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Lelooska: The Life of a Northwest Coast Artist

By Chris Friday

Review By Melinda Jette

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 141 Spring 2004  | p. 121-3

IN SEPTEMBER 1996 Don “Lelooska” Smith, a highly regarded Northwest Coast artist, was laid to rest near his home in Ariel, Washington. The present volume is the result of a collaboration between Lelooska and historian Chris Friday during the final years of the artist’s life. As Friday admits, the task of capturing any one individual life is at best a partial success. However, he tackles this challenge with aplomb and gives readers a glimpse into the life of a remarkable man. 

Mindful of the ethical and methodological issues related to oral history and Native American biography, Friday outlines the collaborative nature of the volume. In his hours of recorded conversations with Lelooska, Friday questioned the artist about specific issues and episodes in his life, yet, since he was a natural orator, raconteur, and performer, Lelooska would often take a leading role in shaping the discussions. Friday retains this dynamic in the edited version by making Lelooska’s narratives the central focus, framing them with short essays and informative notes that place the artist’s words within a historical context. Friday has structured the volume according to a series of chronological themes: childhood and family traditions, education and early artistic experiences, Lelooska’s growth and maturity as an artist, his connections to the James Sewid family and the Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka’wakw), and the cultural and spiritual implications of his work.* 

As a self-identified non-reservation Indian of Cherokee and European ancestry who became a well-known Northwest Coast artist, Don “Lelooska” Smith’s life took many dramatic twists and turns. From this perspective, Friday argues that it was both unique and emblematic of larger trends in the twentieth-century Native American experience. Indeed, throughout Lelooska the author addresses questions of identity that remain contested within Indigenous communities across North America: What does it mean to be Indian? How did Lelooska come to identify with the Northwest Coast peoples? Was it appropriate for him to do so? 

Through Lelooska’s stories about his life and his family history, his artwork and performances, and his activities advocating for Native people, he articulates an unclouded view of himself as an American Indian. Lelooskas pan-Indian identity flowed from a variety of sources: the cultural and spiritual education he received from his Cherokee grandfather, the family’s ties with many Native communities throughout the Pacific Northwest, participation in regional cultural events such as the Pendleton Round-Up, the role of his mother as the family breadwinner through the Indian curio trade, and his personal knowledge of the shared history of oppression and discrimination experienced by Native peoples across North America. Don Smith’s identification as an Indian was always closely tied to his development as an artist. From an early age he exhibited a natural aptitude for the plastic arts, working alongside his mother at her shop near Salem, Oregon. Indeed, Smith received the name “Lelooskin” (later Lelooska), meaning “whittling,” as a teenager at the Pendleton Round-Up in the late 1940s.** 

After working in the Indian curio market – which relied on received notions about Plateau and Plains cultures – in the 1960s Don Smith progressively turned his attention to the Northwest Coast artistic tradition. Lelooska responds to Friday’s queries about this transition by explaining that the Indigenous art of the region answered his need to develop as an artist: “I went to the Northwest Coast because this was the richest, deepest art tradition in North America … it was the one place in North America where you had artists working as commissioned artists with patrons, great chiefs” (145). At this time, as Northwest Coast art was beginning to gain worldwide recognition, Lelooska developed a close relationship with the Sewids, a prominent Kwakiutl family on Vancouver Island. James Sewid conse-quendy formally adopted Lelooska into his lineage. This formal linkage gave the Sewids access to a gifted carver and afforded Lelooska access to a Northwest Coast tribal tradition that allowed him to flourish as an artist. 

Although Lelooska makes a strong contribution to Pacific Northwest history and to Native American biography, it does contain a few minor weaknesses. These flow from the nature of the project. While Friday does an admirable job of presenting the larger historical context, Lelooskas stream of consciousness narratives are occasionally hard to follow, especially when he rattles off names and places unfamiliar to readers. As a result, the volume would have benefited from additional reference information, such as a chronology of Lelooska’s life, a map of the Pacific Northwest identifying the sites mentioned in the text, and perhaps a chart outlining family members and significant individuals. These weaknesses aside, Lelooska offers readers an engaging look into the life of a Native American artist, a life at once unique and representative of the tribulations and triumphs of Indigenous peoples in the twentieth century. 

* I have followed Chris Friday and used the ethnic and tribal designations employed by Don “Lelooska” Smith during his lifetime. 

** “Lelooskin,” a Nez Perce (Nimipu) word of Flathead (Salish) origin, was the name of a Nez Perce warrior who had died in the Nez Perce War of 1877.