Published in The Astorian, Coast Weekend November 16, 2023
Shoalwater celebrations: Modern artists cherish, preserve tribal culture
Dakota Davis describes the photo of himself holding a shield, a blanket and wearing a cedar hat, as a prayer to his late grandfather, who owned the items. “I learn a lot about my family, about myself, who I am, where I’m from, by putting together these pieces and they become very powerful photos to me,” he says.
A month-long exhibit of art by members of northwest Pacific County’s Shoalwater Bay Tribe will open in Astoria next week.
Four living artists are being honored as part of a celebration of the life of Eugene Landry.
Landry, who died in 1988, painted images of the Shoalwaters during a key period in their history as they worked to retain their federal recognition. Landry’s story will be highlighted in the Nov. 9 edition of Coast Weekend.
The exhibit will be hosted by the Astoria Visual Arts gallery, 1000 Duane St., Astoria. It opens Nov. 11 and runs through Dec. 2. An all-day opening reception is planned noon to 8 p.m. Nov. 11 with a talk by curator Judith Altruda at 5 p.m. Conversations with the modern artists are planned 1 p.m. Dec. 2 at the AVA gallery.
Here are details of the four whose work will be featured with their artists’ statements accompanying the exhibit.
Altruda, who lives in Tokeland and Astoria, is a metal artist who has dedicated hours to promoting the work of Landry since discovering a cache of 70 of his paintings in a disused Grayland auto shop in 2019.
Her comments on each of the artists accompanies their submitted texts:
Earl Davis, a member of the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe in Tokeland, Wash., is a tribal artist trained in the Coast Salish and Willapa Chinook art styles.
He works mostly in wood and metal and draws inspiration from historic pieces and traditional knowledge to create contemporary interpretations of ancient art of the region.
He was the Shoalwater Tribe’s culture director from 2006 to 2023 and served in the U.S. Marine Corps between 2000 and 2004.
Altruda noted that Davis is now a full-time artist who has public arts commissions. “He brings a body of art from this part of the coast,” she said, noting that coastal Southwest Washington tribal art differs from better-known Haida and other First Nations’ work from northern areas of the West Coast. “The coastal area has a different look,” she said. “He has taken that and put his own spin on it. He uses cutting-edge technology to create his art — he uses hand tools as well as laser cutters.”
“I’m Dakota Davis or Chutwin (Little Bear), son of Earl Davis and direct descendant of Bob Saliki. A lot of my photography is inspired by the stories of my ancestors, the nature around us, nostalgia, and whatever I’m really feeling at the time. I try to tie in myself as an object to the natural world around us.
For example the photo of me holding a brief case, dressed in an outfit that you would see someone wearing at a dinner table, represents a lost character with all these good stories, bad traumas, and experiences that he carries with him (the brief case) everywhere. Looking at the vast ocean, he doesn’t know where to journey to next.
I explore my cultural identity through photos of prayers. The photo of me holding the shield, with the blanket and cedar hat, all belong to my grandfather who passed away and I was sending a prayer to him. I learn a lot about my family, about myself, who I am, where I’m from, by putting together these pieces and they become very powerful photos to me.”
Altruda commended the vigor with which Dakota Davis embraces his heritage. “He is young and pursues his cultural identity through his photography,” she said. He can also be found working on boats, continuing the family tradition. “He fishes, and the Davises are a fishing family, so there’s some pride in that.”
“My name is Madison; I am a 24-year old artist from the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe. My family descends from the lower Chinook bands, the Chehalis and Nisqually. I work with multiple mediums from makeup, to ink on paper, digital art, and more recently, beadwork and sewing.
In late 2018, I fell into a kind of depression that I almost didn’t make it out of. One evening, I prayed for the first time in a long time. I sensed as if someone came to me to guide me and give me something to believe in.
This is when I started beading consistently every day. I started receiving dreams of my late Chitcha [grandma] Lorraine, she would show me glimpses of her work, asking favors of me, and so forth. I started journaling these dreams and asking my family members more about her, and our family lineage. She passed away when I was very young.
My Chitcha was a stellar beadwork artist. She would make these elaborate patterns in bracelets, earrings, hair pieces, belts, doll outfits, etc. I inherited a mini doll with a custom-beaded outfit when I was around six years old. I have yet to see all of the pieces that Chitcha left behind, but I know that they’re safely tucked away into the caring hands of my family members.
I feel as if it is my duty to continue asking my family about our lineage, to hunt down Chitcha’s beadwork pieces and find the pieces from my dreams, spend time with my family, and to carry on our traditions of making beautiful heirloom pieces.
Hiyas Masi. I thank you for providing me the opportunity to feel heard and seen.”
Altruda said she appreciates the way Madison’s modern work honors the memory of her creative grandmother, Lorraine Luwizi Anderson. “Madison uses herself as a canvas with her beading and make-up. The bead work comes from her grandmother, who inspired her. It is really cool to have that connection,” she said.
Sophia Anderson is a member of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe and grew up on the reservation on a rural coast of the Olympia Peninsula. Her work is fueled by her transition to life away from her roots after growing up on traditional land surrounded by her tribal community. She holds a bachelor’s in arts degree from the Evergreen State College and currently resides in Seattle.
She paints on found wood panels, salvaged from a beach adjacent to the reservation, where the coastline has eroded down almost two miles a result of dams built on the Columbia River.
She draws inspiration for her paintings from photo references of her ancestors ranging from tintypes taken by Edward Curtis to family photos. Her beading is a meditative, healing gesture created in response to the content of her paintings. Fundamental to her practice is researching the documented history of her tribe; specifically looking at at the writings of James Swan through a critical socio-political lens.
Her mission ultimately is to interpret the relationships between genealogical and geographical history and trauma.
Anderson is Altruda’s grown daughter. There’s pride in her voice as she describes Anderson’s approach to art, using pieces of wood for her base. “It comes from homes destroyed on Washaway Beach [North Cove, WA]. It’s weather-worn, and irregular,” Altruda said. “It’s continuing something we are emphasizing—that commitment to place. That’s the thread running through all of it.”
To read the full story click here.
Tokeland, Washington is a fishing village (population 300) located on Willapa Bay. One of its most cherished residents is Loretta Brockhoff. Approaching her 93rd birthday, she can tell you many stories about life here; from the 1962 Columbus Day storm to the day the cannery burned down. Next to her home is an old gear shed where her husband, a commercial fisherman, once worked on his crab pots. Like a lot of old Tokeland shacks, its exterior was covered in faded fishing floats.It was picturesque and funky, the kind of subject matter favored by Gene Landry.
She remembers, “One day, Gene knocked on my door and asked if I would mind if he drew that old gear shed.” He spent an afternoon in her yard drawing the shed from various angles, she recalled. A watercolor he later made of it now hangs in her home, next to photos of her husband’s fishing boat, the Shirley Lee. And the old shed, now empty, still stands next door.
Loretta’s poems about the fishing life capture a world unknown to most. They are rich in detail and specific experience.
Loretta, whose “big dream” was to become a newspaper reporter, came to Tokeland in the summer of 1947. A high school student, she spent the summer at her sister’s home here. She got a job shaking crab at Nelsons Cannery for 4 cents a pound. Basically, she never left. Three years later, she married Jack Brockhoff, a commercial crab fisherman. While raising their five children and working at the cannery, Loretta was also a charter member of the Tokeland Mother’s Club, (a precursor to the PTA). Somehow, she also found time to write. The subject matter was her life.
One of her poems, The Tale of the Barbara Lee, gives the tragic account of a crab boat that sank while attempting to aid the coast guard boat Invincible.
It happened on January 29, 1960. Loretta listened to it go down on Hallicrafter radio in her kitchen, hoping it wasn’t her husband’s boat in trouble. She wasn’t the only one:
The wives along the coast set their hallicrafters
Ship to shore on the marine band channel
For each lived her own nightmare
Of having her world ripped asunder by one call
It wasn’t something you were ever prepared for
It was just the way you lived, praying and hoping…
In 2020, Loretta read her poetry at Astoria’s iconic Fisher Poet’s Gathering to standing ovations. It was great to see this (then) 90-year-old poetess get some long-deserved public recognition. Loretta hopes to return this to Fisher Poets this year. “If I’m still alive, I’ll be there,” she promised.
To read more about the upcoming Fisher Poets Gathering (February 24-26) and Loretta, check out Hipfish Monthly, Astoria’s alternative newspaper.
Home from the Sea
The old hallicrafter radio, ship to shore,
Sits on the kitchen shelf.
Our lifeline—our contact
It cuts across the kitchen,
It cuts across our lives!
You so seldom speak on the radio
But I track you thru your running mates
As they banter back and forth.
Limey had tuna signs offshore
Hear the fish are hitting off Blanco
Awful long haul down there
Rumors of tuna 200 fathom straight out
Aw getting dark—better pack it in for the night!
They come home from the sea,
They smell like dead fish, rotten bait,
They smell like dried saltwater
Like diesel, oil, life and death!
Oh God, we’re glad to have them back!
Life goes on; summer is underway
Beach fires, hot dogs and swimming
With the kids at the Davis swimming hole.
Trip should be winding down
Fuel and supplies running low.
Will they head home or for another port?
The old hallicrafter cuts thru our lives
As we wait some more!
You catch your breath,
Your heart skips a beat!
You plaster your ear to the speaker
As you scream at the kids
Be quiet! Someone’s in trouble
Whew! Not one of ours
Earl is the closest—heading their way
Three men aboard—taking on water
89 to 90 miles to Newport!
Rumors are flying—the boats are heading home
Maybe the hatch is loaded, maybe not.
Radio says they should make the dock around six.
As the boats slip around the corner onto the dock
I spot your blood-spattered cap cocked over one ear.
That stupid grin lights up your blue eyes
As they momentarily meet mine.
Go get me a beer, I hear you yell;
As the cannery crew arrives,
The work of unloading begins
One trip safely over,
Another soon to come!
They come home from the sea
They smell like dead fish, like rotten bait;
Like diesel oil, like life and death.
Oh God, we are glad to have them back!
In 1970, Bill Mueller, a third-year art student at the University of Oregon was at a crossroads in his life. “It was a difficult time for me,” he recounted in 2021, “I was only 23 or 24 years old; I’m wondering what this is all about? What is my future going to be?” Seeking answers, the future public works sculptor took a year off from his studies. He moved to the tiny fishing village of Tokeland. There, he met Eugene Landry.
“I think we must have met at Capt’s Tavern.” The local’s hangout overlooked a salt marsh and was steps away from the cabin where Bill was living. He described how Gene “stood out” in the tiny community; “He was like a rock star, driven around in a either a vintage ’49 Cadillac or a Citroen by his Canadian caregiver.” Discovering they had a common interest in art, Gene invited Bill to his studio on Willapa Bay.
“One day he asked if he could paint my portrait. It was a beautiful day, sunny. The light quality was incredible. There were some windows facing the ocean. We ended up in a long conversation. He was engaged with me on one level and on another level, he was very engaged in painting. When he painted, he was in another world. He was not in a wheelchair.”
Bill recalled how Gene held a brush between his teeth to add details, “It made a different sound when it contacted the canvas–different from when he hand-held it.”
Landry became an art mentor for Bill. “I’m hanging out with Gene, visiting with him. He’s telling me all kinds of stories. It’s like he also was part of my journey to the art world. He had been to the art school in Seattle. My brother said he also went to Paris. I really cherished the time I got to spend with him.”
The following year, Bill returned to the University of Oregon. There, he came under the tutelage of Jan Zach, Chair of the Sculpture Department and an internationally known Czech/American sculptor. Bill graduated with a BFA in sculpture in 1974, and worked as Zach’s assistant for 9 years on large-scale public art commissions.
Bill has enjoyed a long and successful career in public art; his large scale sculptures can be seen in many towns along the west coast, Idaho and Colorado.
Upon learning about the ongoing Eugene Landry exhibit at the Shoalwater Bay Tribal Museum, Bill donated two letters Gene wrote to him when he resumed his studies at the U of O. “Gene wrote one of them from Arizona. He’s saying ‘I’m going a little crazy, away from the ocean. And then you flip it over and he did a drawing of a guillotine. It’s a wonderful letter from him, handwritten in black ink.”
In August 2022, Bill and his family traveled from their home in Sedalia, Colorado to Washington State for a family reunion. They came out to Tokeland and revisited old haunts.
They went to the Shoalwater Bay Heritage Museum to see the Landry exhibit. Located near the former site of Gene’s studio, its windows overlook the same view as when Bill sat for his portrait over 50 years ago. The impact of encountering his friend’s art after so many years was, at times, emotional.
Looking back, Bill reflected; “It’s interesting when you meet somebody who has a challenge like that. He was only 34 or 35 when I met him. He was still a young man. He loved painting and it brought him a great deal of pleasure. He was very animated. He was somebody to me that transcended his physical condition. And I was amazed by him.”