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Meaningfulness and Identity

Tsaagweidi NPS

When I create designs and either carve or paint them, I feel a deep connection not only with the art form and its older roots; I also feel connected to a sense of identity. How is this possible?

Sometimes my designs bear a resemblance to the old style most of my work is based on. An art that is based on the “Formline” style of the Pacific Northwest tribes – Tlingit, Haida, Tsimpshian – and which usually follows guidelines regarding its forms, elements, and color. I had to learn this older style in order to build from it my more personal and experiential designs. I nearly used the word “experimental” rather than “experiential” but the latter fit better, and describes more closely my thoughts and feelings associated with my design process. I feel an affinity with the art, with the artists who went before me and worked in and developed this [slowly] evolving form, with all its predesessors. Somehow I also feel bonded to other Native artists, and not just by being in the same category.

Regarding identity, this art form for the most part was a “crest” art, it was used to depict the many clan crests and stories (legends and history) and was applied to almost every single object — the house screens inside and out, the totems, ceremonial wear, the bentwood boxes, every utilitarian utinsel. It was everywhere, pervasive. It was a way of announcing and expressing clanship, therefore identity. When I design killer whales, the crest of the Tsaagweidi clan to which I belong, I am very conscious that this is a way that I identify myself as a Tlingit. It may be a leap, maybe not, to say that the killer whale design may even be an extension of myself, a little beyond an expression of myself. But I do feel this type of connection, a tribal one.

There is something reassuring and consoling, when I create within our design style (both the early style and its evolution). Hard to explain. I used to watch my father carve in a back room in Michigan. He carved model totems and canoes. I was fascinated. My parents were both teachers. My father was full blooded Tlingit, born and raised in Kake. He was of the T’akdeintaan clan. My mother was from Michigan, so they moved back and forth between Kake and the farm in Michigan. My mother was not native, she was adopted into the Tsaagweidi clan, therefore I am Tsaagweidi. I believe my father carved because it kept him somehow connected to his heritage and his home, when we were in Michigan. When I went to school in San Francisco, I became so homesick. I brought my few carving tools from Kake, and it was soothing to bring them out. Can you begin to understand the many layers of connection to this powerful art form? It’s hard to explain. It’s wonderful to experience. It’s powerful!

Tsaagweidi NPS

Posted in Tlingit Art