Gay Traditions: Matthew Lawrence’s NW Makah Vision of Heritage
Matthew Lawrence is part of my extended family, though it’s difficult to tell what part. He’s my brother-in-law’s nephew, though he’s only a few years younger than my brother-in-law, a result of families that birthed generations at a young age. He’s a member of the Makah tribe, as my brother-in-law’s sister married one of the highest-ranking members of the tribe and moved the family out to the remote Neah Bay reservation, the farthest west point on the continental United States. He’s my wife’s hairdresser, and in fact all during this interview he’s doing my wife’s hair (it came out great!). And he’s a friend, someone I’ve shared long and interesting conversations with. But at my sister-in-law’s wedding, I saw another side to Matt. He performed a powerful dance and song from his Makah heritage, and the person I knew became someone entirely different, as he tapped into another culture, a much older culture.
The Makah have lived for millennia on the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula, and many still live on the Makah reservation in Neah Bay. The art of the Makah is some of the most beautiful examples of Northwest Coast Native art, and the old villages of the Makah were magical places. Doors to some houses were carved in the shape of giant thunderbird heads, and you entered by stepping into the bird’s mouth. Makah events were moments of high theater, as dancers channeled spirits like Hamatsa, the cannibal spirit. Like many other Native American cultures, Makah culture was expressed primarily on a community level, which is one reason why you can’t find Makah songs on CDs these days. Millennia before the concept existed in the West, the Makah had an intricately interconnected system of copyright; a system that’s still prominent today. Songs are owned by specific people and it’s never ok to sing a song owned by someone else. Songs are also considered commodities, and are gifted or given to friends or family members. They’re inherited, and passed down in families as well. The music, dance, and culture exist in a web of interconnections between families, and are guarded as carefully as you would guard precious family heirlooms. That’s why CDs aren’t for sale of Makah songs, and why when Makah perform in public, they often ask people in the audience to turn off cell phones and recording devices.
Matt comes from this rich cultural background and is heir to millenia of tradition, but he also brings another identity as a gay man living in Seattle. I was curious to understand what it meant to come out as gay in the midst of a traditional culture with such a long history and how this was received by the community. So I invited him over to talk about his life.
Hearth Music: Where did you grow up?
Matt Lawrence: I lived in Anacortes, WA until I was about 6 and then we moved to Tacoma. My dad was finishing in the army and we moved out to Neah Bay when I was about 10 years old. That was a big culture shock. I had been there to visit a lot growing up but actually knowing, “This is where you’re going to live”… It’s a big adjustment from living somewhere with a McDonalds or a movie theater. But I will say that it was the best experience growing up because it was so remote; you knew everyone. It was very trusting. It was like growing up in a big family.
How was it a big adjustment from where you were before? Like the isolation or the lack of amenities?
The isolation. I went from living in Anacortes to living in Tacoma. That was a big transition and then to move from Tacoma to Neah Bay was like… you have no radio stations, no TV, you have to have a satellite. It was a big adjustment, but I think that being able to grow up out there, you play outside a lot more than you would if you lived in the city. We had horses and bikes and we got to run amok whenever we weren’t in school.
Were you connected to traditional Makah culture when you were in Anacortes and Tacoma or was it in Neah Bay that you started to get connected?
I always knew that I was Makah… My grandpa Keith always made sure that I knew where I came from. He had a lot of native art in the house growing up, so that helped. I knew where it came from and I knew what it meant. When my parents got back together and we started going out to Neah Bay more–growing up we would go out there either every other weekend or every weekend and every Sunday before we moved there–we would have family dinner and we would sing our family songs. I learned how to dance with all my cousins and learned a lot from my great-grandparents that were still alive then and my grandparents.
What do mean, you sang your family songs at Sunday dinner? Before the dinner or after?
After dinner we would clean up and then clear out the floor. I have a huge family, so, there’d be like 20 of us cousins dancing. In our tribe, there are community songs on Makah Days, which is our treaty celebration. Everybody can dance to these songs. The tribe is made up of different families; every family has their own set of songs that they and only they sing. The song that I danced to at Jake and Jenna’s wedding [where I first saw Matt dance], that’s my dad’s song. Unless he asks you, you don’t sing it, you don’t dance to it. It’s his song, and it was given to him by a relative back in the 70s.
Do people write new songs? Do people create songs for their families?
There’s some families that do. Our family, we have our set of songs that have been around longer than I know.
Really ancient, do you mean? Like hundreds of years?
It would be my great-great-grandma, Lizzie Parker, she wrote certain songs. The way that they are written is spiritual, like somebody having a dream or a vision of God, and God telling them something and this is their story. The song would be the story that they had with the creator. In their mind, this is their interpretation of what it is. That’s how a lot of the songs came about. Totem-wise, our family would be a wolf. So we have 4 or 5 wolf songs that we sing that have either been given to the family or they have always been. These are our songs. With the influence of other tribes, or marrying into other tribes, you get new songs, you acquire new things, new customs.
My great-great grandpa John G. [married to Lizzie Parker] was one of the last sitting chiefs in the tribe before the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] came and said, “This is how you need to run things.” Our family has a lot of history and is a very well-known or high ranking family. Which feels really weird to me.
Example of Makah song/story from Dr. Scott Tyler, a Makah physician:
So is your father, Michael ‘Tooge’ Lawrence, the chief of the Makah?
No, no. He’s an elected official for the tribe. Right now, he’s the vice-chairman on the Makah tribal council. Right now, he’s not really a chief of the Makah tribe… but we come from a chief family.
[photo is of Matt’s father Tooge]
It was a hierarchical society… It had real levels.
When we have a potlatch, the way that they work it is you usually eat, and then they’ll clear the floor… If my family’s not hosting it, we’re going to go first. It’s up to us; we can either go first or last. We could be the last one that goes before the hosting family. So, it’s how late do you want to be at this party? [laughing] You know who’s who, when you grow up in Neah Bay, when it comes to things like that because, “This is how it was done back then and this is how it is going to continue to be done now.”
Potlatches were traditionally a way to show off power and to show who had power, right?
In our family, we have a song. It’s called “The Number 1,” and that’s our family. When it would be sung, my great-grandpa wouldn’t sing it but he would stand and just hold one finger in the air. He would usually dance with money; I’ve seen it done with a fan, with bills spread out into a fan, you dance around while the song goes on, while other dancers are still out on the floor. It would be me and my cousins and we would all have our regalia on, so we would have wolf masks and our shawls. We would be doing the same dance that we had been doing which is just another way to show off, “This is how many people I have dancing for me,” to this array of songs that we have. It’s really cool to see, and there’s so many different types of songs. Back in ’99, when they were doing the whaling (my tribe was in the fight to start whaling again), there was a few people that definitely wrote new songs. It gave some people a sense of pride and shook up their generation because people fought for civil rights and this was like, “This is your next big thing as a tribe. These are your treaty rights.” It was never like, “Oh, we’re going to stop until the species are off the endangered species list, then we’ll resume our treaty rights.” That was the understanding. Nowadays, they’re still fighting it.
Is that still a big issue for the Makah? Traditional whaling rights?
Yeah, I think it’s more so a flexing of power. “You took these things and said that we would do this and you didn’t keep up your end of the bargain.” Our tribe still goes to the international whaling commission meetings. I don’t know exactly where I stand on that. [laughing] I’m all about cultural preservation. My sister is 17 and she can speak Makah and understand it and write it and read it.
Can you speak the language?
I can understand it. I know what certain words mean. I made the mistake of taking Spanish in high school. It’s definitely something that I regret not taking it; I have a lot of friends that took it and now their kids speak it. I think it’s amazing and really cool.
Are there a lot of people left who speak the language fluently, as their first language?
No. I’m not even sure if there’s anyone left that only speaks Makah. They’re fighting to keep it alive. They started an elementary school program with it. My sister would help the lady that teaches it; she would help get her material done. There’s a lady named Maria Pascua who teaches at the high school and she teaches cultural arts, basket weaving, and the Makah language. She’s phenomenal! She is a great teacher and definitely gets people involved with it. Through her passion, it helps other people get a passion for it.
Are there a lot of potlatches anymore in Neah Bay?
There’s 2 or 3 big ones a year, but the tough part about trying to do one in Neah Bay, is that as a Makah, you have to “let your tears dry.” If someone in your family passes away, you’re supposed to put your drums away for a year before you can bring them back out, an honor thing, out of respect. It being such a small community, if somebody passes away, chances are, everybody’s related somehow. There’s definitely been some tweaking over the years [to allow for more potlatches], as far as things like that.
What are the songs like? Do they all have words? Are some of them vocables, where it’s just syllables that you’re singing? Do they all have different melodies?
They all have different melodies.
It’s not like pow-wow singing, right? Pow-wow singing is a really distinct sound, real high-pitched with the drum.
There’s usually a drum circle. You’ll get ready to dance and there’s one guy that leads and he’ll have something to direct, like a single feather or a wing of an eagle or something eye-catching to help keep the drum beat. He’ll lead the song. A lot of them have a couple of lines of an intro before you hear the first drumbeat and that is when the drumbeat will start and then you get up to dance and you do your first spin and then you come out onto the floor as the words start. As far as what the words mean, I know what dance goes with what song but …
Has anyone ever told you the stories behind the songs?
No, no. We’ve talked about them before. With family politics, you have your falling outs and then you get back together, but usually it takes a death of somebody to get some of these things out.
You mean to get some of the stories out of the songs?
We have such a big family, but I only have one great-aunt and a great-uncle left out of Grandma Kibbie’s siblings and that’s who we would do our Sunday dinners with and keep our family culture alive. Our family started meeting up once a week and they’d dance and practice singing. My brother started singing when he was 3 and he was really good at it. He knew how to keep a drumbeat and knew all the songs. It’s more sounds or syllables, easier words. They don’t really have full lyrics; it’s more a sound to express an emotion. Once you are old enough, you dance and you sing. The community ones that are performed on Makah Days, there’s 2 year-old kids out there that know these songs. On Makah Days, they have a group of kids that dance down on a stage down on the beach. There’s over 100 kids out there.
Is your brother more of a singer than you? Do you guys both do a lot of singing? This is your younger brother, right? What’s his name again?
Thomas. Thomas spent a lot of time with my Grandma Kibbie. She babysat him; that’s how she would sing to him, by singing family songs. So, Tom picked them up really quick and he just started singing. I usually danced with all my cousins; we all danced. Growing up, my aunts, that was our family group of singers. It’s weird to get away from that; now you go to a party, and you have all-male singers. It almost sounds like a totally different song because of who is singing it.
[Matt and his brother Thomas (on the left)]
You almost have to build the traditions again when one generation passes on.
Yeah, my family dancing on Sundays definitely helps keep that up. We’re getting to the age where all my cousins that are my age are starting to have kids. I think it’s really important to keep that alive and to keep your family together. This is where our pride is, right here… This is what makes you who you are in this community and in life. The best advice I ever got from my dad was, “Remember who you are and where you come from.” I think that kept me out of a lot of trouble, just having that sense of pride and family.
Tell me about coming out as gay. When did you come out and how was it when you came out in a really traditional culture?
Growing up in high school, I definitely knew that I wasn’t the same as everybody else and I knew that I was gay. Growing up in such a small community, not only are you dealing with traditional values, you’re also dealing with a lot of religion and how that incorporates with your native heritage. For a town where there’s 1200 people, there’s 5 churches. I knew for a long time, but at 14 I was done being worried about it. I was like, “Look, I just need to get through a couple more years and then I’m out of here and I can go live my life the way I want to live it.” Growing up in Neah Bay and growing up in that time [early 90s], there weren’t very many “out” celebrities or athletes, so you don’t have anybody to look up to. The people that were out had a negative connotation with them. So I was like, “I’m going to keep this one to myself for a little while.” But I came out when I was 20, after I went to school for a couple of years at the art institute. I wasn’t ready to face my parents until then. You go through all those, “I don’t want them to be mad at me” feelings. You hear horrible horror stories. Knowing that I grew up in a very loving family; I don’t know why I was so nervous about it. Growing up with my dad telling me, “Remember who you are and where you come from” … It should have made me more comfortable with who I was, but it was definitely like, “Now I have to worry about how this is going to affect my family and how people view my family.”
Was there any kind of template for being gay in Makah culture?
Had anybody paved the way before you? Done it and come out?
No. If you were gay and you still lived there; you didn’t talk about it. People would know; people knew, but you just didn’t talk about it. I never wanted to live a lie. Growing up, I knew to be happy about who I was and what I had to offer the world… I knew that if I was to stay in Neah Bay, I would probably be living a lie. I don’t like to lie to my parents about anything, let alone… that’s huge.
So, how was it received when you talked to your parents about it?
I talked to my mom first… I think my parents, they didn’t really know. They grew up in the 80s and it was: gay = aids = party life. That’s not how I live my life. They were more scared of what it meant without knowing what it meant at all… Once I moved away from Neah Bay, I was over the whole “I need to get out of here so that I can go be myself,” when really I was always myself, I just didn’t feel I needed to share with anybody. After I had come out, I was nervous about my friends. Everybody likes to say, “That’s gay!” That’s what you grow up with, and I was like “Okay, do you really mean that?” But all my friends… it didn’t even phase our friendship. I think that it made us closer because now I wasn’t like, “I can’t say anything about who I like…”
You could talk honestly.
It’s definitely brought me and my entire group of friends closer. Two of my best friends growing up out there were gay.
Growing up in Neah Bay?
Yeah. Growing up in Neah Bay and we were the same age. It was more like, “Look, I know you have a secret. You know I have a secret. We’re going to be friends; otherwise we’ll ‘out’ each other [laughing] and start a big fight.”
Growing up there, I put more into being scared of coming out than was necessary because, when it came down to it, I knew that my family loved me. There was some [that might not approve]; they might have their own beliefs but that doesn’t involve me. You can have your beliefs and that’s fine. Your beliefs don’t affect my daily life and me being gay does not affect you in your daily life. If you let it, then you have a problem.
Sounds like hard-earned wisdom. Was there any kind of clash in the traditional culture side of yourself? Did you ever feel you just didn’t belong, singing the songs or dancing the dances?
That’s what I was worried about. I didn’t want one of my cousins to say, “You can’t do that.”
Really? You thought that would happen?
Being scared and being young, I was nervous about that. Once I told my parents… that was who I was worried about the most. It took me and my mom a while but with my Grandpa Keith being a counselor, he had called me right after, that next week, he was down in Seattle for a conference, he called me and he was like, “Hey, do you want to come to Anacortes? I have to come back down tomorrow. Do you want to come up and spend the night and we’ll have dinner.” We go and we get in the car and we get on I5 and it was traffic, bumper to bumper, and he’s like, “So, your mom called.” and I’m like, “Dammit! Just get me out of the car now. I don’t want to have this conversation with my grandpa.” But… he was like, “You’re loved, that’s all you need to know. Your parents love you; they’re worried about you.”
I think that once I became more honest with myself, I now have the best relationship with my dad that I’ve ever had. I think that now, we’re at a point where I’m not just his son, I’m another man and we can have a conversation and have a real conversation and not just bullshit or just small talk. Sit and have a conversation about what’s going on in my life and not feel like, “Here’s what I’m going to tell you and not this because this might make you uncomfortable. My dad is an amazing man and has helped me be, not more open because that’s not ever been a problem, but more comfortable with who I am as a person and as a man, as a gay man.
2010 was when my tribe hosted the canoe journeys, and that was a huge, life-changing moment for me to witness and see and be a part of. They put up a huge tent on the football field in Neah Bay and we performed our tribal songs, the ones that we would do on Makah Days. Usually you might have 100 kids on Makah Days and you’d usually have about 40 women and 10 guys, grown men that would dance. But to show up and to be a part of the tribal journey, there were 400 Makah dancers, from ages 50 to 4, and people that you don’t normally see dance. It was such an amazing time, like “This is your chance to show off. This is your home. Show them what you can do.” We’re all ready, we’re standing in the back getting ready to go, and my dad came back, he was the chairman at the time, and he looks like something out of a story. He’s got his big, white shawl on and his big totem pole staff and his big cedar bark hat, and he comes in and he was like, “They came here to see you, this is what we do, but show them you’re proud today.” It was just so amazing to be a part of that. Even talking about it, I get goosebumps.
[photo from Makah website]
At the end of the day, I’m just Matt. I’m not just Native American, I’m not just Makah, I’m not just this, I’m not just that, I’m my own person. These are the things that make me who I am, which is a really important lesson to have.
We get ready to start singing and the first song that you usually do for Makah Days is a 4 part canoe song. The first part of it is a somber, slow, deep drumbeat with a haunting sound, but not in a scary way, it gives you chills, kind of a song. So, to be standing out in the middle of Neah Bay; it’s the middle of July, it’s beautiful and 400 people start singing this song with this slow drumbeat and it’s echoing through the hills and your heart’s pounding and you’re like, “Holy shit! I’m a part of this! This is in me. This is who I am.” It was such a phenomenal moment! At 25, I was like, “Where the hell have I been all my life? Why am I just feeling like this now?” I watch the DVDs of it when I go out to my parent’s house. It was crazy to see that many people dance and that was my favorite part of the whole thing, was that first 20 minutes of that song being sung as everybody gets lined up and ready to go. You look back and the line goes all the way back around the school where we were. It was awesome! That was the sense of pride of being Makah, not that I was ever not proud of it, but that was the epitome of it. That was: Wow! It was an amazing thing to be a part of.
I have a friend; she’s doing American Indian studies at UW and she’s in graduate school. She’s told me that Makah have been here for 5000 years, they’ve been in the same place. To me…
That’s as old as ancient Egypt.
To think that these people have been here and been doing the same things for that long, it creates a spirit with the land. I go home and it’s… [big sigh] Everything else that bothers me outside of Neah Bay does not bother me when I’m here. This is home. It might not be my parent’s house but when I go home, I feel like my heart is at home… It’s a great thing to be a part of. I think I grew up with some of the most amazing people and amazing friends. You all learn the rules from your parents and your grandparents and you great-grandparents: to respect your elders and remember who you are and where you come from. If you actually sit down and think about that, it’s not just, “oh, those are my parents.” No, you’re bigger than that. Your actions are bigger than that. They speak not just for you but for your people and to think of it as your people not just “They live in the same town as me.” This isn’t just a town, this is one huge family.
How is it being gay in Neah Bay now?
I had a client; I do her hair out in Neah Bay and she works for the school. She was like, “After you came out, you made it easier for a lot of people and kids.” My brother came out at 13. Kids that we went to school with, one of my best friends is living with his partner in Neah Bay. They just bought a house and nobody treats them any different. There’s probably people that say some things but it’s not your life. I think that it’s definitely changed over the last few years.
[photo from Makah.com]
So what’s it like in Neah Bay now? What’s the quality of living like?
It’s always been community-driven; it’s always been a tight-knit community, but I think that now people are starting to come together and do things more as a whole. Everybody comes together to work on things and make it a better place. They’re keeping with the tradition of the Makah tribe and of Neah Bay but definitely improving it and making it a better place to live for everyone. There’s the new gym and the new fitness center. There’s a wellness center that they’re putting up which has yoga and herbal medicine. You have another option besides going to the clinic and having those pills. Because it’s such a small community, they deal with drug problems too. It might not be as serious numbers-wise, but say there’s 20 people; that’s a huge percentage of the people in Neah Bay. It only takes a few people to make something bigger in Neah Bay. They’ve been coming up with different ways to get people back into living healthy and being more traditional. Growing up I did canoe racing, which is called “pulling.” We would travel out to Canada when we were 13 or 14 years old. We would be in huge, 12 man canoes and we would go race other tribes and it was fun. In doing that, you’re meeting kids that live in small reservations just like you up and down the coast. Between pulling and basketball tournaments, that’s how you’re networking with other tribes.
You work as a hairdresser now at Salon Juan in Seattle and work especially with fashion photographers in Seattle. Have you done anything to bring Makah art and aesthetics into your work?
My big piece that I want to work on is Edward Curtis [the great early 20th century photographer of Native American communities] inspired… Edward Curtis took a picture of my great-grandma in 1913 and it’s called, “The Makah Maiden” and it’s such a beautiful picture. All of his photography was phenomenal. They were staged but you look into the eyes of the people in those pictures, and there’s so much emotion. It’s a beautiful picture! I work a lot with different designers but I have been wanting to put together a series of photo shoots. At first I want to start with Makah, and I want to incorporate me doing hair, I want to mix the color of salmon and cedar and incorporate them into the pictures. I want the pictures to be in color but I want them to have that feeling of being in sepia-toned, and being shot in 1912. I want them to still capture, “This is where we are on earth. This is ours.” I want it to be done in Neah Bay, on the beach, looking out to the ocean, saying “there’s nothing past this.” We’re on the very tip of the state and we have some of the most beautiful beaches and land and forest. I really want to incorporate our tradition and our art… I want it to be more modern and I would like that to inspire other people to get to know their culture and let their culture influence them.
[Edward R. Curtis’ “A Makah Maiden]
My culture definitely influences me… whether it’s the way I dress or how I carry myself… I think it’s important to know who you are and know where you come from. Let that guide you in your life. I definitely feel like my grandparents that have passed away…[pauses] You have your guides. All these people that mattered to you in your life, have given you the tools to be the best person that you can be, and it’s what you do with those tools that help you determine what you should do and where you should be.
Many thanks to Matthew Lawrence for being so open about his identity and his culture in this interview. The mural art behind Matt in some of these photos is by Native artist Andrew Morrison. These murals were recently defaced by vandals in what Morrison calls a hate crime. The community rallied together and repainted and repaired the murals, which depict Native American chiefs, including Chief Sealth (Seattle).
The 91st Annual Makah Days celebration will be held August 28-30 in Neah Bay. For MORE INFO.