Urban Indian

Shaun Peterson combines ancient traditions and contemporary technologies to make thoroughly modern native art.


Photograph by Karie Hamilton

The Indian name given to the Puyallup tribal member in a traditional naming ceremony a year ago is “Qwalsius,” which means painted face. The young man is pleased to have the name once given to his great grandfather. Its use is normally reserved for ceremonial purposes: To the larger world, he is known as Shaun Peterson, a Native American artist who is rapidly gaining fame in and around the Pacific Northwest.

With his stocky build, lustrous long hair and a profusion of native designs tattooed across his shoulders and arms, he invites being envisioned as the prototypical ancient, proud warrior standing in the bow of a war canoe or racing a pony across the plains. But Peterson’s heritage is not that of a warrior. His people were fishermen and craftsmen. Born in Tacoma in 1975, he grew up next door to his grandparents, who instilled in him an abiding love for native culture. Today, he lives in a modest suburban home in Fife where he creates work ranging from carvings and prints to sandblasted glass and computer art in a garage that has been converted into a workshop.

Peterson’s art reflects a dedication to rediscovering his heritage. At the time of his birth, Native Americans throughout the country were just beginning to reclaim and cherish their history. Stories passed down by generations had been completely forgotten by many native people. Over the previous few generations, Indian children had sometimes been forcibly separated from their tribes and their families and sent to boarding schools where they were given white people’s names and taught white people’s history, forced to speak English and convert to Christianity.

They were told that if they assimilated into the larger world, they would have better lives. Assimilation forced from without and, in many cases, eagerly accepted from within the Native American community, practically obliterated their language, history and religion. As a result, thousands of years of religion, history, myths and legends were nearly lost.
Peterson says that his parents’ generation knew almost nothing of their tribal history. But he was nurtured by grandparents who believed in honoring tradition. “They would take me to where their parents came from in Tulalip and to events like winter ceremony,” he says. “Our people abandoned our traditions. My parents’ generation suffered the most from assimilation. It was a real identity struggle for them. But I was raised to carry on my grandparents’ traditions.”

Peterson had no early formal training but recalls that he had always been interested in art, especially traditional Native American art. As a child, he used to sketch with his grandfather. After graduating from Chief Leschi High School in Tacoma, he met Bruce Cook, an artist from Alaska, who introduced him to Steve Brown, assistant curator for Northwest Coast Art at the Seattle Art Museum. Peterson took one of Brown’s classes in history and design but, more importantly, he struck up a friendship with the older artist. He would visit with him at the museum, and through Brown he met other artists, some of whom became informal mentors.

Peterson is wise beyond his 31 years. He works tirelessly to educate himself and others about the culture indigenous to his people and this region. “I trained to become the artist that I am today much in the way of my ancestors,” he says. “Long ago one would seek out a master to build one skill upon the next.” By watching other artists at work and questioning them about their methods and traditions, he learned about design and the myths Native artists have illustrated through the years as well as about the use and care of tools. (He forges and tempers his own.)

These masters, who influenced Peterson, include Cook and Brown; Greg Colfax, a carver from the Makah tribe; George David, a  carver from the Nuu-chah-nulth culture in British Columbia; and Loren White, a carver and teacher from Vancouver, B.C. From local arts professionals, including Amy McBride, arts administrator for the City of Tacoma, and Rock Hushka, curator of Contemporary and Northwest Art for the Tacoma Art Museum, he learned how to build a portfolio and market his work, real world skills that he says are as important to an artist as drawing and painting.

“My work is a continuation of the ancient art of the Northwest Coast first people,” Peterson explains. His vision encompasses diverse tribal styles with an emphasis on the art of the Salish territory, where his tribe, the Puyallup, reside.

His art is easily accessible and can be viewed in many public places in and around Tacoma. Anyone who drives on Portland Avenue regularly sees Peterson’s work. For the Portland Avenue Business District, he sandblasted traditional native designs in the glass faces of two bus shelters and created a series of carved metal figures for the tops of light poles. The bus shelters refer to ancient forms of transportation, featuring a river canoe design on the roof and salmon in alternating patterns below. Variations on this motif can also be seen in nine etched glass panels Peterson created on commision for the Emerald Queen Casino Hotel and Restaurant in Fife (eight feature the salmon motif; the ninth panel has different proportions and shows a halibut) and in a variety of prints he’s made over the years such as the serigraph “Salmon Continuum.”

The salmon figures, among the most familiar motifs in Pacific Northwest native art, show up repeatedly in Peterson’s work. They are simple, stylized figures with flat surfaces and undulating curves, typically executed in two colors — black and white or red and black, or, in the case of the sandblasted or etched glass figures, white on clear. They either face each other head to head or alternate head to tail. Peterson says he aligns the salmon in these particular configurations for the sake of symmetry. The stark simplicity of the designs resonates not only with Native American traditions, but also with the Asian tradition of yin and yang and the modern Western tradition of alternating figure and ground.

Similar symmetries can be seen in the light standards on Portland Avenue adjacent to the Puyallup Indian Reservation. There are eight of these in cut metal perched atop light poles. Each depicts a pair of figures: Dakwibalth, or the moon — a name that translates to “changer” or “transformer” — and Wag.wag, or Frog Woman. These are figures that are prominent in early Salish mythology. “The moon took human form and came down to earth to do good works among the people,” Peterson explains, “but after many years of living on earth he returned to the sky world and searched for a wife. Frog Woman was the only woman strong enough to hold up his heavy basket of stories.”

For the Muckleshoot Health & Wellness Center in Auburn, Peterson created five glass and cedar panels depicting the mythological figures Bear, Raven, Elk, Deer and Salmon. Another recent public installation is a set of three water jet and laser cut aluminum wall hangings of more animals associated with myths — Hawk, Beaver, Killer Whale, Salmon and others — that are displayed along with a number of his prints and paintings at the Puyallup Tribal Health Authority in Tacoma. Peterson’s art can also be seen at the Mount Baker Ski Resort, the Seattle Center, Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood and in other locations throughout the Puget Sound region.

Peterson was featured in a major exhibition called “Carving a Legacy: Innovation in Coast Salish Art” at the Tacoma Art Museum in the summer of 2005. During that exhibition, Native American carvers, including Peterson and Greg Colfax, demonstrated their skills. The museum called the show part of “the ongoing revival of Native American art in the South Puget Sound region.”

“Shaun has played a vital role in the resurgence of Coast Salish art,” Rock Hushka says. “His skill, innovation and respect for Salish traditional art have allowed him to create important new work and attract critical attention on the national level.”

For all his reverence for tradition, Peterson is a thoroughly modern man who has, indeed, assimilated into mainstream society while continuing to recapture native traditions. He is equally at home working on a computer as he is carving masks. Ten designs he conceptualized to brighten the blank exam room windows at the Puyallup Tribal Health Authority pediatric facility comprise childlike renderings of familiar mythological beings — Sun, Moon, Frog, Blue Jay, Red Tail Hawk, Beaver, Squirrel, Salmon, Killer Whale — done in Adobe Illustrator and output as color print vinyl.

Amy McBride points out that Peterson’s work is equally traditional and contemporary. “Shaun serves a really important role as both an artist and an educator,” she says. “His work brings alive the Salish artwork that is typical and indigenous to this region. He is, however, a contemporary artist. His work is of this time. He uses traditional and non-traditional materials in his work. Beautiful etched glass in conjunction with carved cedar or, in the case of his public installation on Portland Avenue, designs implemented through standard industrial materials of cut and powder coated metal.” 

“It’s less about being Indian than about being an artist,” Peterson says. “I think of myself as an artist on a lot more levels than just the native.”

Nonetheless, upholding native tradition, in the near future Peterson will carve a welcome pole with Greg Colfax. He has made preliminary sketches and, during the “Carving a Legacy” exhibition in 2005, carved a maquette for the figure, which will stand 18 to 20 feet tall and be placed in Pacific Square, an important settlement site for people indigenous to the region. Colfax and Peterson began work on the project at the Tacoma Art Museum, but soon discovered that the log they were carving was flawed. When the timber eventually dried out, the flaws would show, ruining the design.

Peterson and Colfax abandoned carving the log and gave it to Philip Red Eagle, a member of the Puyallup Nation, who runs a group of canoe carvers. The group moved the log to Tacoma’s Working Waterfront Maritime Museum and carved a canoe from it. It’s taken Peterson and Colfax a year to find another log that is long enough, straight enough and without flaws. They recently found a suitable log on the Quinault reservation and will soon resume carving. They say it should take two or three months to complete work on the welcome pole.

Peterson will also be taking part in the group exhibition “Winter Solstice Celebration” at Stonington Gallery in Seattle, December 7-31. “Shaun has a singular vision to dedicate his life to mastering and furthering the artistic traditions of his Coast Salish heritage,” says Rebecca Blanchard, co-director of the gallery. “He possesses an exceptional ability to translate the stories through his art using the traditional elements of Coast Salish design, while maintaining a personal style that is distinctly Shaun Peterson.”

Few artists are as successful so early in their careers as Shaun Peterson. He credits the help he’s received from many other artists and arts professionals who have mentored him. “Art is something I am always going to do,” he says. “But making art is only one part of it. The other part is learning how to support one another in the bigger art community.” ‹

Photo by Beth Lyne Doty