Eighth Generation Is Changing the Way Native Artists Do Business

The scale of Eighth Generation’s success is totally unprecedented for a Native-owned business in the arts space. The fastest growing Native-owned company in North America, Eighth Generation represents what founder Louie Gong refers to as “a radical update to the American dream.”

“Our success has come while subtly giving the middle finger to large brands with a tradition of selling fake Native art, and an outdated gallery system that has not made much of a difference for Native artists,” Gong said.

But Gong (Nooksack) isn’t wasting time being outraged. He’s creating avenues for the self-determination of fellow Native arts entrepreneurs.

A former nonprofit president and educator, Gong has never lost sight of Eighth Generation’s purpose. Just a decade ago, he was illustrating contemporary Coast Salish art on Vans in his living room. While the tribal-inked shoes became the impetus for Eighth Generation, that phase of the company’s development only reflects its formative years.

In 2015, Eighth Generation became the first Native-owned company to produce high-end wool blankets featuring stunning tribal designs. Business has more than doubled each year, and Gong anticipates even bigger strides in 2018.

“Even though we’re doing business of much greater scale, our values haven’t changed,” Gong emphasized.

“Confluence,” a new design by David Robert Boxley, symbolizes the Tsimshian belief that humans are not separate from the animal world — they are merely part of it. (Courtesy Gong)

Since Gong launched Eighth Generation in 2008, the company has remained committed to community engagement and collaboration. When Gong was transitioning his career to the arts (and inevitably sales and marketing), he chose to build his own business capacity—rather than following the well-worn pathway to galleries and fine art institutions. Today, Gong extends that same intention and determination to the Native artists whom he partners with through Eighth Generation.

“Eighth Generation sets the gold standard for how businesses should align with cultural artists,” Gong said.

Eighth Generation is currently collaborating with six artists through the Inspired Natives Project. The initiative helps indigenous entrepreneurs assert autonomy of their personal brands, and economic sovereignty over their art. For instance, Gong helps indigenous artists design logos, create business entities and launch e-commerce websites.

“In many ways, we are the antithesis of the typical gallery system, where people are inserting themselves between the talent and the consumers,” Gong said.

Rather, Eighth Generation gives Native artists direct access to buyers. “I believe that’s the true pathway to sustainability,” Gong noted.

Eighth Generation also gives artists leverage to produce in mass, which is critical to meet consumer demand before a larger company swoops in and replicates ideas and aesthetics. “The key is being able to transition from producing one-off pieces to producing art in quantity,” Gong underscored.

In addition to e-commerce, Gong’s rapidly growing empire showcases its products from a storefront with prime real estate: Seattle’s Pike Place Market. (Courtesy Gong)

Through its Inspired Natives Project, Eighth Generation will release one new blanket per month for the remainder of 2018 in honor of the company’s 10-year anniversary. Anticipate 10-year celebratory initiatives and events around Indigenous Peoples Day in October, Gong hinted.

Overall, the relatively new brand has created 40 blankets, 100 percent of them designed by Native artists. As Gong likes to point out, 40 blankets equals 40 opportunities for Native artists.

The newest honor blanket that Eighth Generation unveiled yesterday, July 17, was designed by David Robert Boxley, a Tsimshian artist from Metlakatla on the culture-rich Annette Island of rural Alaska. Coincidentally, upon the invitation of the Metlakatla community, Gong recently traveled to Metlakatla to do one final custom shoe workshop and to speak to their Native artists. A film crew was present to capture Gong’s time in Metlakatla.

Evolving the Narrative of Eighth Generation

The seed money for Eighth Generation came from Gong’s more than 100 custom shoe workshops and speaking engagements.

“I looked at this [trip] as an opportunity to ceremoniously say goodbye to that phase of my artistic and professional development,” Gong said. “It’s an homage…. I’m honoring the community work that got me here in the first place.”

The film also chronicles Gong encouraging and consulting Native artists, as well as finalizing plans for the launch of Boxley’s blanket. Ultimately, the 13-minute film will reinforce Eighth Generation’s community engagement—core to Eighth Generation’s values. “That’s not going to change regardless of how successful we become,” Gong said.

Check out the new “(Untitled) Trailer, 2018” below, and start formulating titles. Eighth Generation is launching a crowdsource contest to name the film.