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Difference Makers: Shawn Brigman ‘visually decolonizes the plateau aesthetic’ with revival of Spokane tribal architecture

Spokane tribal member Shawn Brigman talks about the making of the Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoes at The Community Center on Dec. 22 in Spokane.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Shawn Brigman was in preschool when he first caught a glimpse of the Spokane River. On a field trip to a museum exhibit of Indigenous artifacts with his class, they first stopped to see the massive waterway. As 4-year-old Brigman approached a ravine to peer down at the river, its roar rang louder and louder in his ears until the intensity of the water overtook him – a sensation he compared to an adrenaline rush .

“It started in my fingertips, it just came up into my body and then my chest cavity,” Brigman said. “I breathed it in and I became alive.”

Brigman, a Spokane tribal member, experienced a phenomenon known in Salish as suméš, an intense physical and spiritual experience that continues to guide Brigman’s work 45 years later.

“The Spokane River literally came out and touched me – metaphorically and literally,” he said.

The river haunted 4-year-old Brigman for days after his suméš. It kept him up at night. Unable to explain the phenomenon in English, it wasn’t until he was older, reading an ethnography, that he heard the Salish word and description and it clicked.

That experience manifested into Brigman’s current mission to revitalize architecture of plateau tribes through construction of tools and structures, including canoes, tule mat lodges – a pointed structure with walls made of tule reeds – and his own contemporary assembly method of creating Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoes.

His work “decolonizes the plateau aesthetic” through architecture, reproliferating the cultural building style that once dotted the Spokane landscape before being erased by the arrival of white colonizers.

An artisan of 18 years, Brigman earned a bachelor’s in architecture at Washington State University and studied at a school in Copenhagen. He received a master’s degree in recreation management from the University of Idaho, studied parks and recreation and tourism management in New Zealand, and most recently earned a doctorate in leadership from Gonzaga University. He applies his interdisciplinary background to drive his mission of cultural revival.

Brigman’s process starts with the harvest of natural materials: tule reeds for lodges, bitter cherry bark or “nature’s duct tape,” red osier dogwood. Brigman does it himself in several sites, some of which he keeps to himself.

“The experience is just very empowering to be on the geography, to be on the landscape of the ancestors and doing what the ancestors did, and also knowing that it’s all attached to my suméš,” Brigman said. “I’m just living out my suméš phenomenon.”

From the harvesting of western white pine tree bark or tule reeds to twisting the materials into components for his work, Brigman sees the natural world in all he does, like a roll of hand-spun twine that mimics a bird’s nest.

“I’m kind of just doing the work of what animals do. Animals do the labor. Beaver makes the dam, birds make the nest,” Brigman said. “It’s industrious labor; that’s what I’m doing. I’m doing industrious labor, and that’s my specialty.”

His creations mirror animals as well. The bow of his canoes is like the pointed snout of the fish for which they are named; a fish spear with three prongs extending from a handle is meant to imitate an osprey’s talons adapted to spear fish from the river.

From harvesting to processing of materials to crafting, he said making one of his canoes takes him a year and a half. It’s a labor of love to make a priceless product.

Brigman struggles with an internal dissonance between the world in which he resides and the mission behind his art. He doesn’t want to put a price tag on cultural revival and decolonizing the aesthetic, but unlike his pre-contact ancestors, he has bills to pay. One foot is in the world of capitalism, and the other entrenched in his artistic and cultural desires, creates a jarring “paradox,” as he called it.

“I’m very mindful at all times that there’s that paradox and contradiction; that’s the burden. That’s the trigger for me. It also kind of gets into mental health,” Brigman said. “This is healing for me, but at the same time, the paradox can also be triggering, because I know I do have to go pay rent on that stick frame apartment that I live in. I can’t go live in my traditional house.”

Filmmaker Ryan Abrahamson commissioned from Brigman two canoes and a tule tepee for his Salish short film “Strongest at the End of the World,” a precolonial love story that aims to authentically represent Spokane people. Abrahamson continues to solicit Brigman’s artistry in other projects.

“He just has this fire in him,” Abrahamson said. “Being like, ‘Yeah, I want to create what was. I want people to see what was here and still is here.’ ”

Abrahamson described Brigman’s artistic and architectural endeavors as the opposite of armchair anthropology.

“He’s the type of anthropologist historians really want in every culture everywhere,” Abrahamson said. “He goes out and does it; he lives it.”

Not only does he fully entrench himself in the traditional construction methods of the plateau, Brigman documents his process and shares it on social media platforms to increase awareness of the practices, that they’re not an ancient relic of a past society, but celebrated and applied in Brigman’s work.

“I like to flip the script and say, ‘No, we’re not just past tense,’ ” Brigman said. “We’re past tense, present tense and future tense.”

Brigman posts his work under the handle @salishansturgeonnosecanoes on Instagram and Facebook, and @Cmtus_Sturgeon on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, and TikTok.

Brigman’s work has been featured at a number of museums and exhibits, including the Hive in Spokane, the Burke Museum in Seattle and the Museum of Glass in Tacoma.

Recalling his preschool field trip to the Indigenous artifacts exhibit on the day he experienced suméš, Brigman said these artifacts were displayed in a colonial way. He hopes to reclaim these showcases, curating more group galleries and featuring in solo galleries.

“I’ve physically and visually decolonized the plateau aesthetic, just like the language learners are physically decolonizing their tongue and they’re decolonizing their psychology,” Brigman said. “But I’m decolonizing our aesthetic eyes. When you see our work, this is who we are.”