Native American arts continue to thrive in Seattle

   Despite the fact that our city is named for an Indian chief, you might not think of it as a center of Native American culture. But in Seattle, Native culture appears to be thriving.

Red Eagle Soaring ( is a Native youth theater group, and it is currently preparing a play.

‘The Remember,” based on a memoir by a Squaxin Island Tribal member, is about her time in the Tulalip Indian Boarding School, said managing director Fern Renville.

The play will debut at the Northwest Folklife Festival over Memorial Day weekend. After touring various tribal settings, the group plans to perform in the Squaxin community shortly after the Tribal Canoe Journey landing, which is being hosted by the Squaxin Tribe this summer. Squaxin Island is located in the Puget Sound, north of Olympia.

More than 100 canoes are expected to participate in the landing on July 29 in Olympia, according to the City of Olympia website, and about 12,000 people participate in the annual event, according to a Squaxin Island tourism website.

“In taking this play that’s about a federal policy — Indian boarding schools, which were designed to assimilate Natives and eliminate Native culture — it seems the perfect place to take the play home…at this cultural renaissance that exemplifies the persistence of Native culture,” Renville said.

All of Red Eagle Soaring’s plays give the young actors and the community an opportunity to learn about First Nations culture, both in the broader themes and in the details.

For example, there is a scene in the play involving stick games, so they brought in a guest teacher — Kim Starr, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Central Oregon — to teach the actors how to play them. Starr said that most of the tribes play stick games, and these games are sometimes played near casinos.

“Most of the players are in tribes,” Starr said, “but other people sometimes join in, too, when they see it.”


Passing it down

There is a culture of teaching the next generation in the Native community.

“I feel that that’s important for all Native people — to find what it is they’re good at and to transmit that. So that’s a part of why I do Red Eagle Soaring,” said actor and board member Jeff Barehand.

“Take anything and we can make it Native,” said Robert Upham, youth outreach specialist at the Seattle Indian Health Board ( “It doesn’t have to have a feather on it; it doesn’t have to be something that’s rowing a canoe. There’s a certain way that we built a canoe, about thinking about it.”

Upham said he once saw a poster that said, “The Indians of the past rode horses; the Indians of the future will use computers.” He said this completely missed the point about the relationship.

“That special relationship that we had with the horse — that made us the best horse warriors in the world — is the same relationship we will have with acting and sport,” Upham said. “If we give that up and we let them train us only the way they do, then we’re missing out on a whole lot.”

As a part of continuing the culture, Indians from numerous tribes meet together at powwows. On Feb. 25, the University of Washington’s American Indian Student Commission hosted a powwow at Indian Heritage High School in North Seattle, which featured traditional dancing, drumming, singing, food and vendors.

“As Indian people, we have a unique status, [and] what comes with that is a sort of unique, special responsibility to our culture, because there are so few of us,” Barehand explained. “This is why these events exist, why the powwow circuit began — the displacement of Indians, moving them off the reservations, boarding schools trying to assimilate them into the mainstream culture. Powwows came around because people, Indians, from all the across the country were living in the big cities now, and even though they came from different tribes, they had to have a reason to assemble, and, thus, the powwow culture began.”

According to the 2010 Census, 0.8 percent of King County residents identified as exclusively American Indian or Alaska Native, or about 16,000 people, and 0.7 percent, or about 13,000 people, identified as a combination of Native and white.


Arts and crafts

Common to Native cultures everywhere is arts and crafts. The Stonington Gallery ( in Pioneer Square features contemporary Native American art. Some of the pieces use exclusively traditional techniques, and others combine different methods. 

Seattle resident Preston Singletary uses European glass-blowing techniques to make Northwest Native designs. Singletary draws inspiration from stories he heard from his Tlingit great-grandparents, according to his website.

About 56 percent of the items at the gallery come from tribal elders, and the others come from their students, according to gallery co-director Becky Blanchard. 

Currently, there is an exhibit about contemporary Northwest weavers, which will run until March 30.

“The sharing of stories becomes a natural part of their process,” Blanchard said.

Blanchard explained the story of a hat woven by Isabel Rorick, who was born into the Haida Tribe in the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia. The top half of the hat has a diamond pattern, and the lower part has a zigzag pattern.

“This weaving pattern…tells the story about a competition between a slug and a spider, to see who made the more beautiful patterns,” Blanchard said. 

On March 25, weavers will come to the Stonington Gallery from 2 to 4 p.m. to “demonstrate different weaving techniques of the Pacific Northwest Coast,” according to the gallery’s website.

“We’re very, very selective in the people that we represent,” Blanchard said. “And everybody, Native or non-Native, has to be deeply committed to honoring this art with their lives.”

Blanchard cited Susan Pavel, who is known for her blanket weaving.

“Susan married a Skokomish man and became really committed to his culture and learning everything she could about it, and then she became fascinated with weaving,” Blanchard said. 

Later, Pavel met Bruce Miller, who taught her how to weave, and she became a teacher herself as a way to honor Miller.

Woodcarver Duane Pasco is another example of a respected Native American artist who happens to be non-Indigenous. Four of his works stand in Occidental Square.

Also, totem poles can be found in galleries and around Seattle. The Burke Museum at UW, which regularly features exhibits about the First Nations, has large Native woodcarvings near the entrance.

On Feb. 26, Native American community members and others installed the most recent totem pole next to the Space Needle, in honor of John T. Williams, the Native woodcarver who was shot and killed by a Seattle police officer in August 2010. 

Native art can also be found at the Daybreak Star Cultural Center in Discovery Park. The center hosts conferences, powwows, a Head Start school program, as well as a gallery. The main building incorporates many elements of traditional Northwest Native architecture, according to its website. 

Daybreak Star ( is described by its parent organization, the United Indians of All Tribes, as “an urban base for Native Americans in the Seattle area.”

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