SNOQUALMIE TRIBE’S LATEST LEAP: NATIVE BLANKETS, MADE IN SEATTLE

THE TRIBE’S DESIGN BRAND, EIGHTH GENERATION, WANTS TO TAKE ON THE
PENDLETONS OF THE WORLD FROM ITS SODO HEADQUARTERS.

By Margo Vansynghel / crosscut.com
January 27, 2021

In a small warehouse near a busy intersection in Seattle’s
industrial district, an assembly of animals is charging forward: A
buffalo bursts forth. An elk gallops. A magpie spreads its wings amid
running wolves and beavers.

The animals are all heading in the same direction, emerging from the
10-foot-wide industrial machine that is knitting them into a
blue-and-white baby blanket. Inch by inch, the merino wool fabric
emerges from the belly of the appliance — like a jumbo printer, but
for sewing.  

The blanket was designed by renowned artist John Isaiah Pepion
(Blackfeet) for Eighth Generation, the Seattle-based design and
lifestyle company that collaborates exclusively with Native American
artists. Called “Protection,” the artwork represents the shielding
powers of sacred animals. 

The motif is also an apt metaphor for the Native-owned company’s
latest leap forward: fabricating blankets designed by Native
artists in a hyper-local warehouse with proprietary equipment. 

“We’re not an emerging business anymore,” says Eighth Generation
founder and CEO Louie Gong (Nooksack). “We’re going to be an
emerging global player.” 

Gong, a clean-cut guy with a friendly demeanor and an artist in his
own right, has been the face of the company for more than a decade. He
bootstrapped Eighth Generation in 2008 by custom-painting Vans and
Converse sneakers with Coast Salish designs, which eventually grew
into a Pike Place Market shop and national brand. While he sold the
company to the Snoqualmie Tribe in 2019, he’s still its driving
force. He dreams big. 

For years, Eighth Generation has been selling woolen blankets
(including custom designs for various tribes) from its webshop and
popular Pike Place Market store. But these are produced in other
factories in the U.S. and China, not in-house. Since launching its
“Urban Manufacturing Initiative,” late last year, Eighth
Generation has sold about 500 baby blankets and scarves made in
Seattle, Gong says. He plans to start production on larger blankets
later this year. 

“Our investment in our own manufacturing is our effort to position
ourselves to compete with much larger companies,” Gong says. 

The U.S. textile industry has shrunk significantly over the past
decades. There are just a few hundred mills left in the U.S. Very few
of those are owned by Native American people — let alone tribes. 

That’s in part why the Snoqualmie Tribe’s 2019 acquisition of the
Eighth Generation store and brand was both an unprecedented business
move and a symbolic benchmark. “It’s huge for us. It’s right in
line with what we’re trying to accomplish: protect our culture,
promote our artists and expand our tribal voice,” Christopher
Castleberry, tribal council treasurer of the Snoqualmie Tribe, told
Crosscut at the time. Manufacturing Native-designed woolen goods in
Seattle is an extension of that strategy. 

On a recent factory visit, a few blankets lie flat on an elegant
wooden table. In one, small white squares radiate from the center on a
field of beige. It was designed by fiber artist SiSeeNaxAlt
(Muckleshoot/Chehalis), also known as Gail White Eagle. She’s in
the warehouse working on a new scarf design.

“This one is my favorite because it represents what I call a
light,” SiSeeNaxAlt says, as she brings the blanket closer for
inspection. “It’s like a burst of light.” She’s been weaving
for about 25 years with cedar and various fibers. For this design,
she incorporated the diamond shapes of a twill pattern. But, she
explains, this blanket is knitted — not woven. “I can’t weave one
of these blankets like this,” she adds. “If I were to weave it, it
wouldn’t be done as fast as that.” 

At a nearby table, an employee takes a small pair of thread clippers
to a blanket’s edges, pruning loose ends. After the blanket is
washed and steamed, another worker will sew on a gold label with a
batch number, fabrication date, washing instructions and a note:
“Made in Seattle, WA with Italian yarn.”   

For years, this SoDo warehouse has functioned as Eighth
Generation’s packing and shipping center, and a small-scale
factory/art studio. Around an industrial-sized table strewn with boxes
full of metal wires, pliers and other supplies, employees make phone
cases, jewelry and other small objects designed by the company’s
Native American artist collaborators.

Near the back wall, a laser cutter buzzes. It was the first machine
Gong invested in when Eighth Generation was still a one-person
operation. “The way the machines are set up sort of represents the
history of our growth,” Gong says, as he gestures towards a large UV
printer. Next to it stands the company’s big bet: the 10-foot-long
industrial-grade knitting machine. 

Soon, these machines will buzz and whir in a new space. The company
has outgrown its warehouse and is looking to move into larger digs, to
scale up production and accommodate more knitting machines and more
staff this year and next. Gong says the increase in scale is
significant. 

“This idea that we’re moving into a 30,000-square-foot space is
remarkable to me because we started in a 300-square- foot street-art
studio,” he says. 

The reason for the move is also significant, as blankets are used to
honor important occasions in many tribal communities, Gong points out.
“If somebody does good work on behalf of the community or graduates
from college, for example, they’re often gifted with a blanket,” he
explains. “The actual gifting looks different in different
communities, but a lot of times, they get wrapped in a blanket, and
it’s an important gesture that carries honor.” 

Gong, trained as an educator and school counselor, was bestowed this
honor in 2010. After his keynote speech at the National Indian
Education Association’s annual convention, Patsy Whitefoot — a
Yakama Nation elder and activist — wrapped him in a wool Pendleton
blanket. 

A month later, sitting on his couch under the blanket, his eye fell on
the label: it was one in an edition of hundreds. “I started to do
the math about what that represented in terms of that money going
straight from an organization serving our community to a non-Native
company that’s producing products with fake art,” Gong says.
“And I recognized it as an issue of economic and social
justice.” 

Pendleton blankets — which often feature designs honoring “stories
and symbols of Native American cultures” — have long been held in
high esteem in many Native communities, but the company is not
Native-owned. The Oregon business was founded in the early 1900s as a
woolen mill to produce blankets and robes to trade with various
tribes. These fabrics became so globally influential that
“Pendleton” became a Kleenex-like brand name stand-in for
“Native blankets” — but for decades they weren’t designed or
made by Native people. 

Pendleton started hiring Native American artists in the 1990s. But
many other brands still offer vaguely “Native inspired” blankets
and other types of art and cultural objects. Hence Eighth
Generation’s tagline: made by “Inspired Natives” not
“Native-inspired.”

Native art is a huge industry, says Amber-Dawn Bear Robe
(Blackfoot/Siksika), assistant professor of art history
and Indigenous fashion at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
“A lot of money is made off of Native art and culture, but that
money does not go back into Native causes, generally speaking,” she
says. “Little bits of our culture are dissected and selected to use
for profit that does not benefit Native people and continues the
misunderstanding — or no understanding at all that Native people
even exist.” Not to mention possessing a long history of creating
blankets, robes and art. “I consider Indigenous artists the
original designers of North America,” Bear Robe says. 

Gong has been set on creating a Native-owned alternative for wool
blankets since 2010. In 2015, Eighth Generation became the first
Native-owned business to offer wool blankets, according to the
company. 

Gong says that in the past, he has received some pushback for
producing overseas (which the company will continue to do, even with
its own facility in play). But he says it points to a double standard:
Eighth Generation is just doing business like any other company.
“Sometimes there’s a greater expectation of a Native-owned
business to be making things by hand,” Gong says. 

He’s been trying to escape this outdated stereotype since Eighth
Generation’s early years. “When people imagine a Native company,
they imagine a small company, the aunties weaving,” he says.
“They’re focused on Native people being craftspeople, not
entrepreneurs building a thriving business.”  

But, he adds, “by using cutting-edge technology to produce textiles
in-house, we’re sort of meeting this expectation halfway and then
bringing it to where we want to be, which is that our Native-owned
brand can be a global success.” 

Ironically, the pandemic-induced shutdown this spring helped the
company realize this was possible. After the tribe decided to
temporarily close the Pike Place Market store, sales tanked briefly
before soaring again online a few weeks later. (Staff has grown from 9
to 15 people.) 

Gong attributes the increased interest in part to four years of
“divisive politics” and this summer’s Black Lives Matter
protests, all of which has nudged consumers to reflect on their
values and support creators of color. It’s happening not just at
Eighth Generation. More people are shopping online for art from
Indigenous creators across North America.

“It sort of gave us a kick in the butt to think bigger and think
more globally about how we tell the story of our brand and where we
put our resources,” Gong says. 

Telling that story is his forté. He deftly hammers on the points he
wants to make and delivers sound bites that seem at once
rehearsed and completely sincere. During our visit, Gong insists I
watch Eighth Generation’s new “brand awareness video.” Later,
he proudly unfurls a large blanket that says, in large white and red
letters on a black background: “This blanket was made by Native
People in Seattle, Washington.” He knows it’s an irresistible
photo op. 

But the David and Goliath story Gong likes to tell rings true. Eighth
Generation’s path was laden with institutional barriers, “the same
sort of limitations that are consistent throughout Indian country,”
he notes. 

He didn’t start with generational wealth or business knowledge
and never took out any loans, he stresses. The seed money for the
company was what he saved from community workshops and his speaking
engagements. 

The innovation and creativity required to overcome structural
inequality runs through the veins of the company, and the art they
sell. “In Native communities, a lot of our art styles are based in
the fact that we had limited resources for hundreds of years,” Gong
says, as he shows me one of John Isaiah Pepion’s black and
sandstone “Mountain” scarves. “In John’s community, from the
Plains region, the only paper that they had to illustrate on was the
hand-me-down ledgers from the Indian agents who worked in the
community.… That’s what is represented here with the
linework.” 

Gong has an expression for this; a spin on “When life gives you
lemons, make lemonade.” 

“Our ancestors were given flour, water and salt, and they came up
with something beautiful: fry bread,” he says. “That’s the
analogy I always use: We took what we had, what was available to us
— and we combined it with our own tenacity and vision.” 

The sound of a roll-up door rattles through the warehouse as it
retracts, allowing a shaft of sunlight to stream in and illuminate the
concrete floor. As we move outside to talk, Gong explains that his
role as CEO is changing from day-to-day management to big-picture
development and planning. 

Soon, a bigger warehouse. Collaborations that will “drastically
increase the profile of our small Native-owned business,” as Gong
puts it. Bigger blankets and, maybe one day, in-house apparel. I’m
reminded of something Gong said during our first phone call: “This
is just the beginning.”


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SOURCE: crosscut.com
MAIN IMAGE SOURCE: Studio assistant Jasmine Frazier, left, works on tying off loose ends on blankets with studio manager Josh Swift at the Eighth Generation warehouse in Seattle on Jan. 14, 2021. The art and apparel brand partners with Native artists around the country. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

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