A Joint Project with Kavilco Incorporated and the Organized Village of Kasaan

Chief Son-I-Hat Whale House/Náay I´waans, arguably the most valuable cultural asset in the Village of Kasaan, is critically in need of repairs and restoration. The house has deteriorated to the extent that the building exterior enclosure, including walls and roof, has begun to collapse.

Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House/Náay I´waans and Totems Historic District is located in Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska. It consists of Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House and frontal pole with eight additional poles which are either restored originals or copies of the original poles from the Old Kasaan village site. The park was established in the late 1930s as part of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project with James Peele, son of Chief Son-I-Hat, as the chief carver at New Kasaan. James Peele was father to Kavilco shareholder David Peele.

Son I Hats House in 1932

In 1880, Chief Son-I-Hat (Kóyongxung), a Yáadaas clan (Eagle moiety) chief, built Náay I´waans (Whale House) near Kasaan Bay northwest of New Kasaan and lived there with his family until 1915. In 1938, the CCC employed local Natives to rebuild Náay I´waans, since it had not been occupied sinceWhale House, 1938. the Chief left and had become badly deteriorated. The walls and roof had caved in, but the basic timbers were sound with little decay. The interior roof support house posts (see above) remained. According to Dr. Viola Garfield, who researched the Haida from 1935 to 1970, the posts had been carved to represent “Coon-Ahts who captured the monster Gonaqadate, got into its skin and hunted whales for his mother-in-law.” The carving of these two poles had been assigned to brothers, so although the poles are basically identical, each pole has unique details. Also remaining was the center house post that Chief Son-I-Hat had brought from his uncle’s house after his uncle died.

CCC representatives obtained permission from James Peele to restore the house and its totem. The Whale House frontal pole was copied from the original and replaced. Considerable effort was expended in drawing plans for an accurate reproduction. Experienced Native craftsmen who utilized traditional tools and woodworking methods were employed to reconstruct the house and various poles from Old Kasaan. Great attention was paid to duplicating traditional formulas for coloring the poles. The CCC reconstruction of the Whale House stands as a remarkable example of Native craftsmanship and as a faithful reconstruction of an Alaska Haida community house. Due to its isolated location, this site retains an element of originality and mood often lacking in reconstructions or replicas which have been modified or decorated in a nontraditional manner.

In 1938, the National Park Service, who had acquired the area of Old Kasaan and dedicated it as a National Monument in 1916, negotiated with the Peele, Thomas and Young families to move several totems from Old Kasaan to New Kasaan, provided none of these monuments were moved to Ketchikan. Nine poles were moved to New Kasaan and renovated.

Cultural Resource Evaluation of the Old Kasaan Village Site and New Kasaan Community House and Totem Park

In 1981, Kavilco allowed an archaeological study of Old Kasaan and the Whale House and totems in New Kasaan. Despite the fact that Old Kasaan had been designated a National Monument from 1916 until 1955, not much had been done to preserve it. Many of the totems and a few of the houses were moved to museums and the Totem Park in Ketchikan in an effort to save them from thieves and vandals. By 1981, all of the structures in Old Kasaan had largely decayed into the soil. Outlines of foundations and recesses of graves were all that remained.

The study did find that despite the lack of a rigorous maintenance program, the Whale House fared remarkably well during the 40 years since it was completed. However, in the mid-1990s many noticed that the foundation timbers were showing signs of decay. Kavilco’s Board of Directors felt it was time to take action before Kasaan’s only remaining example of traditional Native architecture disappeared.

Totem Park

Son-I-Hat Frontal Pole

Son-I-Hat Frontal Pole

Son-I-Hat Frontal Pole.This 50-foot pole stands in front of the House between the House and the water. The pole, copied from the original, was carved in 1939 by James Peele. A circa 1936 photograph shows the original pole, listing slightly, in front ofhe House. The original was buried 10 feet in the ground according to Chester R. Snow, Construction Engineer for the CCC. Snow talks about searching for an appropriate tree for the Son-I-Hat pole.

Sitting Bear totem

Sitting Bear Grave Marker

The Sitting Bear Grave Marker was moved from Old Kasaan on January 30, 1939 to the Whale House site. It was re-carved from the original. It stood over Peter Jones’ father’s grave and was located inside a small grave house at the west end of the village.

Killer Whale Grave Figure

Killer Whale Grave Figure

The Killer Whale Grave figure is a CCC copy. The original, which was sited on the top of a grave house roof, was discarded. The original was photographed on the grave house roof, on the beach in Old Kasaan, and in 1940 in New Kasaan.Killer Whale totem.

Spencer Totem - detail top

Spencer Pole

The 40-foot Spencer Pole was raised by Kate Gamede, a Kasaan woman of Táas Láanas clan, as a memorial to her husband, a photographer from Victoria, BC. The image of Mr. Spencer appears at the top of the pole; below appear scroll patterns; Raven carrying the moon in his mouth; and Black Skin, the strong man, holding the sea lion. The last figure illustrates a story familiar to the Haida and Tlingit; a weak boy who trained and finally overcame all of his stronger relatives. His chief exploit was tearing a sea lion in two to the consternation of his companions. This pole was taken down on December 22, 1938 in Old Kasaan and barged to the new site where it was adzed and re-carved by David Peele.

Frog / Two Eagle Memorial Pole

Frog/Two Eagle Memorial Pole

Frog Memorial Pole. This is a copy of one of two mortuary posts, called Two Eagle Memorial Pole. The original of this 15-foot pole belonged to the Eagle Leg House in Old Kasaan. The original pole with a frog carved on the front and two eagle figures at the top was apparently burned.

Back Potlatch Ring (Flying Groundhog) Pole

Back Potlatch Ring (Flying Groundhog) Pole

This 40-foot pole was re-carved and the flying groundhog was replaced with an eagle in 1939.

Ha´u (East House) Pole

Ha´u (East House) Pole

Sources recount that a man from the Tlingit village of Kake carved this pole, as the owners were of Tlingit descent on their mother’s side. The pole belonged to the grandfather of Son-I-Hat who actually had the name “East.” The figures on the pole from the top are described as the “father of us all, ”Raven, killer whale, and Raven with a human figure onfront, with Root on the bottom.” Walter Young worked onthe restoration of this pole, which once belonged to his father. The pole that now stands in the totem park at NewKasaan is the repaired original pole.

Skáwaal Pole (aka First Eagle Pole)

Skáwaal Pole (aka First Eagle Pole)Skowl Pole detail.

This pole is about 50-feet high and was one of two poles which stood in front of Chief Skáwaal’s Rib House. When the pole was moved to New Kasaan, the thunderbird figure at the top was replaced and the surface was carved down to solid wood during the CCC restoration. The carved figures below the ring appear the same for each pole: Raven with the moon in its beak; Raven holding his beak bent down in his hands; and at the base, a bear with cubs in its mouth. This pole was removed from the village and restored at New Kasaan.

Bear Pole detail

Bear Memorial Pole

This copy of the original pole is about 20-feet tall.

Interior House Posts

The three interior carved house posts (gotz) are originals from Old Kasaan. These posts were not re-carved, apparently, during the CCC years. The outer two are alike in totemic design, each depicting the common whale and the “man of the sea.” Because of these totems the building has always been known as the Whale House (Náay I´waans). Each post is approximately 12’ 6” high and carries the large horizontal adzed log (zance ´ka geet´). The corner posts represent the story of “gunaakadeet,” the wealth giver from under the sea.

Interior House Posts - before restorationMr. Peele was unable to tell the story of the center house post in English. After a lengthy discussion in Haida with some of the other Natives, he said it was called the “Head House” totem. This post is older than the two house posts on either side. It was moved to the Whale House when it was built in 1880. The center post belonged to Son-I-Hat’s uncle and was brought to Kasaan after the uncle’s death as part of his heritage.

Kasaan Haida Heritage Foundation

With the help of Kavilco’s staff and Board of Directors, KHHF began researching the best methods of preserving the Whale House and totems. Kavilco’s funds could not be used since that would reduce the annual shareholder dividends. Grant funds were available, but before KHHF could apply for those funds the Whale House and totems had to be designated as a National Historic Site. Kavilco President/CEO Louis Thompson completed the application for this designation and on June 11, 2002, Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House and Totems Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Because of the lack of maintenance by the U.S. Forest Service since the early 1940s, the Whale House and totems have fallen into disrepair. The only Haida clan house in Alaska is in serious danger of being lost through deterioration. KHHF is eager to dedicate its resources toward the goal of restoring the Whale House to a sound condition and are seeking grants and appropriations funds to that end. With its unity of context this site has considerable potential for interpretive and/or display purposes, as well as serving as a meaningful locale for ceremonial or other community functions.

MRV Architects

KHHF contracted with MRV Architects in 2007 to perform a condition survey of the house and surrounding cultural area, including eight carved totem poles. That initial conceptual reconnaissance and report, prepared by MRV and Alaska Cultural Resources (Mary Pat Wyatt), identified critical problems with the building, and next steps for upgrade and stabilization.

In 2008, with grant funds from the National Park Service, Kavilco again contracted with MRV to perform a more detailed Schematic analysis of the building itself. Those services included the addition of BBFM Engineers, who worked with MRV to establish general extent of rot, and analyze overall structural stability of the building. The final Schematic report included detailed drawings, narratives, cost estimates, and strategy for possible construction approaches

Click on the PDF links below to view MRV Architects reports.

  • 2007 Architectural Narrative
  • 2007 Cultural Narrative
  • 2011 Proposal Package
  • Memorandum of Understanding

In 2009, Kavilco and KHHF partnered with the Organized Village of Kasaan (OVK) by signing a Memorandum of Understanding with OVK President Richard Peterson. The working relationship between Kavilco, KHHF and OVK was set up to best capitalize on the site proximity of OVK, their personnel, and potential access of OVK to other grant fund sources. Since that time, OVK has organized an active fundraising and publicity effort to lead initial steps to protect the building while additional funding is secured for more involved restoration work.

OVK contracted with MRV Architects to develop a detailed proposal for Kavilco, KHHF and OVK consideration, identifying steps to move forward on the overall restoration project. The construction process uses a number of sequential phases, allowing the highest priority portions of the work to be initiated, while funds are pursued for subsequent portions of the work.

Kavilco and KHHF provided immediate authorization in November 2011 to initiate Phase I work to arrest on-going deterioration of the structure and house posts, while the broader approach and recommendations of MRV’s plan are evaluated for adoption by Kavilco, KHHF and OVK.

The general phasing strategy by MRV proposes stand-alone phases that will allow the project to move forward sequentially, in a priority basis, and working in smaller cost increments that are more likely to be achievable with available grant funding.

A Southeast Alaskan carving team consisting of several lead and apprentice carvers from Hydaburg and Kasaan will be utilized to complete all carving and construction activities. Initial fabrication of replacement wood framing members will be accomplished in Hydaburg, with final installation and detailed wood finishing done on-site in Kasaan.

The project will use traditional carving and construction knowledge, tools and techniques to renovate the Whale House in as traditional manner as possible. Temporary power, through the use of an on-site generator may be brought in for the construction phase if needed. Materials will either be barged to the beach or carried to the site by hand.

Fundraising Requirements

Recent estimates have placed the cost of the phased renovation work at approximately $1.4 million. Originally discussed construction features such as an access road, and the addition of power have been dropped. Performing much of the initial wood carving in Hydaburg, rather than on-site, has also reduced costs.

With the concurrence of Kavilco and KHHF, OVK will take the lead on securing funding; both for the renovation work as identified, and for ongoing maintenance needs of the Whale House. OVK will be responsible for overseeing the administration of all grant funds, timelines, work plans, and reporting. OVK will report to Kavilco and KHHF at mutually agreed milestones to assure that all parties understand the status and needs of the project.

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