Louie Gong’s strong sense of self is years in the making. He has a clear vision for himself as a business owner, community activist and supporter of cultural artists. Gong is the owner of Eighth Generation, an online store selling Native goods since 2008. In August, he opened a brick and mortar space at Pike Place Market, a landmark visited by 10 million people a year.
The high traffic is good for business, but Gong’s business is about more than selling products. It’s about changing the narrative that visitors have about Coast Salish and contemporary Native people.
“We really want to challenge the stereotype that Native people are either the symbol of the natural environment, symbol of ancient history or a charity project,” Gong said.
In the store, Gong created a boutique atmosphere that isn’t teeming with merchandise. The space is open, and it’s full of natural light. The store sells jewelry, T-shirts and silk scarves featuring cultural art from Gong and other artists. Everything in the store is Native designed and developed.
Unlike the business owners around him, Gong is the only Native owner of a commercial space at Pike Place, and he’s the first in at least the last decade. Another notable distinction, Eighth Generation is the first Native owned company to produce wool blankets.
“Wool blankets are a very important cultural tool in Native communities,” Gong said. “We often use them to honor people who have served their community well.”
Pike Place Market Executive Director Ben Franz-Knight sought out Gong to open a space at the market. He’s impressed with his passion, commitment and high quality products.
“I think he brings forward some really important conversations about what it means to be a Native person in Seattle,” Franz-Knight said. “I think he contributes a lot to the community.”
Gong spent the early years of his life in Ruskin, British Columbia. He describes himself as Nooksack, Chinese, French and Scottish. In Ruskin, his mixed heritage wasn’t questioned.
“When I was real young it wasn’t hard because I was privileged with the sense of implicit belonging because I was surrounded by cousins who were the same racial mix, the same cultural mix as me,” Gong said. “We all grew up eating bannock for breakfast in the morning and Chinese food for dinner. It was normal.”
At 10 years old, Gong moved to a Nooksack tribal community about eight miles away. There, Gong described what he calls resistance to his identity while attending nearly all White public schools.
“All of sudden I was getting this information that what I was, was peculiar or abnormal,” Gong said. “Over time, I think I internalized some of that resistance and started to think that maybe my mixed heritage, or my mixed family culture was somehow a deficit or less than what other people had.”
Gong said that changed in college. There he learned more about what shapes people’s sense of authenticity and why his identity was challenged in the past.
“Those expectations that people have based upon their social learning act as invisible barriers that people like myself are constantly bumping up against and if you don’t get the information to know that you’re bumping up against these barriers you start to think that you’re the problem, that it’s your deficit,” Gong said. “But once you know that those invisible barriers are there you can navigate around of them and that opens up a whole range of possibilities.”
Gong continues to navigate around those invisible barriers and wants to help others like him to do the same.
Finding his voice
Gong received a master’s in Education and Counseling from Western Washington University. After working at the University of Washington in the Minority Affairs office as the counseling services coordinator, he went into the nonprofit sector. He started as a volunteer at MAVIN Foundation, a nonprofit raising awareness of the experiences of mixed race people, became a board member, then served as president for a year. Through his work with identity and race, Gong found his authentic voice.
His career as an artist began unexpectedly in his 30s with drawing cultural art on shoes in his living room. His art is mostly Coast Salish mixed with Northwest Coast Native art, graffiti and urban settings. Gong’s art is also a reflection of his lived experience.
In a giclée titled “Slapoo Takes Back the City,” he puts a spin on the story of Slapoo, a 10-foot-tall witch who lives in the woods. According to storytellers, she places children who don’t honor their cultural values in her basket. In Gong’s depiction, Slapoo is standing in front of the Space Needle holding a man upside down by his foot while his hard hat falls to the ground.
“Rather than putting a naughty child in her basket, Slapoo is putting a developer in her basket. It’s a reminder to people who are participating in the rapid development of Seattle to reflect on their values and the teachings that will help make Seattle sustainable for everybody,” Gong said. “I could do the stuff that wealthy people who collect Native art want to buy, which is usually the stuff that reinforces stereotypes about Native people or is somehow a rendition of art they think existed at the point of contact. But I think that’s not the best way for me to use the cultural art form to express ideas.”
Paying it forward
Gong has devoted 40 percent of the floor space at Eighth Generation to a conference room. It serves three purposes: a meeting space for organizations, a place for the artist in residence to showcase their work and a space to host art shows.
The artists with products in his store have a finite partnership with Gong; he doesn’t get to use their work in perpetuity. They get an upfront fee plus royalties on sales. They receive a larger share of the pie compared to typical deals.
“Although it’s important for us to make money because we have mortgages to pay, we have to eat. We don’t have to make all the money. It’s as simple as that,” Gong said. “Our broader mission is to help culture artists create their own pathways to consumers. This kind of pattern within capitalism of finding a way to insert yourself between the talent and consumers is not something that we want to do here.”
Gong uses the mantra “Inspired Native,” not “Native Inspired.” He said the term “Native Inspired” is used by a lot of companies to describe fake Native art. He wants consumers to have a more discerning eye when choosing where to spend their dollars.
“I like to have a presence at the intersection of business, art, social justice and education. If you look at any of the products we do that’s how you can characterize any of those projects,” Gong said. “It embodies all those things we value.”