In just a few short years, Louie Gong has completely shaken up the world of indigenous art in Seattle.
When his company, Eighth Generation, opened a shop in Pike Place Market three years ago, it was the only Native-owned store in all of downtown Seattle. Today, he’s working with dozens of indigenous artists to build out their business capacity and educate consumers about the difference between “Native-inspired” and “inspired Natives.”
Big things are in store for the future. Eighth Generation plans to open a second location in downtown Portland next spring. And it was just purchased by the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, a change that Louie says will put more “muscle behind the hustle” of his growing company. (He’s staying on as CEO.)
We recently caught up with Louie, a self-taught artist who got his start by drawing Coast Salish designs on shoes, to talk about cultural appropriation and why buying Native art directly from Native artists is so important. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What is Eighth Generation, and why did you decide to start it?
Eighth Generation is a Seattle-based, Native-owned company that specializes in wool blankets and other 100-percent Native designed products. I started it because, as an artist myself, I recognized there was a huge gap between indigenous artists and consumers who were buying hundreds of millions of dollars in products featuring indigenous designs.
To me, that represented a huge problem because indigenous communities are some of the poorest in the entire country. So, Eighth Generation exists as my effort to bridge the gap between Native artists and consumers.
Eighth Generation’s tagline is “Inspired Natives. Not ‘Native inspired.’” What’s the meaning behind that?
It’s important to understand the origin of the term “Native inspired” and how it relates to the American Indian Arts & Crafts Act. The American Indian Arts & Crafts Act is a truth in advertising law that says that if something has nothing to do with Native people, then you cannot refer to it as “Native” or “Indian” or “indigenous.” The term “Native inspired” developed as a way for corporations to skirt the American Indian Arts & Crafts Act while still suggesting to consumers that the product had some sort of connection to Native peoples.
When we say, “Inspired Natives. Not ‘Native inspired,’” we’re saying that it’s important to support the cultural artists who are connected to the communities where the art was developed, rather than using your money to support and encourage more corporate appropriation of indigenous art. We know that consumers are good people and if they just have the information that they’ll make good decisions about how they use their dollars.
When people buy from Eighth Generation, they can be assured that what they’re buying is appropriate for placement on a product available for commercial sales. There’s a strong distinction between artwork and scenes that are appropriate for commercial sales, and those that are appropriate only for ceremonial purposes or for gifts. There are also designs that are specific to certain families. The artists we work with are aware of those boundaries.
The key to knowing whether or not a piece of art or a theme might be problematic is agency. If an indigenous artist who’s connected to their community has vetted that work and presented it to you for commercial sales, it’s OK to buy. Just look for the artist’s name and tribe. If you don’t see that, then you can be almost 100 percent sure that it’s not designed by a Native artist.
What are some of the ways Eighth Generation helps Native artists overcome barriers and find sustainable success?
There are many barriers that indigenous artists and arts entrepreneurs face that others never have to deal with. In general, if you’re a community-engaged indigenous person or you grew up in your (tribal) community, your pathway to starting a business in a city like Seattle represents a long journey just to get your business license. For example, I grew up in a house with no running water and then in the Nooksack tribal community raised by Grandpa and Grandma, so my journey from poverty to being the founder of one of the fastest growing Native-owned companies in the U.S. or Canada has been quite long and arduous.
Another thing that people need to understand: If you’re a community engaged Native person, that engagement comes with a lot of accountability to your community. So, as I move forward in my journey, I am culturally obligated to bring other people with me. And you see that obligation represented in Eighth Generation’s business practices.
We’re a company that’s founded by Native artists and staffed by Native artists. So we tend to be very artist-centric in our approach to making products and running the business. When the artists we’re working with need it or are interested in it, we offer them business skills capacity building. If they don’t have e-commerce (training), we help them develop e-commerce. If they don’t have a logo or a business entity, we help them with all the basic aspects of what they need to be successful entrepreneurs.
We have artists, like Sarah Agaton Howes, who have gone from making zero from their artwork to making six figures. So we’re not talking about a token marketing-driven way of aligning with Native artists; I believe that Eighth Generation is making a real change. People like me, and Sarah, and other people who are having some success right now, have the responsibility to gather that know-how and then redistribute it in our community. What we hope is that 10 years from now, there are 100 Eighth Generations.
What does the Snoqualmie tribe’s purchase of Eighth Generation mean for the company?
The short-term plan is to keep doing what we’ve been doing. That doesn’t mean our status quo isn’t dynamic; it means that the ambitious plan that we’ve had in place for the last two years is still being executed. That includes expansion to Portland and an urban manufacturing initiative where we are making wool textiles right in our Seattle studios.
For us to compete with legacy brands that have dominated the market for Native art for a century, we need some muscle behind the hustle. By partnering with the Snoqualmie in this way, we’re getting that, and also connecting with a tribe that has shared values that will help strengthen the messaging that’s coming from Eighth Generation.
I can’t think of a higher outcome for the small business that I started by drawing on shoes than to have hundreds of local indigenous people sharing ownership of it.