Bill Holm (Ho’miskanis; Tlalelitla)
Non-native American, born 1924
Kwigwatsi (35-foot Northern-style Canoe)
Bill Holm carved the first Kwigwatsi in 1968 at Henderson Camps (later renamed Camp Nor’wester) on Lopez Island. After a falling tree destroyed the canoe in 2011, Bill organized a group to carve its replacement. The Kwigwatsi is now housed on private property.
An art historian, artist, and emeritus professor, Bill has spent a lifetime developing his expertise in the visual arts of Northwest Coast Native Americans. His formal study began under Dr. Erna Gunther, former director of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington in Seattle, where Bill later taught highly popular courses on Northwest Native American visual and performing arts for seventeen years. He is also Curator Emeritus of Northwest Coast Indian Art at the Burke Museum. The Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Native Art at the Burke was founded in his honor in 2003.
Bill’s fascination with Native American life and cultural traditions began during his childhood in Montana and North Dakota and continued to develop after his family moved to Seattle. At age twelve, he met Dr. Gunther, who gave him full access to the Burke Museum’s collections and introduced him to her friends among the Makah and Salish peoples.
In 1942, Bill began a long process of integrating Native American art, dance, and other cultural traditions into the summer programs at Henderson Camps, later renamed Camp Nor’wester, first on San Juan Island and later on Lopez and Johns Islands. Together with his wife, Marty, Bill formed enduring friendships with Kwakwaka’wakw leaders, including Chief Mungo Martin and his wife, Abayah Martin, who became invaluable mentors. During Bill’s many summers at the camp, he and others constructed a longhouse and carved totem poles on the property. Bill could often be found down by the beach, carving canoes, masks, bent boxes, and other items using tools he had made himself. First Nations friends came every year to the camp to participate in dance performances. The camp gave Bill and his family a way to bring Northwest Coast indigenous traditions to life, to pass along their knowledge to generations of children and staff, and to sustain active engagement with First Nations artists and performers.
During a potlatch on Turnour Island, British Columbia, in 1959, Chief Mungo Martin brought Bill out as Hamatsa and gave him several names, including Ho’miskanis (Plenty of Everything, literally, Surplus Food from the River), the name by which Bill is called at Kwakwaka’wakw potlatches. Mungo gave Marty Holm, highly regarded among the Kwakwaka’wakw for her talent as a dancer and singer, the name Dladlawikagilakw (Ready to Stand Up [for her family in potlatching]). Still another of Bill’s names is Tlalelitla (Continually Inviting), given by Chiefs Bill Scow, Henry Bell, and Joe Seaweed at the dedication of Chief Scow’s father’s reconstructed house at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center in 1971. Marty was given one of Abayah Martin’s Winter Dance names, Heligaxstegalis, which means “Taming (the Hamtasa) Everywhere.” Their daughters, Carla and Karen, have also received ceremonial privileges and names. As Bill’s biographer Lloyd Averill writes in A Man from Roundup: The Life and Times of Bill Holm,
These names are among the Holms’ most treasured possessions. Such privileges are never casually given. The most important wealth of Native people is not in material goods…, but in their cultural patrimony — the names, songs, stories, dances, and crest figures which are the peculiar possession of individuals within a clan, [and] which can be obtained only when that right is conferred by the one who owns it. (28)
Bill has written extensively on Northwest Coast native art and history. His 1965 book Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form has long been the standard introductory text in the field; the 50th Anniversary Edition appeared in 2015. He has written eight other books and been the subject of several recent publications. He has received honors and awards from the Sealaska Heritage Institute, the Native American Art Studies Association, the University of Washington, and the Burke Museum. In 2003, he gave the UW Faculty Lecture to an audience of a thousand, the highest attendance on record for that annual event. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, in 2008.
As a painter, carver, performer, museum curator, teacher, and mentor, Bill Holm has immeasurably enriched our understanding and appreciation of Northwest Coast First Nations art and culture and has devoted his life, always with generosity and humility, to perpetuating these traditions.
The canoe mask will fit inside the head of a canoe, thus it’s identifying “V” shape. This is sometimes also called a “thrust” mask. It could be safely stored there on a canoe journey to visit another group. Upon arrival the mask would be placed in the same position, only on the outside of the front of a canoe. It was a way of introducing yourself before landing on the beach. Many masks adopted this shape, which is attributed to the people of the west coast.