Qwalsius Shaun Peterson, of Puyallup and Tulalip tribal ancestry, is an important figure in the revival of Northwest Native art and cultural practices. Known for his work as a carver, painter, printmaker, and sculptor, Peterson apprenticed with master artists Steve Brown (b.1950), Greg Colfax (Makah), George David (Nuu-chah-nulth) (b. 1950), and Loren White (b. 1941) to learn traditional styles and techniques of Southern Coast Salish art. Since 1996, when he created a traditional story pole for the Chief Leschi Schools in Puyallup, Peterson has made his mark on the region through major public art commissions and sought-after studio work. In 2010, Peterson installed a 24-foot-tall Welcome Figure in Tacoma's Tollefson Plaza, the site of an ancestral village, and in 2015, he was chosen by the City of Seattle as the recipient of $250,000 public art commission for the Central Waterfront project.
Shaun Peterson is the son of Debra Wright Peterson and Joseph Peterson, and a member of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, known in their aboriginal language as S’Puyalupubsh, denoting a "generous and welcoming behavior to all people (friends and strangers) who enter our lands" (Puyallup Tribe).
Shaun was born on May 30, 1975, in Puyallup. He never knew his biological father, but was raised by Joseph, who is of Nez Perce and Snoqualmish heritage. Shaun has a half brother, Derek Thomas Peterson, born on July 18, 1980. When Shaun was young, his mother was completing college at the University of Puget Sound, and Joseph was fishing or working, so Shaun spent a lot of time with his maternal grandparents. His large extended family was close-knit and would gather together for Sunday dinners.
During most of his years in the public school system, there was little to feed Shaun’s interest in art. But from 6th to 8th grade, he was lucky to have a professional artist for a teacher, Robert Thornhill, an oil painter and sculptor, who lived down the street from the Peterson family. He’d have his class draw still lifes and character studies, and Shaun got good at doing graphite and charcoal drawings. Nevertheless, he was uncomfortable identifying himself as an artist. In elementary school he heard jokes about artists being different and kind of weird, people who didn’t fit in. His 5th grade teacher teased him, not maliciously, but with what felt like negative connotations, about growing up to be a famous artist. The idea made Shaun self-conscious.
He played soccer and wrestled in high school, but from 8th grade on Peterson turned to music, teaching himself to play the guitar. He also began spending time at the piano in the grandfather’s house. The family attended the First Presbyterian Indian Church and Shaun would sit and watch the woman who played piano there. By observing the way she placed her fingers for chords and by memorizing, he learned to play, without learning to read music. He also became interested in psychology and considered the idea of a career in architecture.
The Story of a Story Pole
After graduating from Fife High School in 1994, Peterson attended Green River College for a year, taking drafting courses. School didn’t satisfy him, though, and he still carried bad memories of a public school music teacher who disparaged Native music. He heard that a new tribal school was under construction in Puyallup, to be named after the Nisqually Chief Leschi (1808-1858), unjustly hanged for murder and now buried on Puyallup tribal land. Resident artists were being sought to integrate artworks into the new school. Peterson signed on, and began working with Al Zantua, a local art teacher, who was sculpting clay reliefs to cast for the exterior of the building.
Native American cultural practices were suppressed during the U.S. government's program of forced assimilation and boarding school education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, leaving many tribal members with little awareness of their distinctive traditional art forms or iconography. For the new Chief Leschi Schools in Puyallup, administrators wanted a totem pole and had hired First Nations carver Bruce Cook III, of the Haida people of British Columbia and Alaska, to create it. Cook pointed out to Peterson that he felt uncomfortable carving a pole for the school because totem carving is not part of the local Salish culture.
Since the turn of the twentieth century, totems have been mistakenly associated with Western Washington tribal culture. In 1899 the city of Seattle erected a Tlingit totem pole of the Raven Clan, stolen from a village in Alaska. Prominently placed in Pioneer Square, the pole became a city icon. "With the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and pushing out of Salish people from Seattle itself, and importing so much culture from the Tlingit artists -- the Pioneer Square pole, the works at the Burke Museum -- all those things set a precedent for the way Seattle is perceived," Peterson explained (Farr interview).
But in fact, local Salish tribes had traditionally been carvers of story poles, which were displayed inside their longhouses rather than outdoors. There are important distinctions. Peterson said: "A totem pole takes from family crest iconography, and because we are not organized by clans in our culture, here we create story poles where the stories essentially belong to the community, not one singular family" (Farr interview).
Peterson and others presented the issue to a committee of Puyallup tribal elders for their input on what should be done. Some were uncomfortable with the idea of a Haida carver creating a totem pole for their new school and the eldest of the group, Jack Moses, was clear about the issue. "He said it was really inappropriate," Peterson recalled. "He was grateful for the Alaska artists who were filling up a void, but said we don’t need them anymore because we have our own people -- and he meant me" (Farr interview).
Appointed lead carver on the project, Peterson felt overwhelmed: "I was only 20 years old at the time and super-nervous," he recalled. "I hadn’t really carved much ... I was the only [Puyallup] tribal member on board. I told people it's like being thrown in the water to learn how to swim" (Farr interview).
With little experience to fall back on, Peterson began an immersion course in his own cultural heritage. Through Cook, Peterson met artist, art historian and Seattle Art Museum curator Steve Brown, who became his mentor. Brown put him in touch with Makah carver Greg Colfax, of Neah Bay, to help him understand the subtleties of the form.
Peterson’s drafting classes served him well as he learned the technical aspects of carving, including proportion, perspective, scale. He connected with his family in Tulalip, hoping for help from Jerry Jones (1940-2003), a canoe carver. "I remember going to my great uncle Jerry Jones ... for advice about being a Salish artist," Peterson said. Jones told him he could help with the technical aspects of carving, but that Peterson would have to learn Coast Salish iconography on his own, because Jones didn’t know about that" (S’abhadeb, 261).
Working with assistance from Jones, Cook, Brown, and some other friends, Peterson was able to complete the work and meet his deadline. The morning of the dedication, they were still painting and drying the paint with a blow-dryer.
When "Return of the Story Pole" was erected in 1996 at the entrance of the Chief Leschi Schools -- along with two large panels representing the Puyallup Tribe and the school itself -- it became the first traditional pole carved and raised to represent Puyallup tribal stories in more than half a century. "It was a valuable thing for the school and kids who attend it to have a monument like that representing traditional art," said Brown (Farr interview).
Even so, Peterson remembers, some tribal members weren’t happy about it. "They wanted a totem pole, the familiar iconography; they were like 'what is this type of work you are doing?' It was unfamiliar to our own people" (Farr interview).
Mastering the Craft
After that high-pressure initiation, Peterson devoted himself to mastering his craft. He would travel to Neah Bay and spend five or six days at a time with Colfax, practicing technique and learning about Coast Salish style and symbols. He spent a lot of time printmaking and painting. "I completely focused on trying to understand Salish work because nobody was really doing it then," he said (Farr interview).
Attentive to his elders, Peterson would drive his grandmother up to visit at Tulalip, and to attend the winter Treaty Days celebrations. There he met the revered Upper Skagit language and cultural preservationist Vi Hilbert (1908-2008) and Skokomish spiritual leader Bruce Miller (1944-2005). Talking with them assured Peterson that he was on the right course. Family members, as well, encouraged his studies of traditional Salish culture. "They were happy someone was interested because so many people were imitating Alaskan and First Nations groups, things like that. It was the most consumable or familiar to people. Everybody talked about Haida art ... and Robert Davidson (b. 1946) had launched into that spotlight," Peterson said. "I was gravitating towards Art Thompson (1948-2003) and Joe David (b. 1946), because they were leading the forefront on pushing the visibility of Southern West Coast art and achieving it at high levels of execution" (Farr interview).
With guidance from Brown, Peterson visited local museum collections and galleries, studying the work of Northwest Native artists. At Seattle’s Stonington Gallery, he lingered over prints by Musqueam artist Susan Point (b. 1952) of British Columbia, a leader of the renaissance of Coast Salish culture. Eventually Peterson began bringing his own drawings and prints to the gallery to show. His work first appeared there in the exhibition "Celebrating the Season: Vessels for the Feast," in 1998.
Public Art and Studio Art
Public art contracts began coming Peterson’s way. Seattle Arts Commission chose him to create three cedar panels for the Seattle Aquarium. The artworks -- installed in 1999 with the new permanent "Watershed" exhibition -- highlight the relationship of the environment and Northwest Coast Native arts, focusing on the iconic figures of Raven, Sea Otter, and Salmon. The following year, Peterson was invited to Pilchuck Glass School as a guest and student, to assist with carving the Founders Totem Pole. In 2000, Peterson also created a mural for the Tacoma Economic Development Department -- a carved relief panel titled Salmon, Moon, and Mountain at the Tacoma Municipal Building.
The high quality of Peterson’s work and its deep connection to the region stood out. Major commissions for the Seattle Center food court, the Puyallup Tribe, The Muckleshoot Health and Wellness Center, the Emerald Queen Casino Hotel in Fife, and the Portland Avenue Business District in Tacoma kept the young artist busy through the early years of the new millennium.
At the same time he broadened his studio practice. Collectors sought out his prints, paintings, and carving. His work appeared in exhibitions at The Museum of Craft and Folk Art, San Francisco; Seattle Art Museum; Tacoma Art Museum; the Museum of Arts & Design, New York; and the Kaohsiung Cultural Center, Taiwan; among others.
During this time, some tribal members began to say that Peterson should have an Indian name, given the type of work he was doing to re-establish Salish traditional culture. The idea was controversial among tribal members. "It’s a really touchy thing," Peterson said. "The naming ceremonies aren’t common anymore" (Farr interview). But one of his relatives discovered in tribal records that the name Qwalsius had been given to Peterson’s great-grandfather Lawrence Williams. His grandmother hadn’t even known about the name, because during the assimilation and boarding school era, so much cultural information had been suppressed.
Family members became excited about the idea of reviving the ancestral name, and Peterson began making prints and drums, and saving things to give to guests at his naming ceremony Potlatch. In 2005, at a gathering for about 100 invited guests at the Muckleshoot longhouse, Peterson received the name Qwalsius, which translates as, "traveling to the face of enlightenment." Another possible translation, "painted face," is only bestowed on people who have been initiated into the winter ceremonies, Peterson said: a life-changing experience akin to becoming a monk. His grandfather was not initiated and neither is Peterson (Farr interview).
Age-Old Teachings in a New Voice
In 2008, Seattle Art Museum mounted "S'abadeb, The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Arts," a major exhibition of historical and contemporary artwork. Curator Barbara Brotherton featured Peterson’s work and invited him to contribute an essay to the catalog.
"One of the defining features of Shaun Peterson’s work is the lyrical way in which he fuses cultural knowledge and personal experiences. With his visual storytelling, he places himself upon that age-old continuum of revisiting old teachings and giving them a new voice," said Brotherton, (S’abadeb, 262).
Meanwhile, Peterson was pressing ahead with his largest and most prominent commission so far: a 20-foot-tall Welcome Figure to be placed in Tacoma’s Tollefson Plaza, where a Puyallup tribal village had once stood. From acquiring and transporting a suitable wind-fall cedar log, to devising a metal support system, to carving, assembling, and painting the figure, the work brought Peterson continual challenges. Funded by the City of Tacoma, the Puyallup Tribe, and Tacoma Art Museum, the figure is carved from a single log and marks the participation of the tribe and Coast Salish people in contemporary society. Installed on September 13, 2010, the Welcome Figure was blessed by the tribe at a ceremony on September 18, with songs and dances honoring the artwork and the ancestral village that once stood there.
Since that time, Peterson has been in high demand. In 2015 he was invited to Prague for the International Glass Symposium, for an intensive five days of work and exhibitions.
And the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture announced that Peterson was selected for a major commission for the city’s Central Waterfront project. The project will replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with new public space, including parks, streets, and buildings along a 26-acre site, with new piers, as part of the Seawall Bond passed in 2012.
Peterson -- who lives in Milton with his son, Kai Joseph Peterson (b. 2006) -- will work in conjunction with the design team to develop site-specific artwork or an "artist designed space" (City of Seattle news release) showing the long connection of Coast Salish people to the site. The budget is $250,000.
"Seattle is named after our Coast Salish Chief, and in honor of that I hope that my work will demonstrate that Native art is not static," Peterson said in a news release. "Our people are part of this land and its history, but most importantly we are part of the present. The art I create will aim to communicate that and in the process, create space for dialogue" (City of Seattle news release).