About the Lelooska Foundation

In her review of Written in Stone Debbie Reese took issue with the work of Chief Lelooska. To be clear, Lelooska is not in the story and is mentioned only briefly in the author’s note. Lelooska himself died in the late 1990s and his work is carried on by the Lelooska Foundation. Here is a link to more information about him and the Lelooska Foundation, for those who maybe following the conversation and be unfamiliar with the work of this author, illustrator, carver, linguist and historian. And here is a picture of Chief Lelooska in his traditional regalia.Unknown

I’m well aware, as Debbie has mentioned, that Lelooska was adopted into one of the bands of the Kwakwaka’wakw (also known as the Kwakiutl) tribe of British Columbia. Not everyone enjoys his art and not everyone likes the living history programs that he has provided in Washington for almost 40 years. I’m not interested in changing Debbie’s mind on this point. However hers is not the only opinion on the topic. Native Americans are not monolithic in their views and some of them are very much in favor of sharing their traditional arts with the wider community.

Among the tribes of the Pacific northwest, the right to tell a traditional story with its accompanying song, dance, and regalia is conferred in a potlatch. Lelooska’s right to share the stories he does was given to him by Chief James Aul Sewide and witnessed and agreed to by all the tribal members and neighboring tribes present at the potlatch. If they did not wish for Don Smith to become Chief Lelooska they could have chosen not to come to the potlatch. But they came, which is all the evidence I need to determine that he is doing this work fairly and in keeping with the traditions of the Kwakwaka’wakw. The tribe had the opportunity to deny the Lelooska Foundation the right to perform their living history programs after Lelooska died. But they came to the potlatch for his brother Tsungani and again conferred on him the ownership of the stories his family continues to present to the public.

I received an email just last week from the head of the planning team who was hired by the Quinault to relocate the village of Taholah out of the tsunami inundation zone. My book was recommended to him by somebody from the tribe as a vehicle for understanding them better. He’s aware of the weight of this project, to move a village site more than a thousand years old. He and his team want to make sure that what they design really serves the tribe well. Simply sticking in some local art at the end of the process isn’t what they want. They want to really think through with the community what their village needs in order to be a home to them. And so the book is a vehicle for thinking and talking about what the land and ocean and river and lake means to the community. Not because it’s a perfect representation of Quinault and Makah culture, they already have non-fiction materials aplenty for that purpose. It does what fiction does best, it invites reflection and conversation.

The bottom line for me is that each tribe gets to decide for themselves what is an acceptable representation of their culture. One of the reasons I chose the Quinault and Makah rather than one of the many smaller tribes in the area, is that they are well-accustomed to speaking up for themselves at a national and international level. If something about my book bothers them, I’m confident they will say so publicly. So far they’ve had no criticism of the book. The community in Taholah has invited me to come and celebrate it with them later this spring. The curator of their historical collection recommends the book to people who are interested in learning more about that tribe. That is all the endorsement I need.


6 thoughts on “About the Lelooska Foundation

  1. Debbie Reese

    Ah… so you’ve circled back to Lelooska/Don Smith.

    He is not in the story, but he had enough of an impact on you that you recommend his books and his performances in the ‘for young readers’ portion of your book. You seem unable to step away from what he/his family says on its website. You’re only parroting what you read there. Did you cross check that information as part of your research process?

    I read the website, too. Based on my study and experience, it raised several red flags that were easily affirmed in several places. One is Chris Friday’s biography, Lelooska: The Life of a Northwest Coast Artist. As a child, Friday was a friend of the family, and therefore felt an affinity and conflict in writing about Don Smith’s identity. Did you read that biography? Or anything else about Lelooska/Smith other than what the website says? If yes, what did you read?

    The Makah website and the Quinault website do not link to Lelooska. The Makah museum does not sell his books.

    You are on thin ice when you put forward words of praise for him. Native people, and non-Native people who know about this sort of performance know it right away, and more people–like you–need to know it, too. Relying on it is a major pitfall. Pointing to it does a huge injustice to your readers.

    What curator recommends your book? Of what institution? Can you give me a name? Where will you be for this celebration?

  2. Faith

    I’ve just read over Debbie’s review and the following conversation. I am not a scholar of Native people, but I have a great love of and respect for their culture because of books like yours and the generosity of Native people who graciously explained much of their history in visits I have made to historical sites. For the most part, though, that love comes from books.
    I understand Debbie’s desire to defend her culture. She has every right to point out ways in which it was misrepresented. But it saddens me that while she demands respect from you she makes so little effort to show any herself.
    As I said, I’m not a scholar of these issues. I won’t pretend to judge who is right or wrong–but from my perspective, there’s much more at stake than that. Cultural differences aside, it would be nice if people could treat one another like human beings. Thankfully, just when the bitterness and lack of charity in Debbie’s comments made me lose faith in human nature, the humility and respect in Rosanne’s restored it. For all I know, Debbie’s right and you grossly misrepresented her culture. You did, however, represent it in a way that makes outsiders respect and love it and want to stand up for it. Right now, through her words, Debbie is representing it in a way that does the culture an injustice.

  3. Rosanne Parry Post author

    Tone is the trickiest thing of all to manage in an online conversation like this one. I don’t find Debbie’s tone problematic myself though I know it may appear strident to others. I’m sure that my tone sounds arrogant to some readers. I think both of us are well aware of the risks involved in engaging such a conversation and I’m willing to do so not because I’m interested in silencing a critic but because I’m interested in understanding her concerns as fully as possible and applying them as they make sense in the context of this story.

    For example there’s probably a better phrase than “old woman” to describe the older members of Pearl’s tribe and the phrase “princess” used to describe Pearl herself. I’m more than happy to go back and look at those passages and reconsider that choice. The Quniault word for grandmother, and the Tlingit word for daughter of a chief would probably be the best choice, but it’s one I’d have to run by a local source to be sure.

    But here’s what I’m listening for and not hearing in our conversation about the Lelooska Foundation. I’m not hearing that his claim of adoption in false or that a specific element of his performances is inauthentic or that the art (including the regalia used in performances) is created under false pretenses. If legal action has been taken against him Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 or if there was a request from the Kwakwaka’wakw for him to cease and desist from his performances, then I’d gladly withdraw any mention of him from the authors note. Debby says I’m on thin ice when I praise him but doesn’t say specifically what he has done that should be of concern. She only mentions that he has critical reviews. So does every working artist. But I really am willing to hear what she finds so problematic in his stories and performances.

    Here’s what I have seen of the work of the Lelooska Foundation that makes me think they are a legitimate source of information about the type of story, song and dance practiced traditionally in the Pacific northwest. I’ve seen the show 5 times over the last 40 years, They have been performing essentially the same small group of stories they have always performed. If they were adding new stories every year or “jazzing up” the performance to make it more commercial, I’d be concerned. If they were claiming to be born into the tribe rather than adopted, I’d be concerned too. If they represented the performances as an actual potlatch rather than a living history exhibit or if they were diverging from the traditional form line style of art used in the regalia, masks, and carvings, I’d be much less interested in recommending them.

    I do know that there are several different bands of the Kwakwaka’wakw (I think 15 altogether) and at least one of those bands doesn’t like the notion of traditional dances being used as living history exhibits. So that is of some concern. But disputes within a tribe are not uncommon. Even a single Indian nation will have a diverging views among its members. There’s a saying–“two Irishmen, three opinions” And that may be all the dispute amounts to. If the nation as a whole has requested the Lelooska Foundation to stop I’d love to hear about it. But these performances have been going on for more than 40 years. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act has been in place for the last 24 years. In all that time I’ve never heard of the Kwakwaka’wakw taking either an internal-to-the-tribe method or an external legal method to stop the Lelooska Foundation. I find that persuasive, but I’m still willing to be persuaded otherwise.

  4. Brenda Minahan

    Rosanne, I have been searching on the internet about the art of Lelooska, particularly wood carvings.
    Do you happen to know of any art galleries or auctions where his carvings would be available for purchase or any anyone knowledgeable about his artwork?
    Thank you.

    1. Judy

      If you happen to get this post– I have a number of Lelooska pieces that I am looking to sell as I am moving. If you get this, contact me at jscacciola@aol.com with Lelooska in the subject line.

Comments are closed.