David Robert Boxley: Revitalizing a Language Left with 80 Fluent Speakers

Celebrated Northwest Coast artist, educator and Eighth Generation collaborator, David Robert Boxley (Ts’msyen), spends nearly every day reviving Sm'algya̱x, the language of the Ts’msyen. With just 80 fluent speakers remaining – and only one in his community of Metlakatla, Alaska – he’s forced to create his own immersion experiences.

David was deeply involved in the Ts’msyen language and culture from a young age. His father, David A. Boxley, is a world famous Ts’msyen carver who was raised by his grandparents – both fluent Ts’msyen speaking people.


David's great grandparents, Dora and Albert Bolton pictured on the left. On the right, David is pictured with his brother, Zach, and his father. This is around the time David started carving.


David claims his father couldn't have accomplished all he did for modern Ts'msyen culture "if he hadn't been raised by those two. My dad probably wouldn't have had that Ts'msyen pride that he passed onto me. From the very beginning, being taught who we are as a people and who I am – I’m very grateful for that upbringing.”

David and his father share a passion for art. Even at age two, David's parents could leave him in a room for hours with a stack of paper and crayons without worry. At just six years old, he began carving, like his dad. He sold his first mask when he was only seven, cashing out the $75 sale at the bank entirely in one-dollar bills, just for fun.


The first mask David carved at seven years old with the help from his father.


“When dad gave me a specialized carving set of tools at seven years old – hook knives, chisel, adze – that’s the first time I’ve ever been speechless,” David says.

Whether carving or illustrating two-dimensionally, David's designs are made for a specific space or product. “In the process of creating Northwest Coast and formline design, the edges of the space you’re filling influence the design,” David says. “Everything I’ve done for Eighth Generation has worked that way. It’s my favorite way to work.”

Recently, David created two new designs for our Native-made textiles produced in our Seattle studio! Both his “Embraced” Baby Blanket design and “Convocation” Wool Scarf design were made specifically for the product and its dimensions.


David's “Embraced” Baby Blanket and Convocation Scarf.


“Eighth Generation has grown so much and the fact that they have products produced in their workshop, by Native people and owned by Native people – it’s how it should be,” David says.

“There’s a saying in my language – Sag̱ayt k'üülm g̱oot – which means all of one heart. That’s what it feels like at Eighth Generation.”

- David Robert Boxley

For David, his artwork and language work both feed his soul. Though he’s taught Ts’msyen language classes in the past (he was the first one to teach the language at University of Alaska Southeast in 2006), he’s currently focusing on his own fluency.

David is also the Chair of The Haayk Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to producing new fluent speakers and learning materials of the Ts’msyen language. The Haayk Foundation follows Hawaiian and New Zealand models: creating young adult fluent speakers as fast as possible to increase the life of the language and increase the capacity of teachers.

“We shouldn’t be expecting 80-year-old elders to be teaching 4-year-olds,” David says. “We also can’t allow mid-level learners to have to carry the weight of saving the language when the elders are gone because that’s not fair.”


David and others at the Haayk Foundation created printable Valentines with themes of quarantining and Star Wars to engage younger generations and show that the Ts’msyen language can be used in everyday life.


By working on his own fluency – studying and Zooming five nights a week with a fluent speaker in Canada – David will become an unyielding resource for young people learning the language.

“As an older millennial, I grew up at the very beginnings of our cultural resurgence,” David says. “That’s been the biggest part of my life, all my life.”

You can browse our beautiful collection of products designed by David Robert  Boxley (Ts’msyen) here!