web page, carver Robert Hewson, also of Metlakatla, reflects on village life in the 1950s and 1960s, Boxley's childhood years.

He writes: "We had to go to the Trading Post in Ketchikan to see masks – or anything – done in Northwest style.

"When the 900 Tsimshian moved away from Old Metlakatla to a temporary site on the way to their new home in Alaska, (William) Duncan told them that he had given up his old ways to go to Alaska, and that they should do likewise.

"As symbols of their old ways, they should destroy their masks and rattles, headdresses and robes. On the beach, the Tsimshian built a huge bonfire and burned thousands of precious objects, many that had been handed down for generations. After that there would be little public display of tribal art for many, many years."

Childhood of cultural immersion

The village's museum stood as the most visible landmark, once home to lay missionary Duncan, who led 826 Canadian Tsimshians from British Columbia to their Alaska home on Annette Island, known first as New Metlakatla. Eventually the word, "New" was dropped.

Many celebrate Duncan each Aug. 7, Founders Day, understanding that were it not for Duncan and courageous Canadian Tsimshians, Alaska Tsimshians might not exist.

But what Metlakatla lacked in Tsimshian culture, Boxley's home life did not. Both grandparents spoke Tsimshian. So, unlike many of his peers statewide and ensuing generations, Boxley enjoyed a childhood of cultural immersion. He spoke Tsimshian, mostly with his grandmother, and considers himself functional but not fluent.

Boxley's grandfather became a first generation Alaska Tsimshian, born just seven years after the Duncan-led settlement.

His grandfather worked the boiler in the cannery; he was a man who hunted and fished, and "could build anything."

He taught his grandson how to select the right tree for carving and how to make his own tools with items from a junkyard.

At home, his grandmother, a midwife, prepared meals made of halibut, salmon, deer meat and various shellfish.

"I really don't remember ever seeing a beef steak until I went to college," Boxley says.

Recalling his grandmother's cooking, Boxley stops sanding a drum hide, gazes at her photo, then closes his eyes as if he were savoring one of her meals.

"Man, she could do fish: prepare it, smoke it, can it," Boxley says. "I loved being my grandfather's lunch boy. As soon as I was old enough, I would go down to his work, and deliver my grandpa's lunch.

"I would be happy if it was a short day and there wasn't much fish. My grandfather would say we're going to close early for the day.

"I would take his lunch, go through a trap door, sit on the beach and eat his lunch. She made some good lunches for him."

Boxley says he grew up "odd in terms of everyone else," for spending most of his time with his grandparents.

He described himself as "a square peg searching for a round hole," never dabbling in alcohol or drugs, a temptation given into by many teens.

"I never wanted my grandparents to have any pain that I caused," he says. "I always wanted them to be proud of me, so that was my motivation."

After graduating from Metlakatla High, Boxley enrolled at Seattle Pacific University. In 1974, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in physical education with a minor in art, the most formal training he had.

The rest came from his own research.

While doing oil paintings at Seattle's Daybreak Star Cultural Center, a group of men carving panels caught his attention. That took him to a lumberyard in downtown Seattle, where he purchased pieces of yellow cedar and sugar pine.

He began mimicking Haida and Tlingit poles, only because they were the most available to him for study.

He returned to Metlakatla after teaching one year in Seattle, finding himself part of widespread workforce reduction. By then he decided he would no longer allow the absence of his culture to keep him from learning the Tsimshian traditions.

A new immersion began.

By the time he returned home, a man named Jack Hudson began offering Native art classes. By then, he had also looked elsewhere for help.

Boxley had been taking trips to the University of Washington's bookstores and Burke Museum to study Tsimshian art. He traveled to British Columbia, places like Victoria and Vancouver, where he would finally get to see greater works by his ancestors.

For 10 years, he taught in Metlakatla and in Washington, and while learning to be a Tsimshian carver, further studying his ancestors' work.

In 1982, two years after his grandmother died, he carved what would be Metlakatla's first raised pole. It marked a turning point for a village that lacked cultural identity.

In 1986, as his work began looking more Tsimshian – "Alaska Tsimshian," he says – Boxley returned to the Puget Sound area to become a full-time carver.

"I had been an artist since I was in third grade; I really enjoyed it and didn't want to wait," Boxley says. "I had two small kids and I wanted them to know their maternal grandparents. But I had to sacrifice their time and my time with my grandfather. That was very hard."

Proud of Metlakatla

He never severed ties to Metlakatla.

A year after leaving, he founded the 4th Generation Tsimshian dancers as the village celebrated its 100th year. Eight years after leaving, he organized the village's most memorable potlatch, honoring four clans while raising three poles. The poles stand 10, 15 and 30 feet tall, the latter completed by Boxley honoring his grandfather.

For four consecutive nights, more than 1,000 people were fed each night while paying tribute their heritage with dances and songs produced by Boxley.

Childhood friend Wayne Hewson, who carved the 15-foot pole, says the potlatch was crucial not only toward the Tsimshians healing, but also instilling pride.

"Wherever he goes – I mean where ever he goes – he'll mention he's from Metlakatla and he's Tsimshian," says Hewson, who learned carving from Boxley. "He's never stopped being proud of this village."

Hewson says Boxley's strength is his refusal to harbor anger over what's lost, choosing instead to build pride.

It's a calming influence, a trait, that Hewson says, may also be underappreciated.

"He used to tell me, several tribes have been forced to go through the Assimilation. He said, 'Our people weren't [the] only ones. If we try to be bitter, we'll be no different than we already are.

"'All we can do is move forward and emulate. If we stay mad, we are going to stay where we are.' He's right, you know."

Carving for Goodwill Games

Upon returning to Washington in 1986, Boxley says he "fell into a bunch of commissions."

One of those was for the 1990 Goodwill Games, international games created by media mogul and former sports franchise owner Ted Turner who wanted to soothe the political rancor that overtook the spirit of camaraderie and competition in the 1980 and 1984 Olympic games.

Boxley carved the crown of a talking stick for the games, played in the Seattle area. His work represented the unification of the American eagle and the Russian bear, a stark contrast to the Cold War differences between the U.S. and Soviet Union that had created the Olympic discord.

Boxley created what he called a symbol of peace and harmony between the United States and Soviet Union. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev placed messages in a hollowed portion of the talking stick.

Athletes then carried the stick from Spokane through Washington and Oregon to Seattle for the opening ceremony, just like an Olympic torch makes its way through the host country.

Boxley quickly established a relationship with the Quintana Galleries in Portland, Ore., where his work has become a fixture and a source of tremendous gallery pride.

"Not all of the artists were reviving a culture, but he was," says owner Cecily Quintana, whose parents Rose and Cecil founded the gallery and first worked with Boxley.

"Here was this young carver taking on the learning of the language, the learning of the art form, the stories and the songs," Quintana said. "He had a following from the start but it was the dedication to his culture that endeared us to him."

In December, Quintana loaned two of Boxley's masks to Amsterdamn De Nieuwe Kerk Museum.

The two items became part of an exhibit titled, "The American Indian: Art and Culture between Myth and Reality."

Curator David Penney selected Boxley's mask depicting a Noble Woman and a transformation mask of a Raven & Bright Cloud Woman.

They accompanied works loaned from the Peabody Museum, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of Natural History.

Carving discussions with Boxley come with deference to others.

Talks can quickly lead to people like his son Zach, a man he considers among the best bentwood box makers in the Pacific Northwest. They can also shift to Tlingit carver Nathan Jackson who helped the Boxleys raise two poles, nearly 30 years apart.

Or older son Davey, who spent two years in Vancouver working with Haida carver Robert Davidson, whom Boxley calls "the best of the best."

"The art in the 1900s was just a shadow of what it used to be in the 1800s. The art suffered great loss in terms of integrity," Davidson says. "It didn't have the world-class appearance. It declined into tourist art. David made a commitment to relearning the standards of his ancestors; it shows in his work."

In January 2012, father and son completed work on a 23-foot totem pole that now stands in the National Museum of the American Indian.

They spent two weeks at the museum putting the final touches on the pole before raising it.

At the museum's atrium, the two worked in public view while fielding questions about their project, their heritage and about this little known village called Metlakatla. They shared thoughts with visitors, curators and journalists, including a crew from the British Broadcasting Co. who shared Boxley's work with a global audience.

"One of the neatest things about that experience for me was the fact that two words were said all over this country, if not the world, for two weeks: Tsimshian and Metlakatla," Boxley says "Or at least they were being heard. Our little village -- our little Tribe – got so much attention."

The pole will remain a fixture for the foreseeable future, says Kerry Boyd, the museum's assistant director of exhibitions.

It stands in a 120-foot-square atrium that dwarfs everything else in the space of the 9-year-old museum. It fills a void of not having anything from the Pacific Northwest in that atrium, Boyd says.

It also satisfies one of Boxley's longstanding goals.

"I've been wanting a totem pole in that place since before ground was broken," Boxley says.

"There are more than 500 tribes or Indian nations on this continent. Everybody wants to have something in this museum.

"I'm not the first contemporary totem pole carver to have a pole in this museum. Nathan Jackson was. But I am there."

Not just a carver

Despite having a prominent presence in a Smithsonian museum and being among featured carvers in an international exhibit, Boxley says he doesn't want to be known as "just a carver."

Kind of tough for someone who has more than 70 totem poles raised throughout North America and in Europe. His masks, bentwood boxes and panels have sold in galleries across the Northwest Coast and the nation. He has works in collections belonging to world leaders in Sweden, West Germany and Japan.

Being Git Hoan's dance leader for the last 10 years should ease those worries of having a limited identity.

Last year Git Hoan performed in Washington, D.C., Minnesota, Indiana, New Mexico, Oregon and Boxley's home states, Washington and Alaska.

With Git Hoan, Boxley melds dance, masks and songs (and with that, language education) into a single art. It's a formula that fosters unity among his dancers and drives Tsimshians closer to restoring pride in a stolen past.

"What he's done is he's made a commitment to revive song and dance, and the art," says Davidson, whose own dance troupe energizes audiences as much as Boxley's.

"Historically we've been denied both," Davidson says. "The art is a very important ingredient to culture. Because of the Christian values and ideas, it was a threat to their converting Native people. The laws were such that we couldn't practice any of our dancing. The art was part of that decline after the laws were enacted.

"The art is a reflection of the culture; it helped bring back culture. The song and dance validates the art."

The group leader guides dancers who treat each rehearsal like a reunion to celebrate collaborative talents and a common goal. Even as their timing remains sharp between performances, Boxley demands a certain precision before and after each rehearsal. Each dancer bears a responsibility to help pack boxes of drums, rattles and masks. No exceptions.

When someone outside the group offers to help unload the van, Boxley politely declines, saying, "they have their jobs."

Sometimes this signature discipline has dancers wondering what it was like to play basketball for the former head coach who posted a 57-3 record at Metlakatla High.

"A few trips ago I told him, 'sometimes I wish you wouldn't have been a basketball coach,' but maybe we wouldn't be as good as we are if he weren't," says dancer Cindy James who has been with Boxley longer than any member and shares the stage with two daughters, one son and 3-year-old grandson Dominic.

"What he's doing is helping us spread our culture," she says. "Spreading what we've known from the beginning of time. I'm so glad it didn't get taken away from us for good, and we've been able to revive it."

Boxley no longer carries a clipboard or a whistle, but he will command attention with a few quick drum strikes.

"We are representing our whole culture everywhere we go, not just Tsimshian culture – that's most important to me – but Northwest Coast culture.

"I want our regalia to be beautiful and appropriate. I want our presentation to be prideful in a good way, and energetic.

"I want people who are proud of who they are and want to learn more about who they are. I want to teach our people our language by having them learn the songs."

Last year, Boxley's group received two honors at Celebration: an Alaska Legislative citation sponsored by former Sen. Albert Kookesh and an invitation to do an encore performance.

The encore is rarely afforded to dance groups, each of whom already produce two 30-minute performances, once in Centennial Hall and again at the Alaska Native Brotherhood center.

But Boxley accepted an invitation to help close out the final night with a third performance, something last offered to Davidson's group, Rainbow Creek Dancers.

Boxley has his group preparing a new collection of dances for the 2014 Celebration gathering in Juneau.

That means new songs and new masks. He'll look to his sons and dancers, who often sand and paint, and sometimes carve their own masks and rattles.

Boxley may be the standard bearer, but he understands the younger generation will advance the culture and it's time to empower them.

That starts with elder son Davey and quickly spreads throughout the group. Some of the younger members say they face criticism for leaning on new songs they wrote rather than looking to their ancestors work. That's an unfair assessment, Davey Boxley said.

"We can't always be living off of our ancestor's accomplishments," the younger Boxley says. "They created a true civilization in the Northwest Coast, but it's up to us now to maintain that.

"If we are going to live our culture, we can't just imitate what happened before. We actually have to live our culture.

"Old people believe we are reincarnated from ancestors. That means we are the ancestors.

"We've got to give up this thought that we are trying to be who they were."

In 2010, the younger Boxley, with his father's support, implored dance groups to bring a new song to the 2012 Celebration. Many groups specifically acknowledged meeting the challenge.

So too did Git-Hoan with its opening song, written by the younger Boxley, which translates, "Smile, be happy, God loves you."

The new song challenge prompted him to reflect on his father's' advice.

"He tells me, 'Do what you say you're going to do.'" the younger Boxley says. "That sticks out more than anything else.

"What's the measure of a man? It's not the size of his wallet, the car that he drives or how big his muscles are. It's his word.

"I've learned a lot from my dad, but that's what sticks with me the most. Whenever I mess up, I hear that in my head."

Language at risk

Two years later at the next Celebration, it was the Elder Boxley who brought a new challenge to the crowd, imploring them to learn indigenous languages.

There are about 70 fluent Tsimshian speakers in Alaska, according to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Native Language Center. A handful of those speakers live in Metlakatla, most are Elders.

The thought of watching a language lose its last fluent speaker remains stark. Five years ago, Marie Smith Jones, the last fluent speaker of Eyak died, making the absolute necessity for a statewide Native language revitalization movement abundantly clear.

"It's one of my biggest worries. Boxley says. "I'm always crabbing about it."

Boxley then shares a story firmly etched in his memory. It dates several years when Git Hoan visited a Cherokee nation in North Carolina and illustrates his sense of urgency.

"It was the first time we went out there to dance for the Cherokees," he says. "They have dance groups come from all over North America. The night before we were going to dance, they had this gala where all the big shots from the tribes came.

"All the dance groups and presenters were going to have five minutes to show a snippet of what they would expect to see. We were waiting our turn and the guy speaking right before me was from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, from the western Cherokees.

"The guy was giving his talk and listening. At one point he said, 'I really feel bad that there are only 10,000 Cherokee speakers left.' You could hear my jaw hit the ground. I forgot everything I was going to say. Instead of doing my regular protocol in my language, the first thing out of my mouth was '10,000?' – and everybody laughed.

"I said we don't have 10. And nobody laughed. Ever since then, our language and preservation has been on my mind."

Steve Quinn of Juneau is a frequent contributor to First Alaskans magazine. Used with permission.

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