When Nooksack artist Louie Gong first started trying to make a living with his craft in 2006, he found the opportunities to collaborate with larger companies as a Native artist nearly nonexistent.
When the opportunities did appear, Gong said, “The larger companies always wanted to present the Native artists in the context of a charity, or ancient history or the natural environment. So there wasn’t an opportunity to be honest about your lived experience as an Indigenous person and also engage in business.”
So when he started Seattle-based art and lifestyle company Eighth Generation in 2008, he said, “I wanted to create the business that I needed when I was an emerging artist.”
What that meant was that Eighth Generation upended the way Native artists had previously been treated. Under the banner of “Inspired Natives” rather than “Native inspired,” they helped to shift the paradigm from Native artists as commodities to true partners and collaborators. In 2016, the company opened a brick-and-mortar “stereotype busting” shop in Pike Place market.
Gong sold Eighth Generation to the Snoqualmie Tribe in 2019, and the company is growing substantially, he said. Gong is now looking ahead to a new personal chapter. He announced last week he would be retiring from his role as CEO of the company to focus on his art, and will be continuing as an artist with the “Inspired Natives” program. Gong is proud to say he will have the same business arrangement as other artists in the program and is looking forward to following other pursuits as well.
“I think we forever changed the landscape of opportunity for cultural artists, through the consumer education work that the company has done and also by demonstrating that it’s possible to have success as a business while aligning with Native art and communities in a respectful way,” Gong said. “That success represents pressure on legacy businesses that have exploited cultural artists in the past to get in line with the way Eighth Generation does things.”
The way Eighth Generation does things is to lead with “fair trade and economic justice” for Native artists, Gong said. Their approach, called the Decolonizing Partnership Model, aims to “support, not exploit” cultural artists through “culturally responsive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial” partnerships. One of their first projects was a gift set of Coast Salish mugs designed by Northwest Native artists in partnership with Starbucks this year.
These partnerships disrupt the traditional artist-gallery relationship and emphasize accessibility versus exclusivity, Gong said. “We want to make as many impressions as possible with beautiful cultural art, and the important message that it carries about contemporary Indigenous people. Every product we create is like a Trojan horse that people bring into their homes that’s going to be sparking up conversations about Native people for years to come. And that really makes me happy.”
In addition to making art more accessible, other principles of the Decolonizing Partnership Model include understanding that “cultural art should not be taken or owned in perpetuity by brands or companies outside of the cultural communities it originates from,” opportunities for artists to do their own retail sales, and sharing industry knowledge with Indigenous artists, among others.
The Decolonizing Partnership model also created the conditions for artists to remain true to their authentic vision, not the romanticized, archaic versions of Native life that are so present in the popular imagination.
Gong said that outdated perception was one of the challenges they had to confront.
“One of the barriers in front of us are the stereotypes about who Indigenous people are, and what authentic representation means. When galleries control authentic representation and academia controls authentic representation, what gets reinforced is this idea that real Natives are the Natives that were encountered at first contact [with Europeans],” Gong said. “That impacts us because people come into our store and hear ’80s music and say, ‘Why isn’t there flute music?’ They look at our products and see that the product is manufactured by machine. They say, ‘Why isn’t this handmade?’”
At Eighth Generation headquarters in Seattle’s Georgetown last week, staff were busy shipping out holiday orders to music by Stevie Wonder. Only 9% of their sales are in Seattle, the company said, with customers around the country and beyond. At their 30,000-square-foot headquarters, which serves as a warehouse, office and production facility, staff gathered to introduce themselves and share their role in the company and tribal affiliations. Diné, Muckleshoot, Tulalip, Nooksack, Hopi, Tlingit, Anishinaabe, Yurok, Suquamish, Karuk and Confederated Salish and Kootenai were some of the tribal nations the 75% Native staff of Eighth Generation represent.
“If you visit the headquarters, it’s likely that our team is going to circle up immediately,” Gong said. “Everybody has done it a million times, because we honor our guests like that. Everybody knows exactly how to introduce themselves and they don’t wonder if they should finish their job before they come over. They just know that this is a priority.”
Those kinds of cultural differences can be seen throughout Eighth Generation. For example, in the company fridge, Gong said, was sea urchin and salmon brought in by staff to share. Another staff member brought in Navajo tea. It’s something that happens organically, Gong said.
“I’m really proud, because I grew up in a house with no running water. And I didn’t realize that, but the ways of navigating life that I was learning from my Native grandma and Chinese grandpa gave me everything I need to go from a Sharpie and a pair of Vans to what you see here,” Gong said. “I think it’s just a beautiful story. I can’t believe it. I’m here at the finish line, and it’s overwhelming to think about that it’s real. It’s finally time to celebrate it. I haven’t let that happen yet.”