Since Time Immemorial is a recurring series featuring community members whose families have been here since time immemorial. The ancestral knowledge carried by Lhaq’temish, Nooksack, and other Coast Salish peoples is knowledge about how to live in our shared home in a good, life-sustaining way. We live in a time when we need to restore our relationship with Mother Earth and with one another. We are grateful for these stories, told in the words of each featured individual.
Cyaltsa (sigh-alt-suh) April Finkbonner is a multimedia artist, journeyman ironworker, and member of the Lummi Nation. She serves on the board of Se’Si’Le, an Indigenous nonprofit organization, and is the Vice-President of the Sacred Lands Conservancy.
Photograph by Messial Cruz
Could you please share a bit about where you come from?
I grew up on the Lummi reservation. Marcelline Lane is my mother, Ronald Finkbonner Sr. and the late Larry Kinley are my Dads. I like to say that I was raised by three little tribes: the Lanes, Finkbonners, and Kinleys. I went to school in Ferndale, graduated in ‘89. In the summertime, I’d go fishing with Dad K. If I wasn’t fishing, I’d be out riding a motorcycle, or in the backyard pool, or playing softball. It was fun. But a life-long teaching from my parents is, “Get your priorities straight.” Work before play, you know?
So you fished for a while, then got into welding?
Well, it’s kind of funny. I don’t know if you’re into astrological signs, but I’m a Leo, a fire sign, and welding is all about fire. Dad K introduced me to welding when he was doing some repair work on the boat. He said, “Grab that hood and come watch me.” I watched him and I was like, ‘Wow, that was cool.’ He said, “You should look into welding. They say women make pretty good welders with their steady hands.” So I went to technical college, and worked as a blackjack dealer to support myself while I was in school. It was good timing because later that year fishing had a major decline. Dad K was happy that I got into welding, even though he thought I’d end up building us aluminum fishing boats.
What kind of welding did you do instead?
I ended up joining the ironworker’s union because I discovered that I love the flux core welding process, which is used in building skyscrapers and bridges. Climbing trees as a kid was good training! It’s hard work. But, you know, fishing is hard work, so the work ethic was already built in me. One thing I always say is that ironworkers get the best view in the world because we’re up high, we get to see the sunrise, sunset, whatever, and we’re not looking through a window. It’s beautiful up there!
Beauty is important to you!
Yes. I’m an artist. I am inspired by nature and its beauty.
How did you get started on that path?
I always loved drawing and coloring stuff, and my mom gave me a camera when I was maybe 10. Later, I went to the Art Institute of Seattle and studied multimedia. I work in pen and colored pencils, acrylic paint. I love photography and video. Uncle Chief (Tsilixw Bill James) introduced me to clay and taught me how to weave cedar hats and baskets. I just finished a commission, a large steel sculpture called “All My Relations.” That was an amazing project to be a part of.
How do you describe your art?
Colorful, some abstract. You’ll see some form line, the traditional Native style, but then I’ll also get free flowing, put my own flavor to it. One time, I showed a relative a drawing and they’re like, “The lines are supposed to close. You’re not supposed to have them open-ended like that.” And I was like, “You know me, traditionally non-traditional.”
Creativity flows through you! Do you ever experience a dry spell?
Well, water is life and my creativity flows best when I am by the ocean, or any body of water. On “All My Relations”, I felt like I was blocked at first. The deadline kind of shut my creativity down. I had to remember my own words: Creativity comes in waves. You know, you may be stuck but then the tides change, and everything flows again. I had to remember that, and I had to physically go to the water. So, I found a spot out on the beach where I could see Mount Rainier off in the distance. I set my little chair up, a little blanket under my feet. I was looking over the rocks and I could see the crabs, and the waves coming in, once in a while a ferry would go by. I started drawing and it all came together.
You’ve had pieces commissioned, and you sell your art under the business name Creative Cuzzin. Are you also still working on skyscrapers and bridges?
I’ve actually just started welding at the Navy shipyard in Bremerton.
So you’re back to boats!
Oh my gosh, yes. By the water. And working with my hands, welding. It’s what I love to do! And I still get to be creative with my art. It’s such a blessing, you know?
Anything you’d like to add?
Yes. Only a small handful of ironworkers, welders, and fishermen are women. But we’re out there making waves. I want the next generation, especially the little girls, to know that they can do anything. Rise up, branch out, and believe in yourself. Anything’s possible.