David Boxley talks Native, Tsimshian art revival

David A. Boxley stands next to the Tsimshian cedar bentwood chest that he made with his son,  Zach, at the Tináa Art Auction, a fundraiser for the Walter Soboleff Center, at Centennial Hall Feb. 1, 2014.

David A. Boxley stands next to the Tsimshian cedar bentwood chest that he made with his son, Zach, at the Tináa Art Auction, a fundraiser for the Walter Soboleff Center, at Centennial Hall Feb. 1, 2014.

At his very first Native art show, David A. Boxley, now a renowned Tsimshian carver and culture bearer, carved Tlingit and Haida totem poles from books. He used model paint instead of acrylics, and suffered from the fumes.

In 2012, he and his son, David R. Boxley, carved a totem pole at the Museum of the American Indian. Through a live video feed on the internet, they waved at schoolkids in Metlakatla on request. More recently they created the Tsimshian house front that greets visitors to Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Walter Soboleff Building.

Boxley was the first speaker in an SHI lecture series in honor of Native American Heritage Month. He spoke Nov. 3 on the revival of Tsimshian culture and his journey as an artist,

His own artistic journey has an arc that is intertwined with that of Metlakatla’s and Northwest indigenous art as a whole. Just a little more than a century ago, Rev. William Duncan, the Anglican minister that led Tsimshian people to settle in Metlakatla, banned potlaching. Dance masks and regalia were confiscated. Tsimshian people were put into prison for traditional and cultural acts like singing, dancing, and giving gifts, Boxley told the audience.

Now, he said, Metlakatla has “seen a revival.”

“So many people are singing and dancing now, and so many people are carving now that weren’t when we first started,” he said. “I think (Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian art) stands with the best art in the world.”

Boxley, who carved a totem pole for and hosted the first potlatch in the village, is a big part of that.

The epidemics of smallpox and Spanish flu decimated Alaska Native populations.

Overall, smallpox killed 75 percent of the Pacific Northwest’s indigenous peoples, he said. This affected art, too; many of the people who knew songs, dances, and art died. Mungo Martin, Bill Holm and Bill Reid were some of those that helped keep it alive. Modern-day artists like Nathan Jackson, Norman Tait, Jimmy Hart, Delores Churchill and her daughters have also influenced him, he said.

Formline, Boxley said “is the foundation of everything we do.”

“If the formline isn’t good, the whole thing isn’t good,” he said.

And while he said he doesn’t want to discourage anyone, he also said Alaska Native artists need “to raise the bar for ourselves and for our people.”

“Just because it’s Native-made doesn’t mean it’s good,” he said. “We want to pull everybody up.”

Before European and Russian contact, the four Tsimshian divisions (the Nishga, Gitksan, Southern and Coast Tsimshian) met each summer to harvest eulachon, he said. They pressed oil from the fish, put it in bentwood boxes, and those boxes were traded up and down the coast — a functional way of sharing art.

Many young Alaska Natives are producing beautiful, modern art by studying old pieces such as boxes and screens, he said, mentioning his son, David R. Boxley.

“That house front downstairs really is a direct result of our just studying old pieces,” he said. “Innovation is fine. We’re in favor of innovation. It’s a good thing, but we also have to be careful (to maintain the quality and integrity of the work). … We want to always strive for excellence.”

SHI president Rosita Worl thanked Boxley for his talk.

“I know that future generations are going to be singing your praises,” she said. “I feel so honored to stand in your presence to see what you’ve done. To see what’s possible.”

While his sons, Boxley said, are “my right and left hand, and my heart,” his grandparents are the biggest influence on his life.

“My grandfather is my hero,” he said. “He’s the reason I’m standing here in front of you … Metlakatla di wil waatgu.” (Metlakatla is where I’m from.)

 

•••

For the rest of SHI’s Native American Heritage Month lectures: On Friday, Nov. 13, Walter Soboleff Day, a panel will speak on retrospective views of Soboleff; Tuesday, Nov. 17, Haida master artist Robert Davidson will speak on his journey with Haida art; Tuesday, Nov. 24, Alutiiq master artist Perry Eaton will speak on “Art of our Ancestors: Kodiak Island,” and Thursday, Dec. 3, young artists Alison Bremner, David R. Boxley, Rico Worl and Nick Galanin will discuss the future of Northwest Coast art.

All lectures begin at noon on the second floor of the Walter Soboleff Building and are free and open to the public.

• Contact Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@capweek.com.

More in Neighbors

A cuddle-puddle of kittens nestles at Juneau Animal Rescue, which recently received a large legacy gift from a Juneau resident. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)
Juneau resident leaves one last gift for local nonprofits

The gift will help support organizations who made possible what she loved doing in life.

Dana Zigmund / Juneau Empire 
Owen Rumsey and Pacific Ricke, both Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé freshmen, move a Christmas tree during the swimming and diving team’s annual tree and wreath sale. The JDHS and Thunder Mountain High School swim and dive teams are selling Christmas trees and wreaths. Trees start at $50 and wreaths are $40, delivery is offered for $25. The sale will be open every evening but with different hours on weekends. Weekdays, the sale will be open from 5-7 p.m. and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on weekends. Online ordering is available at jdswimdive.org.
PHOTOS: Diving into holiday decorating

Swimmers and divers sell trees and wreaths

teaser
Living & Growing: Thankful for a community that exceeds expectations

I’m so grateful that I live in Juneau and that you are my neighbors.

Thx
Thank you letters for the week of Nov. 14, 2021

Thank you, merci, danke, gracias, gunalchéesh.

Teaser
Living & Growing: Thanksgiving — atruly American holiday

By the Rev. Tim Harrison Thanksgiving is almost upon us. It is… Continue reading

Haines-based author and Alaska’s current writer laureate will be at Hearthside Books Nugget Mall location on Sunday, Nov. 7, to read from her latest book “Of Bears and Ballots: An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics.”
Heather Lende, Haines writer, to read from latest book in Juneau

Alaska’s writer laureate reflects on ‘difficult’ writing.

(Courtesy Photo / Ralph “Ravi” Kayden, Unsplash)
Gimme a Smile: Trick or treat, anyone?

Gotta love a Halloween party.

Teaser
Living & Growing: The power of symbols

In an era when emojis can form a complete sentence, symbols are more powerful than ever.

This photo from the Capt. George H. Whitney Photograph Collection shows a man, with wheelbarrow cart and two dogs in harness, transports beer barrels along boardwalk; pedestrians, buildings, and sign for Coon’s Drugstore in background in Juneau in 1886. Juneau and Douglas’ breweries were the subject of the Gastineau Channel Historical Society’s award-winning newsletter. (William Howard Case/ Alaska State Library - Historical Collections)
Local publication recognized with statewide award

It’s the second year in a row.

Laura Rorem  (Courtesy Photo )
Living and Growing: Seeking justice for people experiencing homelessness

Each homeless person is a unique and precious human being created in God’s image.

Thx
Thank you letter for the week of Oct. 17, 2021

Thank you, merci, danke, gracias, gunalchéesh.