Prizing his mixed-race heritage, Louie Gong energizes a new wave of Native American culture.
Even before its doors were opened for the first time in late August, the Eighth Generation boutique was already a phenomenon in Pike Place Market. Throughout the summer, curious tourists and locals alike wandering through the Market Atrium wondered about the “Coming Soon: 8TH GENERATION” sign posted on the door of a vacant space that had most recently housed a Western-wear outfitter. Interior renovations went unseen for months, hidden by a wall of white-papered windows.
At some point, a poster appeared in one of the windows: a two-foot-by-two-foot square of purple, gold and black Coast Salish graphics, similar to the kind Northwesterners are accustomed to seeing on totem poles and football helmets. This particular image was different, though. Was that a pair of Chinese lions, rendered Coast Salish-style, filling the frame?
In the weeks since the store welcomed its first customer, the mystery has cleared. Above double doors, laser-cut lettering reads EIGHTH GENERATION: by Inspired Natives. Inside, the store is an airy, light-filled space set between a cloud-white ceiling and an electric-blue floor. Its modest array of shelves display cedar-inlay iPhone cases and leather notebooks, each branded with Salish-style graphics. Brightly patterned wool blankets hang like drapery on a rack near displays of handmade cosmetics, shave kits, candles and jewelry. Anchoring the center of the space is a one-of-a-kind midcentury-modern couch upholstered in Thunderbird-print wool; another upholstered in a Salish motif sits against the back wall. The store connects to a secondary room containing a massive, rough-hewn wooden conference table under a modernist chandelier—a meeting or retreat space available to rent. Here a giant, eye-popping, version of the Salish-style Chinese lions presides.
The store has been doing brisk business since it opened, but that’s not why it remains a phenomenon.
Seattle’s waterfront is lined with shops and galleries selling Coast Salish artwork—paintings and carvings made by Native hands and brokered to non-Native retailers for wholesale prices. This exploitative arts economy dates back to the earliest days of white arrival in Native territory. It robs Native people not only of potential profits, says Louie Gong, Eighth Generation’s owner and primary artist, but also of the power to tell their own stories. It prevents Native people from living in the contemporary world.
“There’s this legacy relationship between Native artists and galleries that we’re ready to leave behind,” Gong says. “Right here at Pike Place Market, my dad used to drive my Uncle Jack, who was a carver, down here to sell his artwork. And he’d get pennies on the dollar for what his artwork was worth.”
At 41 years old, Gong is a soft-spoken force of nature, small in stature and possessing a gentle but relentless energy. He can trace his Native ancestry in the Pacific Northwest back to the late 1700s, though he begins telling his story with his Chinese-Canadian grandfather and Squamish grandmother. The Eighth Generation store is the physical realization of an idea he launched online in 2008 with a website that established a direct connection between him and the people interested in buying his work. Over the years he’s applied his designs to canoe paddles, skateboard decks, clothing, shoes, tote bags, toys, posters and blankets. It’s taken years to build the capital—financial and cultural—to open the store, and Gong had no other place in mind besides Pike Place, the commercial and spiritual center of the city. Eighth Generation, he says, is an educational endeavor as well as a business.
“We’re putting Native-ness directly into people’s hands,” he says. “You can use the iPhone case, wear a scarf, use a blanket. It’s not just something that exists in a glass case in your house. Every one of these products can be a tool that brings Native people into a greater focus for mainstream people. They see us as real people and skilled, hard-working professionals. It’s a Trojan horse going into people’s homes and helping them to develop a more nuanced understanding of who Native people are.”
The Salish Lions—that’s a print called Guardians that Gong painted. The hummingbird-and-raven motif iPhone cases are his designs, too, made with a $15,000 laser cutter Gong keeps in his workshop at the Inscape Arts building in SoDo. Michelle Lowden, an Acoma Pueblo from New Mexico, and Sarah Agaton Howes, Anishinaabe from the Fond du Lac Reservation in Minnesota—the two other artists who are part of Eighth Generation so far—designed several of the wool blankets and much of the jewelry.
Everything at Eighth Generation is designed by Native American artisans and packaged under Gong’s collaborative Eighth Generation brand. It’s the first entirely Native owned, Native-designed entrepreneurial endeavor of its kind. Certainly in Pike Place Market, probably in Seattle, and maybe in America.
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It started with a pair of shoes.
As a kid growing up in the Nooksack tribal community—a reservation in all but Federal status 15 miles northeast of Bellingham—Louie Gong had always wanted a pair of Vans. It was the mid-’80s, after all, and skater cool was the coolest kind of cool, even to a reserved teenager in an out-of-the-way Northwest town. Living with an extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings made getting to the mall from his house in Nooksack rather inconvenient.
Gong was raised mostly by his grandparents, first in the house in Ruskin, B.C., where his dad was born (sans running water) and later in Nooksack, after his family moved south when he was 10. His grandfather was the son of Chinese immigrants who, as a young man, leased berry fields outside Vancouver from their white Canadian owners. Back in the 1940s, Gong says, Native Americans provided much of the fieldwork and migrant labor that Hispanics do today, which is how his grandmother met his grandfather. Gong remembers Grandpa cooking elaborate, six-course Chinese meals on a single-burner stove for breakfast, Grandma made the traditional Native bread called bannock.
“There’s many stories like my grandma and grandpa’s,” he says, “and they often start in agricultural fields or canneries or the back rooms of restaurants. It’s a distinctly North American story, a hero story.” And yet, as young as seven or eight, he remembers feeling distinctly ashamed of his mixed heritage.
Gong’s dad, Gordie, was a strong and loving presence when he was around. More often he was gone, training in Vancouver and traveling the country as one of Canada’s first professional kickboxers, taking championships in both North American lightweight kickboxing and Canadian Muay Thai. A teacher and coach for 40 years, Gordie Gong is widely credited for helping bring martial arts into the Canadian mainstream. Young Louie absorbed much of the sport’s tenacity and discipline though he never competed. He remains close to his dad, who still teaches at a gym he owns in Hamilton, Ontario.
Gong’s natural curiosity drove him from high school in Nooksack and into higher education, initially at Whatcom Community College, where he found he was a much better student when he could schedule his own classes. He went on to Western Washington University where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in education and Master’s in psychology. He was the first member of his family to graduate from college. His studies opened a door onto a new self-perception.
“I had access to information about what race really was, that it was political, not biological,” he says. “Mixed-race people are constantly bumping up against these invisible barriers. You can’t see them but you feel them everyday. And if nobody’s there to point out that they’re there—because over the last 200 years we’ve all internalized this idea of race having something to do with biology—you start to perceive those barriers as your own deficit and not the deficit of our communities and institutions.”
After university, Gong dedicated himself to counseling students who came from backgrounds like his, focusing on issues of race and identity and aspiring to impart the perspective he’d gained to others. He spent a year as a counselor at University of Washington, and later at Muckleshoot Tribal School. By that point he was living in Seattle and giving lectures on racial identity but struggling to find the right channel through which to educate young people on intangible theories of race. He figured he’d earned the right to fulfill a modest childhood dream so he headed to the shoe store to buy his first pair of Vans. He didn’t know it then, but his life was about to change.
“When I got to the store and looked around the shelf there weren’t any designs that matched my sensibilities,” Gong says. So instead he bought a plain gray pair, took them home, and started doodling on the canvas with a Sharpie. “I wanted them to be something that reflected who I was. Something I wish was on that shelf at the store. What I made was pretty cool I guess, because when I went to work wearing the Vans people were like, ‘Man those are sick! Where’d you get those? How can I get a pair?’”
Gong’s doodles were a riff on Coast Salish iconography—all sexy swooping lines and bold black shapes. His first pairs of Vans were decked out in traditional wolf or eagle imagery informed by Seattle’s urban, graffiti-tagged landscape. In 2008, asymmetrical patterns and Native iconography were unprecedented in sneaker culture. People in his circle were intrigued. Soon enough, Gong was cranking out customized Vans, now embellished using fabric-dye markers, for friends and friends of friends. He sold them for $75 a pop, barely enough to cover the cost of the shoes and certainly undervalued for the four or five hours he put into each pair.
More than fresh kicks, Gong’s custom Vans were a channel for the lessons he sought to convey to others like him. Gong had always felt he walked in dual worlds, Native and Chinese, modern and traditional, mainstream and other. He was split in two. But rather than being halved by his mixed-race identity, he felt himself multiplied.
“If I wasn’t lucky enough to get access to higher education and a basic understanding of how history plays out on people, I would be looking, like a lot of my relatives do, at my family’s history from a deficit model, thinking we don’t have a family that’s as good or as functional as everybody else,” Gong says. “But when you look at the big picture, our family is special and vibrant and armed with access to such a broad range of cultural knowledge.”
Word spread about Gong’s custom Vans through social media. Local tribal members offered effusive praise—exactly the kind of validation he sought from his community. He was invited to host a pop-up store at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where he sold out of inventory the first day he was there. At that point Gong realized he had stumbled into a business for himself. In 2012, Vans contacted him to create a one-off shoe design as part of their Custom Culture exhibition.
With no formal training in art or business, and only the inclination to express his confidence in his complex heritage, he’d become a successful artist and entrepreneur.
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“Louie approached me saying, ‘I wanna work with someone who does floral’,” Sarah Agaton Howes tells me over the phone from her home on the Fond du Lac Reservation in eastern Minnesota. “He could’ve said to me, ‘Can I use some of your designs?’ and I would’ve been thrilled and said yes. Instead he asked me to become part of this project, helped me make a website and work on social media and build my business. And that’s changed my whole life.”
Last year, Howes was the second Native artist Gong recruited as part of his Inspired Natives Project, which is both a business and an educational enterprise aimed at sharing knowledge, raising awareness about cultural appropriation and increasing prodution capacity. The idea, he says, is to invert the popular tag of “Native Inspired” used by companies like Portland-based Pendleton to Native-wash their famous wool blankets with an air of authenticity, when in reality no Native artist or advisor was involved in producing the work. Instead, Gong is partnering with Howes and Michelle Lowden to design, produce and sell wool blankets in a supply chain that’s almost entirely Native. (The blankets themselves are made in the U.S. and China from New Zealand wool, a decision Gong made based on simple economics. “We’re proud participants in the global marketplace,” Howes says. “Ninety percent of what we make is made on my kitchen table. But we’re competing against companies that own their own factories.”)
“I’ve gone from hustling earrings in parking lots to people asking me to speak publicly about my art,” Howes says with a laugh. “Through all the work we’ve done, they see what’s possible. It makes it more credible for people. A lot of that has to do with Louie’s mentorship, pushing me and pushing the world to acknowledge that Native people can do our own work.”
The blankets, the phone cases, the shoes: Gong says they all fall in line with the Native tradition of creating usable, practical art rather than ornamentation. They also connect directly to today’s consumers, meeting them at their needs as much as than their wants.
“The tribal value of seven generations says you should consider the consequences of your decisions seven generations into the future,” he says. “With Eighth Generation, we’re saying that we’re standing on the shoulders of the people who came before us.” Along with an understanding of lineage and history, Gong adheres to principals of environmental stewardship and gender equity—traditional Native values that he says are more relevant than ever. “For Seattle to build a sustainable future, Native people and values will have to be a part of the dialog.”
In early September, Howes and Gong spoke at the Portland Art Museum as part of Native Fashion Now, a traveling exhibition of contemporary Native fashion. While he was there, Gong met with the CEO of Pendleton, who’s acutely aware of the Inspired Natives program. Gong considers their ongoing conversation another sign of positive change—change he once hardly believed possible.
Citing Mexican American kickboxing pioneer Benny Urquidez, he tells me, “Confidence is seeing something you’ve never done before and knowing it’s just a matter of time before you get good at it. I feel like I have that kind of confidence. I understand my potential. And man, I feel powerful.”