Johnson Family Exhibition in PC Longhouse Gallery Celebrated

A special exhibition showcasing “The Artwork and Artifacts of the Private Collections of the Johnson Family of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe” is currently in the Peninsula College Longhouse Art Gallery. The exhibit will run through the month of April.

Organized and curated by Johnson family matriarch and Jamestown S’Klallam tribal elder Rosie Zwanziger, the exhibition showcases more than 20 pieces, including cedar baskets, a bentwood cedar box, weavings, bowls, masks, a medicine bag, and a killer whale paddle carved by former tribal elder and leader Harris “Brick” Johnson, an early member of the college’s Board of Trustees.

Peninsula College’s connection to the Johnson Family runs deep, reaching back to the time when Johnson served as a college trustee. His tenure spanned some of the earliest years of the college, from 1968 to 1978, and during all those years he was known for his support of education and helping to ensure that it was available to all who sought one.

It was during his time on the board that Johnson gifted the college with a very special symbol marking the ongoing and enduring relationship between the college and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, a remarkable totem pole that he, himself, carved. For many years, the totem stood proudly on the main campus in Port Angeles in front of the original Maier Hall building, named for the college’s first president. 

When construction was begun on the new Maier Hall that today graces the campus, the cedar totem pole was carefully and reverently removed and returned to Harris Johnson’s family for restoration. Today, Maier Hall is complete, and the totem pole that is so much a part of Peninsula College’s ethos will soon be returned to a special place of honor in a pole raising ceremony set to take place in 2014. Meanwhile, the final restoration touches to Brick Johnson’s totem pole continue apace under the careful work and supervision of Johnson’s nephew, Terry Johnson, himself a carver.

Zwanziger was a student at Peninsula College the year Harris Johnson’s pole was first raised on the campus, and she plans to be here for the second pole raising ceremony as well. For her and the entire Johnson family, the pole “is a significant link to Brick and the past.”

She remembers clearly the day in 1971 when the totem pole was raised. “It was a source of pride for us young people,” she says. “It was very special because the children were having an opportunity to learn about our culture and traditions, and in 2014 a couple more generations will be there to see it happen again.”

The day of the original pole raising was also notable for another reason according to Zwanziger because it marked a resurgence of special dances by the children. “Uncle Brick had gotten together a group of Jamestown kids to learn dances for the pole raising, and he brought in a Lummi tribal member to teach the dances while he and his wife, my Aunt Iris, made the regalia. There were about 14 children in all, all of them from the Johnson, Adams and Dick families.”

Zwanziger says the seeds for the impressive collection that is currently on exhibit in the Peninsula College Longhouse Art Gallery were planted more than 40 years ago by her Uncle Brick and Aunt Iris. Both of them led concerted efforts among their many nieces and nephews not only to keep the Jamestown culture alive but to put it into practice, which included forming a Jamestown S’Klallam dancing group in the 1970s that performed at area festivals and events. 

“Uncle Brick was supportive of and encouraged the artistic, athletic, musical and educational endeavors of all Jamestown youth,” Zwanziger says. “Much of what she knows about the culture and traditions of her people was picked up while she was hanging out at her Uncle Brick’s and Aunt Iris’ house.

“He made it a point to teach us. I think a lot of us didn’t realize growing up what an influence he had on us because you just take it for granted when you’re a kid.” 

Terry Johnson, who is working on the restoration of his uncle’s totem pole, was one of the children who watched his Uncle Brick as he worked. “When I was younger, Brick was right next door and always working on totem poles,” Terry says. Even then, it was a family project. Terry remembers his father would help haul logs for the carving. 

Today, many of those totem poles are still seen throughout the area. Zwanziger says they include Brick’s totem poles at Pioneer Memorial Park in Sequim and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s administration center in Blyn. Also notable is the “happy crab” design he painted on the mini-longhouse he built that stands on the beach in Jamestown. That design has become an honorary family crest, she says. 

Commenting on curating the exhibition, Zwanziger says of her Uncle Brick: “His spirit is felt through our artistic expressions, and this exhibit is a tribute to his memory and the gifts he bestowed upon our family.” 

She is pleased to see it in the Peninsula College Longhouse Art Gallery. “It’s especially meaningful for me because I was a student at the college, and it’s good to see Uncle Brick honored in this way.”

She hopes those who see the exhibition will realize that native art and culture are dynamic, “that we are still here and doing things and still learning.” Anyone who sees the exhibit can have no doubt as to the truth of her statement.

Community members are warmly invited to see this special exhibit Tuesday through Thursday from 8:00 to 11:00 am throughout the month of April.

Photo Caption: Members of the Johnson Family gather on the steps of the Peninsula College Longhouse to celebrate the opening of “The Artwork and Artifacts of the Private Collections of the Johnson Family of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe” exhibition currently in the Peninsula College Longhouse Art Gallery.  Back row, from left: Heather Johnson-Jock, Kissendrah Johnson, Jessica Creech, Vickie Carroll, Terry Johnson and Sandra Johnson. Front row, from left: Johnson “Johnny” Jock, Jolie Creech and Sonni Creech.