National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

National Register of Historic Places Program:
National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month
Chief Son-I-Hat's Whale House and Totems Historic District, Prince of Wales-Outer Ketchikan, Alaska

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.

 

"…a name once given (to a clan house) survive(s) the mere structure."

[photo]
Chief Son-I-Hat's Whale House and Totems Historic District
Photo by Louis A. Thompson, courtesy of the Alaska State Historic Preservation Office

So wrote U.S. Navy Lieutenant and ethnographic photographer George Thornton Emmons (1852-1945), who wrote extensively on the Tlingit culture. The same could be said of  the Haida culture, which is culturally related to the Tlingit. The above statement would certainly prove true for the National Register site known as Chief Son-I-Hat's Whale House and Totems Historic District, in New Kasaan Totem Pole Park. The site includes a traditional longhouse, nine free-standing totem poles, two cemeteries, and a bridge and trail connecting the features. The Whale House was built during the 1880s at Old Kasaan.  Son-I-Hat moved from the village to a new site about seven miles north from Skowl Arm at Kasaan Bay. Some time prior to 1904, he moved his Whale House and entrance totem to the new site. The new village, called variously Kasaan or New Kasaan, is on the east side of Prince of Wales Island in southern Alaska about thirty miles northwest of Ketchikan. Chief Son-I-Hat's Whale House and Totems Historic District  was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on June 11, 2002, for its importance to artistic, architectural and ethnic history.

The Haida and the Tlingit are Native American peoples that belong to the southeastern coast and coastal islands of Alaska. The Haida and their northern neighbors, the Tlingit, were among the most aggressive Northwest Coast people--the Haida were known for their fierce sea fighting skills and, according to Canadian anthropologist Diamond Jenness, introducing the totem pole tradition.  The Tlingit Indians were a fierce coastal people, who extended their influence into Indian nations in the North American interior. The Haida and Tlingit both belonged to the larger culture of the Northwest Coast Indians who possessed a unique culture untouched by the strong cultural influences that emanated from the Mexican Indians on the North American Continent. 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.

[photo]
Chief Son-I-Hat's Whale House and Totems Historic District
Photo by Louis A. Thompson, courtesy of the Alaska State Historic Preservation Office

The Northwest Coast Indians encountered Russian explorers and traders in Alaska, but eventually, with the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867, the Alaskan Haida and Tlingit found themselves under American authority. The Kaigani are Haida Indians who since the early 1700s lived north of Dixon Entrance, a body of water which separates the islands of Southeast Alaska from the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia. The Kaigani people moved north from the Queen Charlotte Islands. It appears that the Haida and Tlingit negotiated the Kaigani move to southern Prince of Wales Island peacefully and incorporated each other into their social structures despite linguistic differences. Kasaan, for example, is a Tlingit word meaning "beautiful town.'  Old Kasaan was a Kaigani 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 Skowl.

The town 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 the village leader, Chief Skowl, who died during the winter of 1882-1883. Between 1892 and 1900, the Copper Queen Mine operated at Kasaan Bay. The mine went bankrupt by 1900, but in 1902 a salmon cannery opened near the mine site. In the 1890s, Chief Son-I-Hat decided to move from Old Kasaan to a seasonal camp site near the bay, probably because of the availability of jobs for his family members. He also changed the name of the village, Kasaan, as the old site was abandoned. The new site is sometimes referred to as New Kasaan. At the time, Chief Son-I-Hat had his clan's Whale House, built around 1880, and a totem pole moved to the new village. Chief Son-I-Hat had at least one other house at Old Kasaan. He donated several totem poles and house posts from it, known as Eagle House, to Territorial Governor John Brady in the late 1890s. The pieces were displayed at the World's Fair in St. Louis in 1904 and at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland in 1905 before being placed at Sitka National Historic Park in 1910 (listed in the National Register of Historic Places).

[photo]
Chief Son-I-Hat's Whale House and Totems Historic District
Photo by Louis A. Thompson, courtesy of the Alaska State Historic Preservation Office

In 1900, the census recorded 150 people living at Kasaan. The nearby cannery operated sporadically until 1953. A sawmill operated intermittently. 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% are Native. The U.S. Forest Service used the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a New Deal program, to provide jobs in Southeast Alaska during the 1930s. The program was used to develop recreational facilities in Tongass National Forest, to create parks for local residents and visitors in different communities, and to preserve the Native peoples' heritage. In several Southeast Alaska communities, the Forest Service hired local Native people to restore or reconstruct traditional Native houses and totem poles. The Forest Service moved a number of totem poles and pieces from abandoned Southeast Alaska villages, one being Old Kasaan, to Saxman, Sitka, Wrangell, Ketchikan, Klawock, Hydaburg and Kasaan. The poles were either repaired and refurbished or copied by carvers. Linn A. Forrest, an architect for the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska, led the effort. CCC funds paid for more than two hundred Native carvers and laborers to restore and replicate Tlingit and Haida traditional houses and totem poles. At Kasaan, the Whale House and totem pole moved to the community by Chief Son-I-Hat at least thirty-five years earlier were in need of repair. They were documented and restored as part of the CCC program. The Forest Service moved eight totems from Old Kasaan to New Kasaan. The men who restored the building and totem poles were the children of the people who had moved at the turn of the century to Kasaan, including Felix Young, Peter Jones, Walter Young, and Chief Son-I-Hat's son James Peele. The CCC created a park at Kasaan.

The totem and house poles at Kasaan display both Tlingit and Haida 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 the Whale House show two styles. The two outer posts are identical, with the large faces tending 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.

[photo]
Chief Son-I-Hat's Whale House and Totems Historic District
Photo by Louis A. Thompson, courtesy of the Alaska State Historic Preservation Office

The house was the basic unit of Tlingit and Haida societies. Typically, it was large, square or rectangular, with cedar planks set vertically along the sides and a planked gable roof held up by massive decorated corner posts and equally massive round ridge beams. Inside, the floor was dug for two or more levels of benches. The inside also had separate platforms for sitting and sleeping. The house faced the water, and usually would be in a single line along the beach because of the limited availability of flat land in southeast Alaska. Each house had an entrance pole incorporated in the front facade or standing a short distance in front of the house. The Whale House is an example of the latter practice. Typical of Northwest Coast houses, its main entrance is in the center of the front facade. There is a second entrance at the south end of the east elevation and a smoke hole in the center of the roof. The Whale House and totems are composed of cedar, which has helped preserve them.

The historic district includes two distinct cemeteries. The north cemetery has some of the oldest burials, including one of Chief Skowl's sons. His grave is marked with a carved 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 fifty graves. A trail, cut by the CCC, starts at the west end of the original Kasaan town site, goes through woods and, in several places, emerges close to the shore. After crossing awooden 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, Inc., the village corporation created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.


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.

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

Visit the Organized Village of Kasaan website to learn about the Chief Son-I-Hat Whale House Restoration Project

American Indian and Native Alaska Heritage Month

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