Uncontroversial Monuments

shaun petersonComment

With today's political climate at high tension I hope to add some glimmer of hope for good news. It's been a couple years in the making now and I am now able to speak about a project that will be ongoing as part of Seattle's waterfront project.

For some time now the city of Seattle has been working on renovating their waterfront and in the process commissioning 6 artists of which I am one. The city put a call out for submissions to have a monumental sculpture that represents the Coast Salish people and specifically recognizing the Puget Sound tribes. 

The project early on called for a totem pole which was quickly changed as totem poles are not customary to the Coast Salish people. Much like the project I was involved in with the city of Tacoma who also sought a totem, the decision was made to create something more customary to the culture and the land. In Tacoma's case, a female welcome figure raised in September 2010.

It seems in recent years I've been more aware of peoples choice of words in radio and television, meaning podcasts and YouTube essentially. This snapshot of pop culture has hipsters donning headdresses in bad taste, the use of the phrase "when we killed all the Indians" as a matter of fact kind of notion in conversation, or "America just doesn't have culture like Europe, we have no culture here". That last one takes the cake with me. I beg to differ and draw the line there. This country is filled with culture in art, language, song and dance with a rich history. It's just undergone many efforts to eradicate but in recent years out of the shadows seeing some appreciation.

Events like the Sante Fe art market, pow wows across the country and Tribal Journey's in the Pacific Northwest showcase a cultural identity that predates the country it's known as today. I am happy and fortunate to live in this time with this opportunity to share a culture through public art and have people know the art tradition is made with intent to honor the land from which it comes from. I believe this comes at an important juncture in our political climate as we revisit the civil rights movement of the 60's with high tension. Where monuments of controversial 'leaders' are in question for what they stand to represent.

With that said it is my honor to share a preview of the figures I will be creating as a permanent installation on the Seattle Waterfront near Piers 62/63 close to the Seattle Aquarium. The intent for the sculpture is to honor the people whose city is named after Chief Sealth. I have chosen to create three figures that represent family. The style is going to be unfamiliar to most but in time I hope that people will see the appeal of this style that has been at times mistaken as originating from Africa, the Pacific Islands or New Guinea

artist rendering of proposed waterfront figures for Seattle

artist rendering of proposed waterfront figures for Seattle


It has long been a dream of mine to make works that relate to our tribal history and acknowledge the nuances of our sculptural tradition that have been foreign in it's own land. So I am happy to share the preview of renderings that represent figures, not of any one person, not of one tribe but one of an idea of unity and peace. These figures will be carved in western red cedar with heads cast in bronze that sit atop concrete bases. Each base will have elements that reflect aspects of Coast Salish design, carving, painting and weaving. I am hopeful people will come to appreciate the subtle ambiguity of the figures and regard them simply as beings that belong to a place  where the land meets the water and have a long history that can be understood as a harmonious and uncontroversial nature.

Native people have survived many obstacles with attempts to erase them from history. Sealth noted this in his early uncensored speech about questioning the right for his people to simply be as they are. What is perhaps most notable and inspiring to me relating to this undertaking is his words in addressing the notion that Americans at large will think of his people as gone. It seems we are in that place now even though we remain. I am filled with pride knowing the work I will make has a history that the ancestors of the land will relate to and the coming generation will grow up with and bridge that gap as we continue to survive as we always do. O'siem.

WWD 2017

shaun peterson1 Comment
Team NW - Qwalsius - Shaun Peterson, John Smith, Derek Grover

Team NW - Qwalsius - Shaun Peterson, John Smith, Derek Grover

When I got a message on Facebook requesting that I join a conference called World Wood Day I have to admit I was skeptical at first. For one, I had been involved in a gathering ten years prior that was an international gathering that despite having worked out in the end had very unpleasant aspects to it. That said, I was taught that when we are called upon to represent our nations we must do so. So bags packed not entirely sure what I was in for I threw together my tool case that's served me well all over so far.

Day 1

I arrived in Los Angeles on Sunday the 19th of March looking for my connection shuttle to meet Bethany Knagin an Alutiiq artist also trying to figure out where we were going exactly and we struck up a conversation and jumped on board the next bus to our destination.

That next stop we met up with the organizers along with a group from Canada wearing their traditional feather head gear and carrying their Lacrosse sticks. Next we met a few South African sculptors and a recluse First Nations elder and it started to pick up interest, what was going to happen here exactly? We all got to our designated hotels and I met my roommate, Philbert Honanie, a Hopi Kachina artist. Fortunately, he'd been on one of these events a couple years prior in China and said he'd walk me thru it.

Day 2

Monday we registered and received badges along with an outline of the weeks schedule. In this huge exhibition center in Long Beach's Convention Center there were stacks of wood slabs and sculptors ready for the taking. People asked for help moving them and in that point I ran into fellow Washingtonian Native and relation, John Smith as we were helping the South African team carry their chosen slab to their table. It turned out that he and I were assigned team NW (Northwest) along with his new apprentice Derek Grover (Skokomish). Much to our surprise we found we were left with one slab that nobody seemed to want and one that would be hard to fit our sculptural style so we had to wait for the next batch which didn't arrive until the end of the first day but it was promising and we socialized a bit while waiting looking at what each of us brought in terms of tools.

Day 3

Tuesday, Team NW faced an uphill challenge in terms that we were working on Cherry wood 18" wide by 12' long and it's something not particularly cooperative with our traditional tools but we took it on with a plan. Me, jumping into my architectural scale mind started to graph the slab to scale and exploring concepts while other teams were already carving away. I thought out loud and John heard me say "you have 20 minutes" as though we were on Iron Chef in a challenge, laughing. Fortunately it wasn't a competition it was more a gathering to showcase and mingle and learn from one another. That day we decided to approach the work as a house post and talk to the fellow carvers about the differences in Washington Native sculpture vs that of Alaska because so many had assumed we were trying to carve a totem pole.

Day 4

Wednesday with a plan in hand we started working and discovered just how challenging the cherry was vs red cedar and yellow cedar. We worked thru and made small talk but this day was great because we were seeing how we didn't let language barriers hold us back from communicating with other woodworkers. John went over to watch the South African's and showed them some sharpening techniques and myself talking with the Alaskans about formline followed by a visit to the Maori next to us working with Australian carvers. This was the day of really making friends and bonding.

Day 5

Thursday the reality set in that the following day was going to be my last there and the team would have a day of carving without me so we had to make some decisions about how to get ahead of the curve. Although we had made great strides with the advantage that we all have familiarity with Coast Salish design we still had to work hard at making the big moves work for us. This required using power tools which not every carver is keen on and in my view exceptions must be made and given we had one day to work with something on this scale, not having worked as a team prior and needing to finish something in four days, I have no regrets.

Because the gathering had limitations for resources we really had to reach out to people who had tools like sanders or grinding discs etc. Groups needing to do this were brought outside to minimize dust to the others inside and fortunately it was a sunny beautiful clear day and we made the strides we needed to.

Day 6

Friday, my final full day of carving we managed to finish out the carving enough for me to hand over the finishing details to John and Derek. We brought our work outside for the interviewers and cameramen to ask questions and have us share a family song from Skokomish and Puyallup. It was a great way to wrap up my trip there and I was sad to leave so soon.

Day 7

Having to get up at 4AM to catch my early flight wasn't easy but I made it safe and sound. I reflected on the week of experience noting how important it is to share culture and most importantly be able to receive teaching from others to grow as human beings. I loved the fact that every day on the stage a new group would perform music from their nation but most of all I loved the Mongolians, that and dancing with the Moroccans. I look forward to the opportunity to participate again and with some experience under my belt even more so.

This piece represents two basket symbols, one from Skokomish, the other Puyallup that relate to the theme "Roots". The next are two Killer Whales from a Puyallup story to represent the water, above them a woman wearing a feather cape and cedar hat with Thunderbird on it holding a wolf paddle.

This piece represents two basket symbols, one from Skokomish, the other Puyallup that relate to the theme "Roots". The next are two Killer Whales from a Puyallup story to represent the water, above them a woman wearing a feather cape and cedar hat with Thunderbird on it holding a wolf paddle.

Centerpiece designed by the Modern team that was central and planned the year prior.

Centerpiece designed by the Modern team that was central and planned the year prior.

Happy International Women's Day

Blogshaun petersonComment

So it's been quite some time and after a few people asking it's never a better time to start a blog than to get behind something dear to my heart. I love the women who have shaped my life in ways I can't even begin to understand but I will try in a brief post for this fine day.

Let's make no qualms with this posting, this is not a countdown in any particular order per say but more of a personal acknowledgment of women I have known and admire for their iniquities unto their own powerful senses that have captured my fascination and  admiration.

Barbara Earl Thomas

Barbara Earl Thomas is a visual artist, a writer, and a community activist with a longstanding record as an arts administrator. She has overseen programs for Seattle’s Department of Arts and Cultural Affairs, Bumbershoot a Seattle Arts Festival, and the Northwest African American Museum where she served as executive director from 2008-2013.

I met Barbara when she was a consulting artist to a small group of artists seeking know how of how to survive the business of art. She opened with a story as a child making art that made her grandmother smile which in turn made her feel good about herself and I was hooked. She was the first woman I met in the art world to mentor with absolute honesty about the day to day reality of being an artist for a profession and all it would entail. She and her work are both powerful as they are captivating.


Clarissa Rizal

Clarissa in Taiwan 2006

Clarissa Rizal was an amazing artist who left us too soon. She was a member of the Tlingit weaving community apprentice of Jennie Thlunaut. Her work in woven material both customary in the way of Robes and regalia were and remain exceptional. Her fearlessness to explore her artistic creative appetite lead to great break throughs and I was ever so fortunate to learn from her openness about that creative process.

Her work is significant to the weaving community and her absence is very much felt in her recent passing but she serves undoubtedly as an inspiration in the legacy she left for us to learn from.


Ramona Bennett 

Ramona Bennett is a member of the Puyallup Tribe. She is one of many tribal members who collectively helped to ensure the rights that so many sacrificed their lives for. Ramona has been an activist for much of her life and a major spearhead in securing fishing rights for the Puget Sound tribes. She continues to be an instrumental figure including the recent need for awareness when it has come to #IdleNoMore and #NoDAPL. I had the pleasure to visit with her at an event hosted in Muckleshoot that acknowledged the warriors who fought to defend the territory and rights of our Native people in which she was acknowledged as a true bearer of the torch in keeping that alive.

Matika Wilbur

photo by Kevin Gradey

photo by Kevin Gradey

Matika, a Native American woman of the Swinomish and Tulalip Tribes (Washington), is unique as an artist and social documentarian in Indian Country- The insight, depth, and passion with which she explores the contemporary Native identity and experience are communicated through the impeccable artistry of each of her silver gelatin photographs.

I had the honor and privilege to create the logo for her 562 project that has gained world status acclaim. Her project has a goal to document all Native Nations of the United States in a collective that will give voice that Native people are very much a part of the modern world and will share their stories with a fellow Native citizen that will acknowledge them in a way that perhaps others could not and share that with the world.

susan point

For anyone who ventures or takes interest in Coast Salish art, it's understood it would not be where it is without her high driving ambition to create works of art that carry that heritage. Susan proved that carving is not strictly a mans arena but that she could really dig in and make waves.

arianna lauren

Founder of Quwutsun made Arianna has shown change starts by start up. Although it's only been a short time since she's launched her line of products she's made an impression in her community and has a promising future where the sky is the limit. She's modeled for various designers and continues to explore the creative fields of opportunity as a force of nature and ambition.

Mother, Aunties, sisters, cousins and grandmother

photo by Steven Miller

photo by Steven Miller

If there were a secret to my success in life and this career I have come into, it wasn't just hard work alone although that was a large part. I learned to work hard from the women who raised me. They have taught me all I know about love, life and forgiveness and understanding. I was blessed in this life to be born into a family and even more so a tribe of strong women leadership that goes back many generations. There are so many women in my family they all know who they are and I've grown up to see them become amazing mothers and at times still have the strength of our grandmother to call me out when I need to be brought in line with our teachings.

It's impossible to capture all the women who have changed the world and continue to so I can only share a snapshot before I lose your attention with what came to mind on this day in March 2017. 

Star Wars, two Native artists and a 'pioneer'

shaun petersonComment

It's has been over a year since this subject was posted on the old version of the blog which had to give way for the new format but this post is important to me. It was about a year ago this time of year I spoke out about the poorly imitated works of my friends Jeffrey Verrege and Andy Everson whose works led a path for someone to come in and lay claims to for namesake.

This makes me think of the many instances a non-Native has 'pioneered' a path guided by Indians and to overlook landscapes and territory unknown to them and say 'look at this place not seen by man before these eyes of mine', shoulders back and chest out. That very notion has become all to familiar to Native people that despite our presence and experiences we have and contribute.

With the latest release of the Star Wars trailer it's no wonder to see postings all over about it and in relation to that I saw some Native individuals post links to Scott Ericksons interview on geekologie, I'm not linking to it but you can search if you like but it outlines him as someone 'pioneering' the meld of modern Sci-fi and Native art.

I took the time last year to do a comparison of my two colleagues works along with approximate release dates of their work along side this pioneer to showcase what does not take a genius to understand. The work called innovative takes a meld of something genuine and makes it into a stick figure version paraded as genius. The concern comes in when realizing how someone can cash in on this when I went to look at all the social linking that was done and the following this guy had on Pinterest alone.


My point in this all is to simply say, support the artists who laid the path for someone to come in after and lay claims to something Native Inspired and I encourage you to visit the artists websites who have given way to much sacrifice to take a leap of faith and explore that new territory.

And don't be afraid to go to geekologie and say something in that thread and be heard.



Peter Pan, Indians and Neverland

shaun petersonComment

Today I went to see Pan, Disney's latest rendition of the classic tale written by J. M. Barrie in 1904 reworked time over again and again and in this time of great political correctness many a Native activist paid much mind to it's release. This version directed by Joe Wright takes a unique take from the first 15min wherein the use of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit and onto the use of the Ramones Blitzkieg Bop the continuity of that dissipates no other modern tunes come into being after those scenes and so it loses a sense of consistency.

I will credit Disney for going away with the fantasy tribe and poor taste of the original animated Peter Pan which brought us the greatly offensive "what makes the red man red" song from that great old time when it was perfectly alright to push non Euro-American's into propaganda and stereotypes that elevated the esteem of the day. In the notable advocate against Native appropriation authority Adrienne Keene had cited, it's better we are absent in film than to be vilified or glorified, that's my simplified version of her gist.

the original Tigerlilly that suggests Native women are freely giving to be with non-Indians dancing atop a big drum which a real Native woman would ever do and if you don't believe me, just ask.

the original Tigerlilly that suggests Native women are freely giving to be with non-Indians dancing atop a big drum which a real Native woman would ever do and if you don't believe me, just ask.


I believe this to be true. On my recent trip to the Czech Republic for the 2nd time I again came up against the notion that I am not Native because I do not look like images of those shown around the world, and what are those exactly but images created largely in fiction of white actors, wearing make up and wigs dressed in clothing that at best resembled a compilation of tribes. The truth is not many care or say, get over it, or you lost the war but I've really never heard anyone tell me the war thing to my face. And yet as Americans we are told 'never forget'... the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, 911, all of which take place after our loss and continued striving for the promises granted in the settling of these lands.

This happened because America as it was founded made us one obsolete inferior race. We were not human beings to the new world, to this day when the fourth of July comes, radio waves still call us savages. So when the declaration stands to state all men are created equal, well except, blacks, asians, latinos and above all the native savages.

Back to the topic of the movie though itself. Like I said, I"m glad we are absent in it replaced by a mythical multicultural tribe. Back at that time of these successful writers, Native America was Neverland a place of fascination and wonder, but to the world never understood.

Today in parts of Europe, there are large numbers of people who study aspects of mostly Lakota culture and emulate it to a fanatical degree. The problem is Native America is comprised of more than 600 tribes, some which have fallen but nonetheless share the complexity and diversity of European culture. I tell friends often it's like asking an woman of Iceland to speak Spanish or a German to tell you Italian histories and traditions. Our land is vast.

Ok, again back to the movie, the characters were forced, relationships left at the editing floor and Hook a sad attempt at a young Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones. The pace if off and the villains oversold. Climax tensions of action only tool hold of me for one scene when Peter flies and then, that's about it. My recommendation for this movie and my ranting that makes little sense to most, well I'd say Netflix.