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Different One: A Native Artist and the Future

James Madison Honors the Past by Using New Shapes, Forms and Materials

May 10, 2016

Just off the I-5 freeway, near Marysville, Wash., lie the bright lights of the Tulalip Tribes Resort and Casino and the bustling Quil Ceda Mall. Very near this evidence of tribal commercial success there is a small, inconspicuous blue shed that holds much of the tribes’ history. No, it’s not a library or a museum. It’s the workshop for a number of Tulalip tribal artists, including 42-year-old master carver James Madison.

Madison visits the beach behind his house on the Tulalip Reservation. Credit: Eric Brandt

“For us, artwork is our books,” explains Madison. “We put the information of our people, our family, our lineage on the artwork.” Madison, whose Indian name Pasaiukes, which translates from the Lushootseed language as “Different One,” began learning the traditional artist craft of his people at a very early age. One of the youngest in a large group of cousins, he was taught the same way many of his ancestors were — in a large circle, by a tribal elder (his grandfather, Frank Madison) with storytelling as a key part of the experience.

The wood-carving tools used by Tulalip artists include adzes, chisels, gouges and knives. Credit: Eric Brandt

“My grandfather would sit us around the kitchen table, give us pieces of wood and teach us to carve,” says Madison. “And he would tell stories over and over and over again. He was telling us about our people, our history, where we came from, ingraining it in our minds so we would know it deep inside, while at the same time we learned to etch those stories in the wood.”

An early 20th century photograph taken at the Tulalip schoolhouse shows some of the instruction methods used to assimilate Indian children. Courtesy of Hibulb Cultural Center, Tulalip Reservation

The Tulalip Reservation is made up of 13 distinct bands of native families or tribes that were moved onto the land following the signing of the Treaty of Point Elliott, in what is now Mukilteo, on January 22, 1855. The Pacific Northwest tribes — from present-day Northern California to Alaska — had been rich in resources prior to European settlement, but they were soon moved from their traditional hunting and fishing grounds to this stretch of coastal lands to be assimilated into Western education and Christian religion. Madison’s great-great-grandfather, a Tlingit native of Cake, Alaska, was moved here soon after the treaty. His mother is of Snohomish, Skykomish, Snoqualmie and Duwamish descent. They met on the reservation while trying desperately to keep their cultures alive in the midst of aggressive policies of de-Indianization.

“Knowing those bloodlines […] and how it comes down to me and my family and my kids, and to pass that on to my kids, is important,” says Madison.

A large aluminum cube ringed by creatures of the sea and other Salish symbols stands at the site where the Point Elliot Treaty was signed on Jan. 22, 1855 by Chief Seattle, Washington Territory Governor Isaac Stevens and other Indian and federal leaders. The treaty created the Tulalip Reservation and forever changed life on the Puget Sound. Credit: Nils Cowan

Growing up, he experienced his own conflicts with native and non-native teachings. He lived on the reservation as a child while attending public school in nearby Everett. He would learn the standard American curriculum by day and receive his native schooling from his father and grandfather in the evening.

“I lived in two worlds, I had to adapt to two worlds,” says Madison. “It’s hard, because you’re learning something that isn’t yours but you have to learn it to survive.”

At the same time, Madison’s father was taking art classes and bringing home examples of European, African and Asian art. When Madison later attended the Fine Arts program at the University of Washington, he delved even deeper into those influences and eventually had an epiphany.

“It was Picasso who really catapulted me to what I do now,” he says. “He was so fascinated with African art that he couldn’t stop thinking about it. He took pieces of it and pieces of what he already knew and mixed it together. He came up with Cubism and took it to a whole other level.

I liked what he was doing," adds Madison. "I decided to take the European art that spoke to me, add my native part to it, mix it all together and try to come up with something new.”

Madison puts the final touches on a nearly five-year project, a totem pole depicting a young diver wrapped in an octopus’ tentacles.  His Uncle Joe Gobin’s more traditional design can be seen in the background. Credit: Eric Brandt

Madison began experimenting with new shapes and forms as well as new mediums beyond wood, such as glass, aluminum, bronze, stone, and also began using computer graphics to help streamline and inform his design process.

Madison works in many mediums besides wood, including bronze. Credit: Eric Brandt

The result has been success for him and for the Tulalip Tribes. Madison's work is seen in many public buildings and plazas throughout the Northwest, alongside other Salish artists. He regularly shows at galleries across the country, and has traveled internationally to exhibit pieces and tell the stories his grandfather taught him in his youth — tales that still inform his work today.

Behind the front desk at the Tulalip Casino and Resort, one of Madison’s stained glass works adorns the wall. Credit: Nils Cowan

Madison's message of embracing rather than fearing the future, and of sharing the rich Tulalip culture, is helping to influence a new generation of tribal members. People of all ages participated in a recent ceremony to dedicate a pair of totems to the tribes' new administration building — a traditional design by his uncle, Joe Gobin, and a modern piece by Madison.

Says Madison, “As my grandfather would say, we’re not petrified, we’re still alive. And hopefully these works can remind my kids and the younger generation where we come from and who we are.”

Native students from a local elementary school lead the crowd in a spiritual dedication of song for the newly unveiled totems. Credit: Eric Brandt

James lives and works on the Tulalip reservation, where he and wife Jessica are raising their sons, Jaden and Jevin.

At the unveiling of James and his uncle’s recently completed totems at the Tribe’s new administration building, he and family pose for portraits. Credit: Eric Brandt


Made possible in part by

Nils Cowan

A native of Calgary, Canada who cut his teeth in the documentary industry of Washington, D.C., Nils moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 after working on a National Park Service film about Mt. Rainier and falling in love with the area. He has been producing non-fiction content for thirteen years, from broadcast and independent documentaries to museum films and non-profit PSAs. One of his most recent films, 'Beyond the Visible’ which reveals the inner workings and transformational science of the Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico, was just awarded the 2014 Cine Golden Eagle Award for non-fiction storytelling.  Nils lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids.

More stories by Nils Cowan