Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee congratulates Louie Gong at the Monday, November 25 ceremony announcing the Snoqualmie Tribe’s purchase of Eighth Generation. (Photo Courtesy of the Snoqualmie Tribe)
The Snoqualmie Indian Tribe’s purchase of Eighth Generation will elevate the business from “an iconic Native American brand to an iconic American brand,” said Louie Gong, the acclaimed Nooksack artist and entrepreneur who founded Seattle-based Eighth Generation.
The Tribe finalized the acquisition on November 8, and announced the purchase at an event with Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee and Tribal representatives at Eighth Generation’s flagship store in Pike Place Market on Monday, November 25, the week of Thanksgiving. The price tag was not disclosed — though Gong acknowledged that the deal is unprecedented for a Native art entrepreneur.
With the change in ownership, Gong remains committed to Eighth Generation for the long haul. “I have a multi-year commitment to act as CEO of Eighth Generation,” he told Native Business.
The purchase not only creates opportunity for Eighth Generation to expand its distribution, market penetration and visibility, it also empowers the Snoqualmie Tribe’s commitment to protect its culture and promote Indigenous artists.
“This is another values-driven investment for the Snoqualmie Tribe,” said the Tribe’s Chairman Robert de los Angeles.
The acquisition comes on the heels of the Snoqualmie Tribe’s early November purchase of Salish Lodge & Spa and acreage surrounding its sacred Snoqualmie Falls. “Every purchase made at Eighth Generation will support the mission of the Snoqualmie Tribe to safeguard sacred sites like Snoqualmie Falls and support the preservation of Native culture,” said the Tribal Council Treasurer Christopher Castleberry.
Gong’s decision to sell was driven by an awareness that in order to scale up, Eighth Generation needs access to more resources.
As an entrepreneur, Gong has never taken out a business loan to grow his company, and “at least a dozen times,” he’s gone all-in with his own money, risking it to grow Eighth Generation. “That process requires a lot of emotional labor,” he shared with Native Business.
Selling the business provides financial security, while empowering Eighth Generation’s continued success and social impact.
Because Gong built the business from the ground up, Eighth Generation started with the resources and tools it could afford and access.
To put Eighth Generation’s exponential success into perspective, 11 years ago, Gong was illustrating contemporary Coast Salish art on Vans in his living room. Even prior to that, he paved a hard-won path — from his childhood in a house with no running water to becoming a first-generation college student, later earning his masters degree and serving as a nonprofit president and educator, before launching Eighth Generation in 2008.
Gong’s initial endeavor as a solo artistpreneur — illustrating on shoes — became the building blocks for Eighth Generation. His company quickly evolved into producing more Native-designed products, including blankets, fine art, apparel and jewelry, through mutually beneficial partnerships with Indigenous artists across the nation via its Inspired Natives Project.
The Inspired Natives initiative helps Indigenous entrepreneurs assert autonomy of their personal brands, and economic sovereignty over their art. Gong helps these 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. We want all of our artists to be able to reach consumers directly. It’s a totally different philosophy” from that of the gallery system, museums and fine arts establishment, Gong emphasized, adding that Eighth Generation’s model promotes “integrity and capacity instead of charity.”
Eighth Generation also gives artists leverage to produce in mass, which is critical to meet consumer demand. “The key is being able to transition from producing one-off pieces to producing art in quantity,” Gong underscored.
The Snoqualmie Indian Tribe’s purchase further empowers Eighth Generation to expand its production in Washington State.
Eighth Generation currently sells a mix of imported and domestically made blankets — all featuring 100% Native designs. “The ideal scenario of producing blankets in-house with Native American wool is coming to fruition with a commitment to make textiles here in Seattle,” Gong said.
Expanding in-state manufacturing operations will allow Eighth Generation to provide even more opportunities for Native artists and professionals in the Pacific Northwest.
“Investment in our own infrastructure as talented and hardworking Native peoples is the pathway to sustainable income in the arts,” Gong stressed.
Gong’s consistent call-to-action for his fellow artist entrepreneurs is to invest their time, resources and energy into systems that empower Indigenous creations — not in reinforcing and holding up institutions and legacy companies that are built on the exploitation of Indigenous talent, and that ultimately act as a barrier to Native excellence.
“When we use our time to participate in those systems, we strengthen and legitimize those systems. When we invest in our own infrastructure, and our own skills, we strengthen ourselves,” Gong said.
That’s a value the Snoqualmie Tribe can easily get behind.
“Millions of dollars are spent in the United States on fake Native art labeled as ‘Native-Inspired,’ which misappropriates and disrespects the culture of America’s Indigenous people,” said Jaime Martin, Snoqualmie Tribe’s Executive Director of Governmental Affairs & Special Projects. “Eighth Generation provides consumers with the opportunity to purchase culturally-appropriate art and home goods, which is critical.”
Eighth Generation is shifting the paradigm for what it means to be successful.
“I hope that the Eighth Generation story helps Native artists and entrepreneurs think bigger about possible outcomes for their journeys,” Gong told Native Business.
He offers an example as simple as a business name. His initial idea for the name of his company? Native Shoes.
“I realized, at that very early stage, that that’s a very small niche that I was getting married to at an early phase. I decided to work on a name with a much more general application, and I eventually landed on Eighth Generation. From the very beginning, the idea that this journey could lead to something very big has impacted the decisions I’ve made,” he said.
Today, Eighth Generation is one of the fastest-growing privately owned businesses in the United States and Canada. Now, with the Snoqualmie Tribe’s support, Eighth Generation has the chance to become not only one of the most reputable Native American brands, but one of the first Native arts businesses to achieve mainstream success — and thus radically increase its social justice impact.
“We’re a for-profit company that has a social mission,” Gong said. “Eighth Generation sets the gold standard for how businesses should align with cultural artists.”
Under the Snoqualmie Tribe’s ownership, Eighth Generation can scale faster, and create more inroads for success for Indigenous artists.
“I’m excited to see what we can do when we have some real muscle behind the hustle,” Gong said.