Seattle’s 8th Generation is the first Native American company to make traditional blankets

Sep 29, 2015, 5:31 PM | Updated: Sep 30, 2015, 6:13 am
The first 8th Generation blanket being produced features a Thunderbird, in honor of the Evergreen S...
The first 8th Generation blanket being produced features a Thunderbird, in honor of the Evergreen State College longhouse's 20th anniversary.(Photo courtesy of Kathy Cadigan)
(Photo courtesy of Kathy Cadigan)
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Wool blankets with native American inspired patterns, symbols and colors are bought by the thousands by native communities and tribes.

“They’re important because we often wrap people in blankets when we want to honor them,” Seattle artist and entrepreneur, Louie Gong said. “It’s a very strong symbol of respect. Because of that, tribal communities are major consumers of wool blankets.”

Gong, who grew up in the Nooksack tribe outside of Bellingham, said the blankets are usually made by companies like Pendleton and sold for hundreds of dollars a piece. None of the blankets are made by natives and native artists are not paid for their designs.

“They were taking art that was derivative of native cultural art, putting them on blankets, and then selling them back to our communities,” Gong explained. “So our only option was to really buy back these things, or these ideas, that were taken from us.”

But now there is another option. Gong’s company, 8th Generation,, is the very first native owned and operated company to make and sell the wool blankets to the mass market.

“Our very first blanket is a collaboration with Evergreen State College’s longhouse,” Gong said. “It features a huge, red Thunderbird in the middle of the blanket. It is bordered by some design elements that reflect communities that the Evergreen State college longhouse is connected to. There’s a coast Salish pattern and also a wave pattern that reflects their connection to Māori communities, who they often do exchanges with.”

Gong is working with a few other native artists from around the country, and on top of paying them for their art, he’s showing them how to sell and market their work so they can make a sustainable living.

“One of the things that’s important for people to understand is that for native communities, we don’t have a lot of resources,” Gong said. “We don’t have a lot of business knowledge, we don’t have a lot of capital to get things going. But one thing that we have in spades is culture and cultural art.

“Unfortunately we’ve been kind of blocked from being able to access the opportunities there are to develop a living from that cultural art because the market is dominated by non-native companies that, most of the time, are just surfing the web for native art and developing derivative designs and putting them out to market,” Gong said.

“So what we would like to do is, instead of just taking, we want to give back to the communities and the artists that are developing the aesthetic that people are interested in,” he said.

Gong, who became a full-time artist in 2008 after decades of working in education, was chosen by the Seattle mayor’s office to make the city’s official gift for the president of China, who visited last week.

“I created, with my uncle, a bentwood box which was made of red cedar and yellow cedar that featured a Fu Dog design around the entire box, that I hand painted,” Gong said. “So a Fu Dog, or a guardian lion, is one of the little statues that you’ll see outside of a Chinese restaurant or a bank. I was inspired to explore this idea of the Fu Dog in Coast Salish and Northwest coast design elements.”

It’s the perfect project for Gong because he is half Nooksack and half Chinese.

Right now, 8th Generation is fundraising on Indiegogo to get the blankets made, and if you donate a certain amount, you’ll get a blanket in exchange. Part of each blanket purchase will go to a scholarship fund for natives at Evergreen State College.

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Seattle’s 8th Generation is the first Native American company to make traditional blankets