by Faith Price, Director, Native American Student Services


Dr. Shawn Brigman’s educational journey took him to multiple institutions all over the world. Along the way, he gathered knowledge and inspiration that ultimately led him to where he is today – digging deep into the knowledge of his ancestors.

Dr. Brigman holds frame of canoe while students watch in background.
WSU Tribal Nation Building Leadership students and Native Programs staff member Ken Lokensgard watch as Shawn Brigman puts some of the finishing touches on a bark covered Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoe in summer 2017.

Brigman is enrolled Spokane, but also has Arrow Lakes, San Poil, Shuswap and Colville heritage. He grew up in Spokane and attended East Valley High School.

“High school wasn’t always a good experience for me,” said Brigman, explaining, “I was raised by my aunt and uncle. We were a low income family. We couldn’t afford for me to join sports or anything.”

One day he was called to the office. He thought he was in trouble, but instead that day ended up positively impacting his life trajectory. In the office waiting for him was Dan Iyall and Terri Parr from the Indian Education program. They asked him if he wanted to go to college, something he hadn’t considered before, and invited him to a workshop about financial aid. He remembers that Parr gave him a ride home afterward, saving his family a few dollars in gas, which meant a lot at the time.

The workshop explained that a college degree wasn’t necessarily out of his financial reach. Subsequently, Brigman applied and was accepted to Gonzaga University. He stayed there for about two years, but ended up leaving the institution. He got a job doing manual labor, “lifting 50 pound produce boxes every minute of the day. It taught me to be very industrious.”

When he was in his twenties, he went back to Spokane Community College to pursue a certificate in computer-aided drafting. He applied for a Gates Scholarship the first year they became available in 2000. At that time, everyone could apply no matter their age or year in school. He was selected for the Gates, something that also had a huge impact on his life as the scholarship offered to fully-fund his education all the way through his PhD if he decided to go that route. He knew that it was a huge opportunity and a privilege not afforded to many.

“Everyone should have the right to go to college and have that education,” said Brigman, reflecting back.  “Everyone should have the right to go to college without the financial burden.”

As he pursued his education, he would learn new concepts that would send him in new directions. At Gonzaga, he took an intriguing class in Greek art and architecture. Next, at SCC, he started to get interested in the field of architecture. Prior to that he hadn’t heard of the concept of a “built environment.”

Receiving the Gates Scholarship allowed him to continue his education at a four-year school. He chose to study architecture at Washington State University. At WSU he had the opportunity to take American Indian Studies courses.

“That’s really where the awakening started to happen,” said Brigman. Between his major and his AIS courses, he began contemplating that as tribal people we have our own knowledge of architecture and other fields.

canoes on lake coeur d'alene
Native Programs staff and students paddle in Salishan Sturgeon Nose canoes on Lake Coeur d’Alene in summer 2017 as part of the Tribal Nation Building Leadership Program orientation.

While at WSU, Brigman had the opportunity to study abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark for one semester. He observed while there that they celebrated the connections between their contemporary city and the ancestral village it resides upon, something he connected with his homelands.

“We have our own ancestral villages with contemporary cities built right on top of it,” said Brigman.

As part of a class assignment, Brigman visited the Viking Ship Museum a thirty-minute train ride away. The Danish people had discovered ancestral ships in the mud and designed a museum to house them. Again, this made Brigman reflect on his homelands and begin understanding the concept of cultural tourism as well as culturally relevant recreation.

“I knew that’s what we had at home. We had our own boat heritage.”

Brigman received his bachelor’s degree in architecture from WSU in 2005. A few years later he returned to school to pursue a master’s degree in recreation at the University of Idaho. At U of I, a professor gave him the book “Decolonizing Methodologies” by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, a Maori professor in New Zealand. Brigman found the book and the concept of decolonization inspiring and decided to study abroad again, this time in Christchurch, New Zealand.

During his semester in New Zealand, Brigman studied Maori tourism and outdoor recreation. The Vice President of the University was a Maori/Tongan man with a background in architecture. He took Brigman on a field trip to visit contemporary maraes. The time in New Zealand impressed Brigman with the success the Maori have had in developing things like their own TV station and urban planning agenda.

After completing his master’s degree, Brigman returned to Gonzaga where he began his higher education journey, this time in pursuit of a PhD. While a doctoral student at Gonzaga University, Brigman was invited to Canada in June of 2012 for a sturgeon-nose canoe material identification workshop with the Lower Kootenai Band in Creston, BC. In addition, a week later he attended a western white pine bark harvest workshop sponsored by the Kalispel Tribe near Priest River, Idaho.

During the rest of summer of 2012, he built his first “Western White Pine Bark Sturgeon Nose Canoe” frame. A year later in 2013 he then developed a “Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoe” design inspired by historical canoes but based upon his own unique frame assemblage and fabric skin attachment method. To date, he has built 30 of his contemporary “Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoes,” and 3 of the ancestral “White Pine Bark Sturgeon Nose Canoes.”

Over the years, Brigman has developed a body of work that is starting to earn a reputation and recognition. This spring he will be spending two weeks at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a visiting artist in residence. He will be attending art classes, and constructing a Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoe in their woodshop.

“It’s great to go down there and get recognized as an artist,” said Brigman.

In June, he will be trying his hand at a new art form – glass blowing. He will be an artist in residence at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, WA. In addition, he recently received a grant through the Evergreen State College Longhouse to expand his capacity as a canoe maker to extend to dugout-style canoe.

“It is my objective and goal to begin researching, designing and carving dugout canoes specific to the Interior Plateau Tribes,” said Brigman.

The Longhouse has given him the support to do that research, as well as buy tools and materials. He plans to make two canoes – a 1/3 scale model and a full-size dugout. He’s already got a white pine log for the smaller canoe.

“I’ve started whittling away at it,” said Brigman. “I’ve discovered it’s hard work.”

Which is something he has never shied away from, since his days moving produce boxes.

Brigman has played a large role in the recovery and revitalization of the Plateau region’s canoe culture. His canoes are in use and on display in tribal communities throughout Washington and Idaho, art galleries as far away as British Columbia. They have made the journey to Kettle Falls and delivered water protectors to Standing Rock.

“What you hope for is for the next generation of youth to get into it,” said Brigman. He hopes to someday hear, “I remember I made that dugout canoe with my uncle, now I want to make one.”

In a way, he would be paying forward what was given to him once – an opportunity.

“Terri Parr-Wynecoop sees this poor little Indian kid at seventeen years old and gives him an opportunity and I ran with it,” said Brigman. “I absolutely come from nothing and I’m proud of it.”

Dr. Brigman sews a canvas skin to a canoe frame while youth watch in the background.
Brigman attaches the skin to a canoe frame during a workshop for the Spokane Tribe Youth Traditional Leadership Camp held at WSU in July 2018. (photo: Edmundo Aguilar)