Since Time Immemorial is a new recurring series featuring community members whose families have been here since time immemorial. The ancestral knowledge carried by Lhaq’temish (Lummi), 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.
Siemum Jason LaClair is a 39–year-old artist of the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe. He creates large–scale murals, art prints, and business logos, among other things. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to be where you are today?
I grew up around a lot of artists. I wasn’t formally trained, it was just something I took an interest in at a real young age. For 20 or so years, I would make prints of my stuff and walk door-to-door selling them. I often wondered about my situation; deep down I knew that I needed to get healthy and away from trouble. I suppose I’m just going to say it: I needed to get out of addiction. I’ve been clean and sober for three and a half years, and I honestly feel that if I wasn’t clean and sober, none of these good things would be happening. My first mural was a few years ago for Children of the Setting Sun Productions, then the following year I collaborated with Gretchen Leggitt on the Salmon Run. That one got me a lot of notoriety. Since then, it’s been really good and busy.
How would you describe your art, or style?
I started out doing Northern Formline, which is from north of Coast Salish territory. When we lost a lot of our language and culture, we adopted some of that Northern style. That’s all I knew for like 25 years. Shapes glide around shapes, that’s Formline. About five years ago I was spoken to about doing art in our own style. Coast Salish has flow, but the shapes don’t form around each other. I only use three shapes in Coast Salish: circles, crescents, and trigons. I had a really hard time for a couple years, because I couldn’t use all the shapes I was used to. But now I can really feel my ancestors when I work in that style. It helps me out a great deal.
You said that tonight you’re going out clam-digging?
Our ancestors would say that “when the tide goes out, the table is set.” Clam-digging was one of the first things I was taught. It’s spiritual, you know. I go out there and I imagine my ancestors doing that without all the tools that we have now, they’re out there digging with their bare fingers in the sand, in the freezing cold weather late at night. When I’m out there alone, sometimes I really feel my ancestors; sometimes that’s where the visions come from. But if I’m digging close to a bunch of guys, then it becomes like a camaraderie, a fun thing. We laugh and joke around and try not to think about how cold our feet and hands are.
Is there a teaching that has been especially significant to you?
Estitem’sen is a Lummi word for “I’m doing my best.” I start off every day with that. I just do the best I can for that day. I just tell myself to trust that the Creator is going to put me where I need to be.
Anything you’d like to add?
Yeah, it’s such a cool thing, an honor, to be able to represent my people and my ancestors by creating art and sharing visions. What makes me feel really good is the human connection, how different communities, people from multiple backgrounds, get the same feeling when they look at a mural. I’m thankful that I get to be a part of that.
Hy’shqe, thank you so much.
Jason’s Salmon Run mural can be seen on North Forest Street in Bellingham. Other murals include those at Pioneer Park in Ferndale and at the San Juan Islands National Historical Park. Jason’s Instagram is @jason.laclair.946.
Julie’s bio for beginning of magazine: Julie Trimingham is grateful to make her home on traditional Lhaq’temish territory, and to work for the Sacred Lands Conservancy, an Indigenous-led 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the life, culture, and sanctity of the Salish Sea. www.SacredSea.org