Many spend a lifetime looking for purpose on this earth. Jumping from one hobby to the next and dipping your toes in every inkling of passion is just the name of the game. It’s rare to find such a distinct purpose that you dedicate your whole life to it. James Johnson did just that.
THE TLINGIT ART FORM IS THOUSANDS OF YEARS OLD, CREATED BY MY ANCESTORS IN SOUTHEAST ALASKA. MY ANCESTORS PLACED THIS GIFT INTO MY HANDS, I’VE DEDICATED MY LIFE TO PERPETUATING THE TLINGIT ART FORM. WHETHER I CHOSE THIS, OR IT CHOSE ME, THIS IS MY TRUE PURPOSE WITH WHAT I’M SUPPOSED TO BE DOING WITH MY LIFE.
- James Johnson
James Johnson is an award-winning, Tinglit (KLING-it) artist and carver from southeast Alaska, and belongs to the Tlingit Ch’áak’ Dakl’aweidi Clan (Eagle Killer Whale) clan. In the fall of 2022, Johnson, Portugal. The Man (from Wasilla, Alaska) and TGR came together at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture to discuss the importance of traditional Tlingit art. From there, a collaborative original capsule collection was born.
So why Portugal. The Man and James Johnson? In addition to the band’s Alaskan roots, they’ve created an entire foundation giving indigenous voices a platform to be heard. The PTM Foundation focuses on building awareness through music, stories, art, education and connectivity - a seamless overlap with all of Johnson’s work and overarching purpose. And the common denominator between PTM, James Johnson, and TGR? Snowboarding, of course. But even more so, our shared, spiritual connection with the outdoors. Everyone (no matter their background or cultural heritage) deserves the opportunity to experience the transforming nature of the mountains… and that is something that we will never stop fighting for.
TGR: Why are you here? What brought you to the Burke museum?
James Johnson: I’ve been working for the Burke museum for the last 3 years doing carving demonstrations and studying their collection to learn the traditional Tlingit art form. They offered me a research grant, so I’m here for 5 days getting hands-on knowledge of traditional Tlingit art.
TGR: You spoke of the Raven Child story in the video. Can you tell us more about the story and how it pertains to your tribe and even your family?
JJ: The two top tribes in our culture are Eagle and Raven. Our culture is matrilineal. So you follow your mother’s clan, and then, when you marry, you marry into your fathers clan. So my wife is Raven and my son is also Raven. So when you marry the opposite clan, that preserves the balance in our culture. Raven is also our culture hero. He was a teacher and also a trickster with what he did. He was also capable of this incredible transformation. So the artwork that I did for this collaboration features Raven Child, which depicts transformation. Where Raven can exist in these two worlds simultaneously and transfer between each one. But it also depicts a period of time in our culture where indigenous children were taken from their families during the colonization of Alaska and stripped of their culture and heritage. So the raven child represents that time period of our people, these children that had lost their culture. It acknowledges the history of what actually happened to these people on the Northwest coast. It honors the past but also promotes healing.
TGR: How can we better understand the story of Raven Child and the history of your people to be better allies at the end of the day?
JJ: I think just spreading knowledge is really important. And understanding the real history of what happened. It creates this ripple effect of truth that goes out into the world. I think acknowledging it and understanding it is powerful and promotes healing. You get a better perspective of our culture, our people, and our artform - all promoting healing and how we’re moving forward collectively with this information. But it’s important that that information is out there.
TGR: Can you describe your personal relationship as well as your tribe’s relationship with the outdoors and the environment?
JJ: Being born and raised in Juno, Alaska. Everything we did was involved with the environment, whether it be getting out in the mountains snowboarding, or hiking, or fishing, you’re in tune with the environment completely in Alaska and it’s so beautiful out there it’s inspiring being in that element. Traditionally, our Tlingit people lived in this really incredible balance. They were in tune with each other, in tune with the animals, in tune with the environment. Our belief system is that everything has spirit (humans, animals, earth) all alive and you give respect to it because they have this spirit.
TGR: When did you start snowboarding? Is there any history or tradition there within your tribe?
JJ: I grew up a life-long snowboarder riding with Mark Landvik and our home mountain was Eaglecrest. For as long as I can remember, every weekend as kids, we’d go up there and ride both days. Being in the mountains is powerful - it’s inspiring and every kid should experience that. Working with companies that I do - we set up a program in my hometown to help get indigenous kids up on the hill. I think it’s something important for them to experience in their lives. It’s good for your soul… I want to do everything I can to encourage these kids and give them opportunities, and I’m very thankful for that.
TGR: Are you seeing any resurgence in traditional Tlingit art and culture?
JJ: This artform goes back thousands of years, created by my ancestors. There’s not even a word for art in our language. What I do is completely integrated as part of our culture and way of life. The resurgence of it was post-colonization. Everything that could've been done was done to destroy our culture and way of life. So these days, we have these broken pieces that are left over and we’re picking them up and putting them back together the best way we know how to move forward - and that’s all-encompassing. It’s the art form, it’s the language, it’s the stories - it’s carrying all these things forward. As a northwest coast artist, we have a bigger responsibility on our shoulders than just trying to create something that’s beautiful. We’re carrying along this tradition…it’s vital.
Johnson’s work is helping carry along Tlingit culture, but there are numerous measures we can take as a society to help push the dial forward, as well. How we digest and understand such an important piece of indigenous history is crucial in healing years of cultural destruction.
The PTM Foundation works selflessly to preserve indigenous culture, and we want to keep that ball rolling to the best of our ability. A portion of the proceeds from the PTM x James Johnson Capsule will go to the PTM Foundation in hopes of playing a small part in bringing sacred indigenous voices to the forefront of society.
Other Indigenous Resources to check out: