The Haida (Xaadas) are Native American people that belong to the southeastern coast and coastal islands of Alaska. The Haida migrated north from the Queen Charlotte Islands in the late 1600s to Prince of Wales Island and established the village now known as Old Kasaan (Gásaáan), seven miles south on Skowl Arm. It is the only known permanent Haida village on the east coast of Prince of Wales Island. Kasaan gets its name from the Tlingit word meaning “only place that looked good” or “pretty place,” but can be translated as “town on a rock.” Many Tlingit names remain in Southeast Alaska because Tlingits once controlled the area.
The Haida and their northern neighbors, the Tlingit, were among the most aggressive Northwest Coast people. They were known for their fierce sea fighting skills and, according to Canadian anthropologist Diamond Jenness, introducing the totem pole tradition. The Haida and Tlingit both belonged to the larger culture of the Northwest Coast Indians. Descent among the Northwest Coast peoples was traced from the maternal line, and status was based on individual wealth. The status of individuals, and indeed whole villages, was determined by the potlatch, a ceremonial occasion when gifts and food were given away to guests, and which displayed the wealth of the giver.
All Haida people are born either “Ravens” or “Eagles” as determined by the mother’s clan or moiety. Within the moiety are lineages; associated to these lineages are several crests, legends, and Haida names. The Raven and Eagle Clans own and have a right to display certain crests. Samples of the crests affiliated with the Ravens are: Killer Whale, Grizzly Bear, Black Bear, Hawk, Moon, Sea Wolf, Shark and Wolf. Totem pole carvings or grave markers bearing these crests would be found on totem poles in front of the owner’s long house or grave marker.
It is of great importance to show the owner’s status and lineage affiliations with designs. The main crests are utilized for display, personal identity and ceremonial purposes. Art symbols are earned in one’s lifetime, inherited or acquired by adoption. Each carving has a three-part story: the Past, the Present and the Future. The past asks: Where did it come from? Who made it? How old is it? Where has it been? The story of the present applies to the day it was carved and the days leading up to this time, and what it took to get there. Who did this carving and why? What was on his mind as he worked on this carving? How did the carving find its way into the moment? The story of the future of the carving has just begun. Who knows what path it will take? Who knows what future generations will think about as they gaze upon it? As time goes by, the carving will have a story to tell.
The totem poles at Kasaan display both Haida and Tlingit carving styles. In general, totem poles tell clan stories and history, serve as monuments to adorn graves, or hold the dead and their possessions. The three house posts in Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House/Náay I’waans show two styles. The two outer posts are identical, with the large faces lending to realistic shape, a key to the Haida style. The center post is predominantly carved in a Tlingit variation of the Northwest Coast style. It has Haida faces peeking out of the ears and nostrils of the creature portrayed. The center pole has a planed and drilled location for the head of a creature whose tail is in the hands of a bird.
There is a substantial amount of written information about the Haida in general, but very few studies have focused on the Kasaan Haida. It appears that the Haida and Tlingit negotiated the Kasaan Haida move to southern Prince of Wales Island peacefully and incorporated each other into their social structures despite linguistic differences. Old Kasaan was a Kasaan Haida village on the north shore of Skowl Bay, on the east side of Prince of Wales Island. The community had seven house chiefs, among them Son-I-Hat, and one village chief, Chief Skáwaal.
The village had numerous totem poles in front of the houses that were in a line along the beach. In the 1870s and 1880s, several epidemics killed many of the residents, including Chief Skáwaal, who died during the winter of 1882-1883.
In 1892 the Copper Queen mine, camp, sawmill, post office and store were built on Kasaan Bay. The mine went bankrupt by 1900, but in 1902 a salmon cannery opened near the mine site. Chief Son-I-Hat decided to move from Old Kasaan to a seasonal camp near the bay, probably because of the availability of jobs for his family members, and the Haida people relocated to this new village, called New Kasaan. The cannery burned in 1907, 1910 and again in 1911, but was rebuilt each season. The cannery operated sporadically until 1953. During this time, Kasaan had a school, three stores, a Presbyterian Church and other businesses. Kavilco Incorporated, the local village corporation, purchased the old cannery buildings and property in 1974 and in 1980 removed the cannery buildings.
In 1900, the census recorded 150 people living at New Kasaan. New Kasaan’s population has never been higher than 150 people, and in the early 1970s was only seven. The 2000 census count was 39, of whom 49% were Native. The 2010 census recorded 49 people, of whom 34.7% are Native.
The current historic district includes two distinct cemeteries. The north cemetery has some of the oldest burials, including one of Chief Skáwaal’s sons. His grave is marked with a killer whale fin. Chief Frank is also buried in the older cemetery, and his grave is marked by an animal figure that rotates. Chief Son-I-Hat is buried in the southern cemetery. The southern cemetery has a number of ornate, upright marble headstones. In all, there are not more than 50 graves. A trail, cut by the CCC, starts at the west end of the Village of Kasaan, goes through the woods and, in several places, emerges close to the shore. After crossing a wooden bridge over Son-I-Hat Creek, the trail passes the nine free-standing totems and the Whale House. It continues to the southern cemetery and turns north to access the northern cemetery. The land, buildings and totems are owned by Kavilco Incorporated, the village corporation.
Today, Kasaan is traditionally a Haida village, but the population has become mixed, with Haidas, Aleuts, Eskimos and non-Natives. Subsistence activities are a major contributor to villagers' diets. Most villagers participate in subsistence or recreational activities for food sources, harvesting deer, salmon, halibut, shrimp and crab. With the addition of tourism, the mainstays of the economy are fishing, mining and logging.
A large number of photographs dating from the mid-1880s have been located but most of the social and cultural history of the Kasaan Haida have come from interviews with people who had lived in Old Kasaan and unpublished journals.
McDonald, George F., Dr. "The Haida: Children of Eagle and Raven," Canadian Museum of Civilization http://www.civilization.ca/cmc/exhibitions/aborig/haida/haindexe.shtml#menu (accessed October 26, 2011)
Metcalf, P. Richard “Indians of the Northwest Coast.” The New Encyclopedia of the American West. ED. Howard R. Lamar New Haven @ London: Yale University Press, 1998. 538-540
Thompson, Louis A. Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House and Totems Historic District. Alaska SHPO. June 11, 2002. This write-up is extensively based upon the National Register nomination.
KASAAN HAIDA HERITAGE FOUNDATION