An Interview with Dr. Shawn Brigman

It is an honor to have Dr. Shawn Brigman with me today!

I was able to snap a photo of the tule-mat lodge he created at the 2012 Arrow Lakes Powwow at Round Lake on the Colville Confederated Reservation, and he graciously has allowed me to use it on the cover of Heart of Passion. Thank you, Shawn!

Dr. Brigman’s work is well known and I’d like for you to get to know him and his craft, so let’s get started!

Tell us what tribe you belong to and a little bit about yourself.

I am an enrolled member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, and descendant of northern Plateau bands (Sinixt, Sanpoil, Shuswap). My creative recovery arts practice transforms the way people read Plateau architectural space by physically recovering ancestral art and architectural heritage that was Indigenous to the Plateau landscape with in the last century. My work is deeply dedicated to delighting the ancestors, past, present, and future by increasing visual literacy awareness in how we read, see, or understand our relationship with a place, habitat, or built environment.

Tell us about your educational background.

I received my B.S. degree in architectural studies from WSU in 2004 and a certificate of architectural studies from Denmark’s International Studies program in Copenhagen, Denmark. For my Master’s Degree at the University of Idaho (2007), I also studied abroad and explored Indigenous Recreation and Tourism at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand. In 2015 I completed my doctoral degree in Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University with a focus on ancestral Plateau built environments.

When and how did you get started building tule-mat lodges?

During my Master’s Degree (2005-2007), I wanted to focus on culturally relevant recreation programming for native youth as a healthy balance with mainstream recreational programming in summer youth programs. Thus, making a tule-mat tipi was my thesis focus. My awakening to the positive transformational influence of ancestral architectural creations like tule-mat lodges came during the summer of 2007 after finishing my post-graduate studies at Lincoln University in New Zealand where I studied Indigenous Maori leisure/recreation patterns. Visiting with the vice president of Lincoln University, Hirini Matunga (Maori/Tongan) noted that an “Indigenous outdoor recreation paradigm can be based on family, work, and recreation all linked as one, as a means to preserve cultural identity and promote group cohesion while also integrating the work with leisure.” Among Plateau tribes of Washington, British Columbia, Idaho, and Montana, activities such as these are an important Indigenous mechanism for linking people and place, while exploring the natural environment and cultural traditions of our ancestors. It was my intention to empower native youth and adults to visit their ancestral gathering areas to learn about tule reeds that grow in the wetlands. While working for a summer youth program in 2007, I implemented my Masters’ thesis research as the youth participants learned how to harvest tule reeds, dry them, sew into mats, and then construct an original architectural piece that was Indigenous to the Salish speaking Plateau tribes in the last century.

Tell us about the architectural regalia entitled “Oblong Tule-Mat Lodge” on the cover of Heart of Passion.

The lodge is my architectural regalia (lots of time, harvest, preparation, maintenance and repair go into it). Similar to making and putting on dance regalia, I am putting on my tule-mat regalia. Thus, architecturally I dance at the powwow, gathering, conference, or invitation, metaphorically speaking of course.

I have often displayed my tule-mat lodge at summer powwow celebrations over the years, and I have come to view the exhibition display process as “putting on an architectural regalia” as a visual theatre performance. As families arrive to set up campsites and unpack their personal regalia to wear for dance in the grand entry, my tule mat lodge exhibition process serves as an architectural dance during the duration of the powwow. At the conclusion of the final day of the powwow, the architectural regalia (tule mats) are also taken off, rolled up, and safely packed away until the next dance attendance. An important component is local community volunteers providing labor who assist me with lodgepole and tule-mat placement as I sculpt the full-scale piece, as well as deconstruction at the conclusion of the display.

What types of art do you work with besides tule reeds?

I work in the recovery of all-natural Plateau village arts like bark sturgeon nose canoes, fish basket traps, atlatls, tools, implements, and now dugout canoes. In the summer of 2012, I continued the recovery of Plateau arts by physically constructing my first bark sturgeon nose canoe frame for personal recreational use on the ancestral waterways of the interior Plateau. Currently, I have two bark sturgeon nose canoes in my personal collection. Both bark canoes employed western white pine bark harvested in the summer of 2018 and 2019. In both scenarios, community members were invited to assist with bark harvest as an Indigenous modeled learning workgroup of participants. Once I completed sculpting the bark onto the canoe frames, the original bark harvest participants were invited back to then bless, launch, and paddle the completed canoes. In 2013, I also developed an original (copyrighted) canoe interpretation with a unique frame assemblage and fabric skin attachment methodology now widely known across the Plateau region as a Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoe, and I’ve made 27 of them thus far.

What have you created in the past? What are you working on now or planning for the future?

Traditional art forms and natural materials are the essence of my art. It’s about getting out on the land and remembering or re-learning how to identify and use these materials. When an ancestral village implementation is finished (such as a tule-mat lodge, fish basket trap, or bark sturgeon nose canoe), I reflect back and know that all materials were once alive and nourished by water and land, and now they have been processed into a beautiful sculptural and functional art form.

During my recent Indigenous arts residency at the Museum of Glass Tacoma (June 2019), I explored the manifestation of ancestral Plateau village implements through the medium of glass at the hand-held scale, allowing me to celebrate their subtle, curved refinements. Village implements such as food and tools of all sorts were historically packed into the bark sturgeon nose canoe for movement on the water. I now celebrate this heritage in glass, manifesting Indigenous village patterns since time immemorial based on family, work, and recreation all linked as one. The glass series I designed is currently being proposed for exhibition at regional museums and galleries. Exploring the translation of small-scale ancestral village arts and tools in glass, this series of works celebrate a contemporary Plateau visual interpretation of the world.

What is your favorite medium to work with?

Wood material is my favorite medium to work with, as it is easier on my hands compared to hard metal or stone.

Dr. Shawn Brigman’s Bio

Dr. Shawn Brigman is an enrolled member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians and descendant of northern Plateau bands (Snʕáyckst – Sinixt, Sənpʕʷilx – San Poil, and Tk’emlúps te secwepemc – Shuswap). As a traditional artisan for 15 consecutive years, his creative practice has been one of project-based ancestral recovery efforts in Washington, Idaho, British Columbia, and Montana. Through his art, he aims to explore and transform the way Indigenous and settler people read Plateau architectural space by celebrating the physical revival of ancestral Plateau art and architectural heritage.

This involves working with Indigenous communities to connect to sources of Indigenous knowledge, often taking participant learners out to ancestral lands to gather a diverse range of natural materiality for ancestral structures like tule-mat lodges, pit houses, and bark sturgeon-nose canoes. In addition, Dr. Brigman developed an original (copyrighted) canoe interpretation in 2013 with a unique frame assemblage and fabric skin attachment methodology now widely known across the Plateau region as a Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoe, and he often gives presentations or lectures on this sculptural form. During the 2016 Prayer Journey to Standing Rock, North Dakota, four of his Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoes successfully delivered water protectors who “brushed the water” (the Salish language term for paddling) of the Missouri River to the Cannonball River, with gathered canoes from across the Pacific Northwest. His Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoes have also made the annual Canoe Journey to Kettle Falls in honor of salmon recovery.


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Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoes

Dr. Shawn Brigman’s website

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  1. Alice Trego says:

    A fascinating article, Carmen. Thank you for letting me know about Dr. Shawn Brigman and his work with tule-mat designs. Remarkable what he has accomplished!

    1. Carmen Peone says:

      Alice, he really is a remarkable artist. His canoes are just as amazing. The work he does is incredible. He has a huge heart for Native Americans.

  2. Jean Sutton says:

    I love this interview. His canoes are beautiful.

    1. Carmen Peone says:

      They really are! He is such a talented man.