The Pacific Northwest lost a towering presence with the Dec. 16 death of Bill Holm at 95. His meticulous effort documented and sustained Native cultures that had been practiced in this region for millennia.
Even though Holm was an outsider to the Native cultures he so admired, his life’s work showed how to be an ally without exploitation.
Such was Holm’s dedication to uplifting Native art traditions that, although a talented artist in his own right, he refused to sell his own creations that emulated Native styles to avoid becoming a competitor. But he didn’t simply cede the arts market to Native works — he created the architecture for appreciating them. His masterpiece book, “Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form,” has for 56 years stood as the foundational text by which artists and scholars understand the context of this region’s Native art.
But his legacy deserves honor for far more than even this time-honored guidebook. Holm was a force of nature at helping preserve ancient knowledge of painting, carving and other crafts practiced among tribal groups. This sense of value and care was unfortunately rare for much of American history, which long exerted immense pressure to assimilate Native cultures. Holm used his curiosities to entrench an appreciation for Northwestern Native art within the scholarly and cultural worlds, where it lives on today.
Holm’s trained eye made him a brilliant curator — but his dedication and respect shone in the effort Holm put into teaching, carrying the artistic traditions himself from elder generations to aspirants decades later. That stewardship became his life’s task, and a debt the entire Northwest will always owe him.
Holm is appropriately remembered at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, where Native collections first besotted him as a boy and where the Bill Holm Center carries on his devotion to supporting new art. The traditions Holm helped to sustain and grow can survive in an evolving world with respectful stewardship and support. Holm showed with a persevering grace precisely how to do it, and how to make this world a more inclusive place.