Meet Bill Holm, local Native Americans' great artist ally

The artist and academic has dedicated his life to northwest coast Native American art, culture and customs. How his openness has opened doors.
The artist and academic has dedicated his life to northwest coast Native American art, culture and customs. How his openness has opened doors.

The two totem poles towering just south of the Burke Museum’s entrance are replicas. But calling them such, as the explanatory plaque in front of them does, is too simplistic. They stand on their own as masterworks, each detail coaxed from the soft, coniferous trunks in the early 70s.

In the decades since Bill Holm carved the totems for the museum, the wind and rain have left them looking aged. Fine green lichen covers each creature — the mythical sea bear in the Tsimshain memorial pole, whale-man on the Haida house front pole. Anywhere the green is absent, the wood has faded to a mellow grey. The poles sit, indisputably impressive, but naturalized in the spot. They appear as things meant to be where they are.

Live cedar trees surround them, their branches wreathing the carvings in a deeper green. Both the living trees and the carved ones will remain long after the carver, Holm, has moved on.

Now 88, Holm was no stranger to the museum when he made those poles more than 40 years ago. When he first walked through its doors, he was an asthmatic 12-year-old from Montana.

His parents brought him to the coast hoping the move would sooth his lungs. They brought him to the museum hoping its contents would satisfy his curiosity for Native American culture. 

The asthma settled down right away; the curiosity never did. It blossomed into a lifestyle, teaching career and artistic passion. His is a journey impossible to quantify, except to say it is lifelong. Nuu-chah-nulth artist Joe David, a longtime friend of his, had only two words of advice for a writer attempting to condense Holm’s legacy to words: “Good luck.”

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Photo: Allyce Andrew

Heavy-handed lauding would only embarrass Holm, David said. He isn’t the kind of person who flaunts his influence. Still, nearly everyone close to Holm speaks of his generosity, his unshakable willingness to teach the curious. His is a brand of modesty that — quite ironically — merits praise.

“He’s one of the most truly humble people I know,” David said. Holm would cringe at that description.

In the 75 years since he wandered, wide-eyed, into the Burke Museum, Holm never stopped learning, teaching or making. This unquenchable thirst for a culture outside his birthright steered Holm down a path few, if any, Caucasians have walked.

He stands in a delicate position at the confluence of several ethnicities. During those 76 years, he has been more than a teacher of art history, more than an adroit anthropologist, more than a creator of elegant things. He is a white participant in Native American tradition. His fervor flows far beyond the artistry of Native artifacts, into the societies that honed the styles over centuries.

Cultural tightrope

Holm’s steadfast ardor for native art opened doors for him. Behind those doors lay wisdom few white people have ever been privy to.

The knowledge does not belong to him — Holm is keenly aware of that. The cultures he studies and the artifacts he replicates are the property of native peoples. He just happens to know a great deal about them. He carved those totems in the front of the Burke, but their designs are the intellectual property of the Haida and the Tsimshain.

“In reality I don’t own these things,” Holm said. “They’re all second-hand for me.”

Many have misinterpreted his role, and the influence of his work. Every time he talks about it, or teaches it, he takes a risk. The wrong turn of a phrase could inflate the importance to his work, or misconstrue Native American efforts as trivial.

“I’m walking a real tightrope, and I have to keep my balance on that tightrope in order to keep good relations with the Native People,” he said.

Part of that balance involves Holm's choice to combine academics with artistry. Katie Bunn-Marcuse, the assistant director of The Burke Museum's Bill Holm Center for Native American art, said it bears a superficial similarity to the hobbyist tradition, where non-natives play Indian by reproducing artifacts and staging faux powwows. By the time he was nine years old, Holm was dabbling in beadwork and dressing up like the plains Native Americans he was so fascinated with back in Montana. One of Holm’s earliest publications was an article in “American Indian Hobbyist” in 1956.

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Photo: Allyce Andrew

Holm is not some artistic peeping tom. Unlike most hobbyists, who emulate native culture while remaining distant from it, Holm is about as close to it as a non-native can get.

A longtime friend of Kwakwaka'wakw chief Mungo Martin and his family, Holm received a series of hereditary and respected names from Martin at a potlatch in 1959; names which included him in the community. They carried the right to participate in the prestigious Hamatsa dance ritual at potlatches — a right that Holm can hand down to his scions.

Calvin Hunt, Martin’s step grandson, has known Holm and his family his entire life. He was present at the ritual where Holm bequeathed the hamatsa right to his grandson.

“The old people, if they really loved and embraced somebody, they were willing to share the rights to songs and dances and names,” Hunt said. “This is the way our people are.” 

Hunt’s family brought Holm into the fold because he was eager to learn their culture, and willing to pay it forward. Bunn-Marcuse said this openness is more integral to Holm’s legacy than his status in the Native American community.

“Everyone is curious about this interesting place he holds between cultures, but scholars since the 19th century have been making friends,” she said. “The big difference was that [previous historians] wouldn’t bring that knowledge back and share it.”

Something lost

In 1885, the Canadian government instituted a potlatch ban, which prevented the Kwakwaka'wakw people, and all other Native communities from practicing traditional ceremonies. The U.S. likewise outlawed potlatches until 1932. Even afterward, social pressure from missionaries and government officials greatly suppressed the practice. In both countries, indoctrination resulting from government-funded boarding schools compounded the damage.

“The government tried really hard and the churches tried really hard to destroy all aspects of native culture,” Holm said. “That was true on the Northwest coast; people went to jail for participating in their traditions.”

When the Canadian ban officially lifted in 1951, Holm had just completed his Master’s degree in art at the University of Washington. It was also around this time that he turned his academic attentions to the Kwakwaka'wakw culture. In 1953, he attended the first post-ban Canadian potlatch, which Mungo Martin hosted. His interest in northwest coast art accelerated just as the Kwakwaka'wakw began a long healing process.

“Anybody that was interested in our culture, our old people were willing to share,” Hunt said. “They thought it was going to leave us, because it had gotten so weak.”

These years inspired the Northwest coast native art classes Holm taught after returning to the university, and the Burke museum as faculty in 1967. He also compiled some of his observations into his first book, “Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form.”

Holm’s writing and teaching were tremendously important because he was proliferating ideas that white institutions had gone to great lengths to eradicate.

“Not to say people weren’t producing art all along, but they had lost the understanding that had built up over centuries,” Holm said. “That went down the tube when they were suppressed at the beginning of the 20th century.”

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Holm is not some white savior of Northwest coast art. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 expedited cultural healing, but it was the resilience and effort of whole Native American communities, not lone academics that deserves credit.  It is a social healing process — one that is far from over.

Simply put, Holm is a participant in this healing. To the best of his ability, he disseminated the knowledge that survived the long purge.

“We’ve lost a lot of our culture, some of the songs and dances, but some of it’s been kept alive,” Hunt said. “He helped with that.”

Knowledge keeper

That was Holm’s calling card within and outside the classroom: he helped people. Since he was so involved in northwest coast traditions, he could inspire people too.

Dr. Robin Wright, a UW professor of art history, Burke Museum curator of Native American art and current director of the Bill Holm Center, first took one of Holm’s classes as a freshman in 1969. For 16 more years, she kept coming back. She earned graduate and doctoral degrees under his tutelage. She witnessed Holm’s classes swell until they outgrew the Art building’s basement and migrated to the high-ceilinged auditoriums in Kane Hall. Sometimes, non-students would line the aisles. Holm didn’t take issue when interested people audited his lectures.

In one of his classes on Northwest coast dancing, Wright said, Holm brought in the hamatsa masks he used in potlatches and performed for her and other students. She said Holm was a charismatic teacher because he could share what he’d seen, and done, firsthand.

“He was teaching about the potlatch as a participant in it, not as an academic,” she said. “He was able to have a sensitivity about the meaning and importance of these things, which are really secret.”

His teaching may have been intimate, but Holm researched with gusto. In 1976, he got an endowment to travel the world and photograph native art. Wright said people flocked to Holm’s knee — partly because this encyclopedia of images, numbering in the thousands, didn’t exist in any other form at the time. In the pre-internet era, this archive was a lynchpin of the study of Northwest coast Native American art.

“Before he came along, we didn’t even know where the art was, or if it existed in museum collections,” she said

By the time Philip Red Eagle, a lifetime Tacoma resident of Dakota and Salish heritage, arrived on campus, Holm had completed the fellowship. Red Eagle earned a metal design degree from the University of Washington in 1983.

Raised in a family didn’t discuss their heritage much, Red Eagle described himself as “very much an American” before he came to college. When he grew curious about his lineage, he enrolled in Holm’s classes looking for answers.

Initially, Red Eagle said, he felt “a kind of resentment” toward Holm. He found it odd that a non-native would teach Native American art forms.

In time though, he came to respect Holm’s generous nature. Today, he calls Holm a “keeper” of knowledge.

To Red Eagle, all keepers have an obligation to pass on what they know. He saw Holm doing exactly that: sharing things with him and innumerable others, both native and non-native.

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For the last 20 years, Red Eagle has worked to revitalize the Native American canoe culture in the Washington Coast area. Several of the people he’s worked with learned something from Holm. Many of those who didn’t learn directly from him got a second-hand education from someone who did, or from Holm’s published work.

“[Holm] became a source for a lot of people,” Red Eagle said. “The guy I learned to carve canoes from actually sat down and carved canoes with him.”

Painting pictures

In 1985, Holm retired from teaching at the university, but never stopped sharing. Every summer, he introduces youth to Northwest coast native rituals through “play potlatches” held at Camp Nor’wester in the San Juan Islands.

He’s been close to the camp since he was a counselor there in the ’50s. He met his wife, Marty Holm, while working there, and his daughters attended regularly. Mungo Martin, his Kwakwaka'wakw mentor, used to attend the events at the camp. Today, Martin's grandson, Calvin Hunt, helps Holm continue that practice. The play potlatches are another cultural tightrope Holm walks. They exist in a curious middle ground, sharing native traditions with both native and non-native campers.

Ever the artist, Holm has also used his retirement to work on his paintings. He works mostly in acrylic and watercolor. A book titled “Sun Dogs and Eagle Down,” published in 2000 by Stephen C. Brown, catalogues some of Holm’s works. In every instance, devotion to detail shines through.

“I like to make them so that a person who really knows looks at it and says, 'That’s the way it would be,” he said.

On page 96 of “Sun Dogs” is a painting called “Potlatch Guests Arriving at Sitka, Winter 1803.” Of the people paddling the four canoes coming to shore, Holm depicted several clothed in European shirts. He did so because by 1803 the Tlingit had been trading with Europeans for several years.

Shortly after this painting had been published on a poster, Holm gave a lecture in Sitka. There were native people in the crowd, and he was nervous to discover what they thought of it.

After the lecture, a man came up to Holm and pointed to the chief greeting the canoes in the foreground of the painting. “I wish I knew what he was saying,” he told Holm.

“That was great,” Holm said. “It wasn’t, ‘Why did you paint such a picture? Who are you to do that?’ He felt, when he looked at the picture, that it was really happening.”

In that instant, the nature of the artist manifested in his art. The man who asked Holm that question peeled away the intrigue of Holm’s culture straddling. Underneath it, he found an artwork made with care and sincerity.

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Bill and Marty Holm. Photo: Allyce Andrew

Today, Holm’s art bedecks the outside of The Burke Museum — the two poles to the south, of course, but also two more just to the left of the main entrance, and an Orca whale front and center. They greet guests every day.

Perhaps Holm’s carvings will catch the eye of another incorrigible pre-teen one day, just as the museum’s older treasures caught his in 1937.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Joseph Sutton-Holcomb

Joseph is a full-time landscaper, part-time journalist and full time culture junkie discovering the hidden joys of life as a UW graduate in Seattle. When not taking care of plants or writing, he spends his time in the company of good friends enjoying film, music and the great outdoors.