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Breathing New Life into Tsimshian Culture

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Kingston, Wash.—David Boxley is putting designs in red paint on a bentwood box, while his older son, David Robert Boxley, carves alder wood into a beaver face for a helmet commissioned by a Native dance troupe in nearby British Columbia.

Father and son are often together, whether at performances of the Git-Hoan, Boxley’s Tsimshian dance troupe (scheduled to appear at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York on May 21-22), or in the carver’s shed by his house on Washington state’s Kitsap Peninsula. A second son, Zachary, 26, who makes the drums and bentwood boxes now, works a job on the graveyard shift and is asleep in the house. An almost-constant winter rain muffles sounds. In the shed the father, 58, and the son, 30, talk while they work, finishing each other’s sentences, and possibly each other’s thoughts.

“I’ve taken on a mantle of cultural leadership,” Boxley said. “David Robert has, too, for his generation. We look at it from a broad spectrum of carrying on the culture. In 100 years no one alive will remember us. I don’t care if people don’t remember my name, as long as people are speaking our language, and people are still doing this kind of art.”

Boxley is internationally celebrated for his carvings and his visual arts. He also teaches students the Tsimshian language in his spare time. At this point in this life, he is thinking about generations backward and forward, most notably his sons’, who have grown up in a depth of Tsimshian that was unimaginable when their father was a boy.

“Our village, Metlakatla, Alaska, was founded by people who left their home in British Columbia with a missionary in 1887,” Boxley said. “They left all their traditions behind. The missionary was very successful with us, I think you might say.”

His grandparents, Albert and Dora Bolton, were among the first generation of Tsimshian to be born in Metlakatla. Cultural expression was illegal when they were young, and their daughter, Boxley’s mother, was among a generation of Alaska Natives sent to boarding school. His grandparents raised Boxley at home, teaching him what they still had, language, and subsistence life skills. His grandfather was a quiet man who loved his family. His grandmother wove Tsimshian baskets at home. As a young man, Boxley wanted to become a basketball coach, so he became a high school teacher and coach. He was teaching in 1978 when his interests turned to Tsimshian culture and artistic expression.

“The art started taking me over,” is how he remembers it. He laughs now that when he decided to become a carver he bought an X-Acto tool kit. His grandfather soon took him to a junkyard and salvaged a leaf spring from a VW Bug, ground one end of the metal down until it was sharp, and bolted it to a wood handle to make Boxley’s first adze.

He copied pictures of totem poles in books, carving pieces, some of which he still keeps in dark corners of his workshop, and one of which he calls “the ugliest-looking thing in the world.” In two or three years, his carvings started to look like the old pieces carved by Tsimshian a century earlier. In 1982 he gave the first pole-raising and potlatch in Metlakatla; a newspaper picture shows Boxley dancing in street clothes with a carved wooden helmet on his head. It was the first time Boxley danced in public. A father with a wife and two young sons, he quit teaching school in 1986 and turned to art full time. The next year he composed his first six Tsimshian songs for a newly formed adult dance group called 4th Generation.

“I would have loved to have instruction,” Boxley said of his carving. “But I didn’t know who to go to. Because I had no instruction, I developed a style of art that is known as Alaskan Tsimshian.”

David Robert and Zachary grew up in the Tsimshian culture; often simply in the carver’s shed, which is really an insulated garage next to the house on the Olympic Peninsula. David Robert remembers never being forced to carve or dance, but he remembers being coached by his dad, both in art and in Little League. He said, “It was always great to do something with Dad.”

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Over 30 years Boxley has built a reputation as an artist, notably stepping into the international arena in 1990 when he was commissioned to create the crown of a talking stick, for which he carved an American eagle and a Russian bear embracing, for the Goodwill Games. U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev wrote messages of goodwill and inserted them in the carving’s hollow.

David Robert followed quickly in his father’s footsteps, selling two pieces for $150 each when he was 7 years old and earning his first gallery show when he was 15. His first totem commission followed at La Push, Wash. “I have a clear memory of being 6 years old and learning how to run adze along a straight line, then seeing how chopped up the wood was. Now I can run a pencil line straight down the board.”

Boxley nods, appreciating how his sons have been able to live a life entirely in Tsimshian and never having to be on the outside looking in. He said, “The best thing a parent can have is for their children to do more than they did. I am proud of both my boys.”

David Robert works now for Robert Davidson, a widely respected Haida carver. Boxley notes with pride that his son is a carver working for Davidson, not an apprentice.

Boxley and David Robert co-lead the dance troupe Git-Hoan, and before that they co-led another group, Tsimshian Haayuuk. “My dance group is well known for its masks. At one time people were likening us to modern dancers, but that wasn’t true. We are old style dancers. Masks were used a lot in the old days by all the tribes.”

The inspiration for the masks, the box drums and the capes comes from the old materials that the Boxley family has found in museum collections such as the National Museum of the American Indian’s Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md. Bringing out new materials made in the old style may have made the style seem new. But David Robert said of visiting the Tsimshian objects in museum collections, “It’s the only way to talk to the old people.”

His father said, “He is taking it over after I hang it up.”

“Not too soon, I hope,” David Robert replied. “One thing we feel strongly about is that the culture doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to everyone.”

Boxley grinned at the bentwood box he’d gone back to painting, and said, “It’s a big canoe, that is what I say, everyone can fit.”

For more information on David Boxley and images of his amazing work, visit