Native Arts | David Boxley

By Dottie Indyke

An Alaskan native brings totem poles into the 21st century

For Northwest Coast tribes, the totem pole is a signpost as unambiguous as the McDonald’s golden arches and as informative as a placard reading “Joe’s House.” If you know how to read the thunderbirds and eagles, whales and wolves, carved along its 30-foot span, you are privy to the history of the clan who owns it.

David Boxley, a 54-year-old Tsimshian from Alaska, has made 65 totem poles—for settings and individuals as diverse as Florida’s Epcot Center, California’s Knott’s Berry Farm, the mayor’s office in Seattle, WA, and the emperor of Japan—and each is unique to its owner. Once, for a facial reconstruction surgeon, he made a pole topped by a raven with a broken beak.

Fourteen years ago, Boxley raised the first totem pole in his childhood village of Metlakatla, AK, thus sealing his reputation as a culture bearer for his tribe. By then the art, dance, and rituals of his people had nearly disappeared because of a promise the Tsimshian had made to Christian missionaries who brought them to Alaska a century before from British Columbia. Boxley’s art carries on those long-ago traditions.

Reared by his grandparents and the first high-school senior in his hometown to give a valedictory address in his native Sm’algyax, Boxley had a passion for his heritage from boyhood. “I’d get right out there and dance even when I didn’t know what I was doing,” he admits. “I felt that thrill.”

As a kid, Boxley viewed the arrival of non-Native teachers in his remote island village as tantamount to an assembly of aliens. It was only while watching them eat that he realized they were human beings like him. Ultimately their influence was seminal; he set his sights on a career as a teacher.

He soon left Alaska for Seattle Pacific University, where he painted in his spare time, creating a series of 50 oils of Native life. His art-making continued as he moved back and forth between Alaska and Washington to take increasingly challenging positions teaching and coaching basketball. In 1980, while painting at a native cultural center in Seattle, he became enthralled by a wood-carving demonstration.

His response was to borrow gouges and X-Acto knives and buy yellow cedar from a lumberyard. “I got some books and started making totem poles from pictures. It was the wrong way to do it; the best way would have been some sort of apprenticeship,” he muses today. “But the benefit was I developed a unique style.”

Understandably, his early carvings didn’t look traditionally Tsimshian, but as Boxley researched the historical medium at the University of British Columbia, the Provincial Museum in Victoria, and the Seattle Art Museum, his poles, boxes, and masks gradually conformed. Still, he retained his own aesthetic.

“There are small nuances in the way I make faces, the cut of the cheek and the eyebrow area,” he says in explaining his signature. “I also have a distinctive way of painting the faces. The traditional colors are flat red and flat black. I’m known for using this deep blue that has a red dashing over it. I saw that on some old masks and applied it to my totem poles.”

In 1986, Boxley shocked his friends by quitting his teaching job, selling his village sandwich shop, and moving his family from Alaska to Kingston, WA, a ferry town nestled on the Olympic peninsula where he still lives today, to become a full-time artist. “I never realized that this art I took on as a hobby for my own pleasure would take me over,” he says.

A steady stream of public and private commissions and museum and gallery shows followed. Boxley’s totem poles, bentwood boxes, rattles, prints, and panels are now in the collections of Microsoft, the king and queen of Sweden, the president of West Germany, and the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. For the 1990 Goodwill Games, he carved a talking stick with images of an American eagle and Russian bear to symbolize peace and harmony between the two countries. Boxley is the first Alaskan Tsimshian to achieve this level of international prestige.

He also has established four successful dance groups, including Git-Hoan, which performed at the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. And he’s written over 40 songs in his endangered language and helped spur the rebirth of potlatches, the traditional Northwest Coast ceremonies celebrating key life passages.

Most visibly, he’s become a preeminent woodcarver. “With my bentwood boxes, I carve out a certain amount of wood, steam the corner, and the wood bends marvelously,” he describes. “Every time, when I feel the wood bend in my hands, I know my people have been doing this for thousands of years.”

Boxley is represented by Quintana Galleries, Portland, OR, and Legacy Ltd., Seattle, WA.

Featured in “Native Arts” May 2006