Louie Gong is Changing the Game: Inspired Natives, Thriving Natives

Written by Gina Williams | photography by Bradley Lanphear

During a recent artist-in-residence stint at Seattle’s Eighth Generation flagship store at Pike Place Market, Native American artist Joe Seymour (Squaxin Island/Pueblo of Acoma) wore a black T-shirt with large white letters that read, “Real Indian Artist.”

As part of his presentation weaving together cultural art and contemporary performance, Seymour would not speak until a visitor placed a dollar into a jar.
Louie Gong (Nooksack), founder of Eighth Generation and himself an artist, said Seymour’s performance made a bold statement “about Indian identity and the tendency of mainstream society to tokenize or commodify ‘Indianness.’” He said anytime Native people are involved, “we always have to answer the question—whether people ask us or not, ‘To what extent do we match up with people’s expectations?’”

Seymour is one of ten Native artists invited this year to showcase their art through the company’s artist-in-residence program, just one of the many aspects of Eighth Generation’s business practices that are changing the way people think about Native art, artists and entrepreneurs.

Eighth Generation’s tagline is “Inspired Natives, not ‘Native-Inspired,’” reflecting Gong’s goal of empowering Native artists in the region and across the country to become successful entrepreneurs while educating the public about the damaging aspects of cultural appropriation.

“I think that cultural art is like any natural resource,” Gong said. “If large companies keep taking from it and taking from it, they can destroy it or dilute it beyond all meaning.”

Repeatedly presenting counterfeit Native art, Gong said, undermines the power of the art form.

“We want people to know that cultural appropriation affects the bottom line. It’s not just about hurt feelings.”

The Beginning

In 2006, Gong, who had little art experience, was tasked with painting drums as gifts for visiting participants of the annual canoe journey hosted that year by the Muckleshoot Tribal College where he worked as an educational resources coordinator.

A few months later, he doodled his own version of a traditional Northwest Native design on a pair of Vans shoes—“Louie-izing” them.
Suddenly, everyone wanted a custom pair of Gong’s shoes, and his designs became so popular that he launched his entrepreneurial career. Eighth Generation was born. The company later became the first Native-owned business to produce wool blankets.

Colleen Echohawk (Pawnee/Upper Ahtna Athabascan), executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, a Pioneer Square nonprofit that provides assistance for urban Native people and works on issues of indigenous homelessness, said Eighth Generation is a game-changer in many ways and fills her with an immense sense of pride.

“There are very few places in this city that show examples of traditional Coast Salish culture,” Echohawk said, adding that many of Seattle’s celebrated totem poles “are typically stolen from Alaska, or appropriated.”

Gong’s work, mission, business philosophy, giving programs and community collaboration are also inspiring, Echohawk said. “I work in homelessness and understand that we have to find our own solutions. We have to take control.”

The club, under Echohawk’s leadership, is preparing to build an adjacent housing unit to provide homes for about 100 indigenous homeless people. She said the building itself, like Eighth Generation, is designed to represent Salish culture and will include an art gallery, medical clinic and café. She said the development process is daunting, but Gong has inspired her to see it through and create another center of pride in the city.

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” Echohawk said with a laugh, before turning serious. “But I’m following Louie’s example and it feels easier because of the work he has pioneered.”

Developing Artrepreneurs

Eighth Generation, which opened the Pike Place store last August, works with talented Native arts entrepreneurs across the country as part of its “Inspired Natives” effort. That includes jewelry artist Michelle Lowden, from Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico; Sarah Agaton Howes of Minnesota, an Anishinaabe artist known for her handmade regalia and moccasins; and Kyle Reyes (Filipino/Hawaiian/Japanese), a Utah-based artist and owner of Three Canoes Design. They contract with the company to brand their products under the Eighth Generation label.

The collaboration is making it possible for these artists to make a living through their art, Gong said. “A mortgage-paying, choice-
making difference.”

Recently, Eighth Generation launched some new collaborative projects with other Seattle companies, including curating special ice cream flavors for the month of September with Central District Ice Cream and working with Seattle’s Chocolati Café to create art-based chocolates presenting flavor combinations influenced by Eighth Generation’s indigenous experience, along with Seattle’s Native history and culture.
The combination of art and chocolate will be “something you won’t find anywhere else in the world,” Gong said—an apt description not just of the chocolate, but of Eighth Generation itself.

As more and more people join the movement to bring awareness to and stop cultural appropriation while empowering Native entrepreneurs and others, the work will get easier, Gong said.

“We aren’t far off from the tipping point. Native people are not just here, we are thriving.”