OMAK –Since he began working with steel nearly 20 years ago, there have been three instances in which Colville tribal artist Virgil ‘Smoker’ Marchand felt the true impact of his work on others.
The first was when he installed a series of root diggers along U.S. Highway 155 near Belvedere and received a phone call from the local school. The school employee on the other end told him students who had never spoke about their culture had begun sharing in class their family traditions, referencing the root diggers.
The second was when he installed a sculpture at Beebe Springs Natural Area near Chelan – off the reservation in traditional territories of the Colville Tribes. He installed the piece, a large horse and rider holding a salmon on a Saturday, and that Sunday, a busload of elders returning to the Colville Reservation stopped to view the artwork. Seeing the steel sculpture from the highway, as many of Marchand’s works are viewed, the elders had had their bus driver turn around so they could get a better look. Some called him later and thanked him.
“They said, ‘You brought our people home,’” recalled Marchand.
The third instance was similar. Working with the San Carlos Apache on a piece in Arizona near the Hoover Dam, elders there also thanked him for bringing their people home.
This week, the First Peoples Fund announced Marchand has been named to their 2020 Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Awards after being nominated by fellow Colville member Kenneth “Butch” Stanger for his “unwavering devotion to [his] people, as evidenced by a lifetime commitment to learning and sharing cultural knowledge, stories and art forms with others.”
“Smoker may be local to us, but his talent should be shared with the entire country,” said Stanger in a press release from First Peoples Fund. “He has done many paintings of our people, tribal leaders, art that depicts our culture and traditions. Everyone deserves a chance to experience Smoker’s art.”
In his teens, Marchand’s brother encouraged him to pursue his art, helping him enroll at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He graduated in 1971, and when he went to work for the Colville Tribes in 1977, it was through the Community Indian Action Program. For two years under the program, Marchand designed graphics for letterhead, business cards, brochures and similar documents. Then he started doing coyote stories for the tribe, designing graphics to match with the stories.
“I look back at everything I did for the tribe and it’s brought me into what I am doing now with traditions and culture,” said Marchand.
Now, at work, Marchand is in a senior position for the Colville Tribal Planning Department. Outside of work, he estimates he has well over 300 pieces across the Pacific Northwest, south into Arizona and north into Canada.
He began cutting steel in 2000. After nearly four decades of what he calls “2D work” with nearly every medium from pen and ink to oils, Marchand said he never felt truly satisfied with his work.
Steel was different, he said.
“When I got into the steel, it’s heavy,” he said. “It’s hard. It’s time consuming. I always say I’d be an engineer if I didn’t have to do the math. I do everything with a sledgehammer and a vice. I don’t have any special tools to bend pieces. The biggest thing is I get to demonstrate our culture, our tribe, our traditions.”
Marchand’s steel sculptures are on display along highways, parks and building entrances.
His large, lifelike sculpture of Bigfoot above a rock outcropping at the top of Disautel Pass is a startling surprise to people driving along U.S. Highway 155. His bighorn rams near Omak Lake on the Columbia River Road are lifelike. His root diggers along Highway 155 near Belvedere catch the morning sun shining across the grassland, welcoming passers-by to the Colville Reservation. Nine pieces call the newly renovated Riverside Park in Spokane home, including a statue of a salmon chief just below the falls.
Along with the sculptures, Marchand has designed and built headstones for families.
Through much of his life, he completed wood burning on caskets for families of lost loved ones, but he stopped in 2017 when he was diagnosed with a respiratory disease caused by the toxic smoke involved in burning through the casket’s wood finishes. And though his doctor has told him he needs to slowdown, he said he finds himself busier than ever.
The Yakama Tribe recently commissioned a sculpture related to Chief Kamiakin, and the Osoyoos Indian Band commissioned another piece related to residential school systems.
Marchand has also found himself working with cities and counties in both the U.S. and Canada.
“My idea about my artwork, doing the cultural stuff, doing the tribal identity work, I thought it only applied to us, basically,” said Marchand. “Now I’m doing stuff for the Entiant, Chelan, the towns, and the communities. We just finished one for Winthrop. Everyone is starting to embrace us. They’re all sensing each place has had people who where here first and that needs to be honored.”
He captured the cooperation in a recent piece at the Omak Stampede Hall of Fame that had two horses rearing up. One was a paint, representing the Indian cowboys, and the other was solid colored horse, representing the non-Indian cowboys, said Marchand.
“We always thought we would last a couple years and it would be done, but now we’re almost 20 years into it,” said Marchand. “I don’t plan for nothing. Like I said, I’m busier now than I’ve been for a long time. I’m hoping to relax soon. I’m just going to try to do it as long as I can.”