Dream-catcher-emblazoned tees. Tribal-print sneakers. These are the wearable manifestations that Louie Gong, artist and founder of Eighth Generation, is challenging with his Pike Place Market shop and art space. “Cultural art isn’t new in fashion,” recognizes Gong, “but I go to the mall and look at native-inspired art—it’s like seeing your family photo on a product.”
Raised by his grandparents within the Nooksack tribe in Western Washington, Gong has long had a creative streak, which finally saw professional light of day after he spent 12 years working as a counseling services coordinator at the University of Washington and later Muckleshoot Tribal College.
In 2008 he put a Sharpie to a pair of Vans and founded Eighth Generation, selling his customized shoes online. But as of last summer, his new brick-and-mortar space is filled with etched-wood cell phone cases, handmade baseball caps—eschewing de rigueur whittled whalebone and totem-style woodwork—and contemporary native-designed wool blankets, the only ones to Gong’s knowledge made by a native-owned company.
Getting wrapped in one of these wool blankets is a huge honor in the tribes, but less so, declares Gong, is giving money to companies that exploit native aesthetics. His answer: “paying a cultural tax.” Five percent of all blanket proceeds fund projects for emerging artists from tribal communities in Washington and beyond. Eighth Generation’s first-ever batch of wool blankets were donated to the Evergreen State College Longhouse. They’ve even reached Native Americans fighting the pipeline on the chilly plains of North Dakota—around $35,000 worth.
“I was raised to do this,” says Gong. “If we’re going to be invoking the name of different tribes, then we damn well should be giving back to those communities.”