How a Seattle business boomed while taking back narrative of Native art

Walking into the Eighth Generation factory in SoDo you immediately notice the sounds. Music plays overhead, though the distinct hum of machinery and the workers bouncing between textiles, jewelry and a printing machine draws attention.

“I feel, like, seen here,” explains Jasmine Frazier, as she ties off loose ends on a scarf. “We’re taking back the art and putting out authentic art.”

Speaking with each worker one-by-one you quickly get a sense that there’s a common goal here – that word, authentic, gets used a lot.

It’s important to say that Eighth Generation isn’t a David versus Goliath story. That may have been the case when it was founded in 2008. What’s happening now is different – Eighth Generation has already grown, but they’re aiming their sights at something bigger. Though, if you want to understand where Eighth Generation is going you need to understand the history of Native art. The company – now owned by the Snoqualmie Tribe – isn’t looking solely at dollars and cents.

As Louie Gong (Nooksack) – founder, and current CEO – explains, the goal is to take a piece of the pie of the Pendletons of the world but the purpose is to take back control of the narrative surrounding Indigenous art.

“It’s important to know it’s not just about hurt feelings,” said Gong. “When you walk through the mall almost everything has something on it with a tribal print. When money is being exchanged around cultural art, Native artists get left out.”

Gong speaks as both an artist, and a businessman. His initial explosion onto the art scene came from hand-painting sneakers with Coast Salish designs – he quickly grew from his living room to a Pike Place Market shop.

Despite having thousands of fans, and orders to fill he started to realize that there were middlemen that ran everything from galleries to the companies that sold the art. Instead of perpetuating that system he stepped outside of it, creating Eighth Generation. The Seattle-based brand isn’t just taking on the companies that have sold Native art for decades, it’s branding takes aim at how they run their businesses: “Inspired Natives, not Native-inspired,” a reminder to potential customers that how they spend their money matters.

It’s no easy task. Eighth Generation has grown by leaps and bounds, but the early years were a lesson in survival – elbowing others for market space dominated by non-Native voices capitalizing on cultural art. These days Eighth Generation is doing millions in sales, creating brands for artists that tell authentic stories.

Gong points to Michelle Lowden (Acoma Pueblo), one of the first artists to join the brand – a quick check of her website shows several sold-out blankets, towels and other products. Her work builds on her family’s history with pottery designing contemporary art with Southwest geometric designs and vibrant colors.

“We look at our ancestors and communities as silent partners in our transactions,” said Gong. “That comes with a lot of responsibilities to be stewards of the cultural arts that we’re trading in.”

In modern times, that means modern production. Like other companies, Eighth Generation works with other factories both in and outside of the United States. The latest venture, however, is bringing more of that production work under their own roof.

When KIRO 7 visited the SoDo factory in early February, a giant knitting machine – similar to a 3D printer using merino wool – was churning out scarves and baby blankets. Additional machines are being brought in to increase the production for a growing demand.

The increase in production is a reminder that Eighth Generation continues to grow. There are more employees, and more are expected to be joining the company later this year.

The jobs aren’t just for factory workers. An entire team works with artists to design individual brands – meaning those artists have a chance to tell their own stories to a larger audience.

“Our help of other artists is not just a token marketing ploy,” explains Gong. “We’re creating real opportunities for Indigenous artists to pursue wealth through their cultural artforms.”

As for where the company goes next, Gong has set his eyes on a large goal. Eighth Generation already touts itself as the first Native-owned company to ever produce wool blankets, one day soon he hopes they’re the first global Native-owned company.