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Non-Indian carver of Northwest Coastal tradition recognized

PORTLAND, Ore. - Rich LaValle considers being adopted by the George family
of Angoon (Tlingit) to be the high point of his career. The distinction
came only in October 2000 after 25 years as a carver and artist in the
Northwest Coast tradition.

Accolades, though, tend to arrive together. And it was almost four years to
the month later that LaValle had his first-ever gallery show in Portland.
He smoked the salmon for the occasion himself in an old refrigerator
converted for the purpose, and the red filets were set out on a platter in
between the merlot and the microbrew.

Around the corner in the creamy lights of Bonnie Kahn's Wild West Gallery,
LaValle's art covered an entire wall - masks, rattles, frontlets and
ceremonial aprons and daggers.

LaValle is an unassuming, soft-spoken man, well over 6 feet tall. In his
jeans, T-shirt and bright red applique vest, he was not at all threatened
by questions focused on whether it's a good thing that a non-Indian has
spent his life working in the Northwest Coastal forms and tradition.

"I was interested in Native American things since I was a kid. Maybe it's
because we think my grandmother probably had some connection to the Ojibwe
people," LaValle said. "But I sign my name on my stuff all the time, and I
never represented myself as being an Indian." Now that LaValle and his wife
have been adopted, he does add the name given him by the George family -
Kut Daa Jaa Gu, or Wood Carver. "I'm still not an Indian," LaValle, of
Swedish and French Canadian ancestry, noted. "But I am a Tlingit now."

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, of course, is aimed at non-Indians
who falsely suggest their products are Native-made. Clearly LaValle has
never had such intentions. He just liked working in the North Coast
tradition.

After he earned a bachelor's degree in art from Whitworth College in
Spokane, Wash. and served stints in the advertising world and the Army, he
settled in Portland, where his wife had a teaching job. At first he did
silkscreen prints of Chilkat blankets on shawls.

"The real wool blankets cost around $30,000 to $40,000 apiece, so I thought
people might like my shawls," La Valle said. "But Bruce Bowles - he was
part Apache and married to a Cheyenne - the fellow that was buying them
wondered if I could carve, so I started doing that instead. He bought my
stuff for 33 years and wholesaled it around the Northwest and Alaska and
New Mexico until he passed away a few months ago."

It was through his art that LaValle caught the attention of the Tlingit. "I
didn't know it, but they'd been buying some of the things I carved in a
store in Juneau. Then one day Garfield George, the cultural and tribal
leader at Angoon, called me up and wondered if I'd do some work for the
Tlingits directly."

After LaValle and the George family started doing business, it was all
uphill. "They invited us up for a pot-latch, and I think I carved for them
for four years before they adopted my wife and me." Now, in addition to
their Portland home, the LaValles have a small, rustic fishing cabin close
to Angoon.

"We're thinking that we might try to spend more time in Alaska one of these
years," LaValle said. "They've talked about me maybe working with some of
the young kids. There's more interest in carving now than there used to be,
so that might happen."

Indeed, one of the reasons LaValle found a niche was because it wasn't
being filled by Native artists. "There are a few people in Angoon that
carve, but they're not doing it a lot. I'm sure some of them don't like
what I'm doing but I haven't run into anybody that was openly hostile. If
they were carving as much as me, they would probably be hired," LaValle
said. "People were buying my things at the shop in Juneau before the
Georges and us met, so I guess they weren't getting what they needed from
the tribe. Garfield George told me that one of the reasons they buy my
things is that they don't have to wait for years to get a piece."

LaValle's too nice a person to focus on his critics, though. Peering out
from his glasses, his brown eyes are all good will. They're the eyes of a
person who's followed his heart, worked hard, and been a good family man.
Maybe those ethics are why LaValle and the Tlingits of Angoon have had a
melding of the spirits.