Story last updated at 1/16/2013 - 2:16 pm
The Organized Village of Kasaan and its corporate entity Kavilco are engaged in a project to restore the Haida traditional Whale House that has begun to deteriorate after its construction 75 years ago. Many people may not know of its existence and/or its history.
This house stands on Sunny Hat Point, west of the village. The point was named for a Haida chief whose name has been spelled various ways in addition to Sunny Hat: Sonihat, Sun-i-hat or Sanheit. However the spelling "Son-i-hat" is in current use. The chief made his home on this point for many years. An early newspaper account tells the story that the name "Son-hat" meant Southeast Wind. It was taken by this chief's ancestral, also a chief, out of revenge because his canoe was wrecked on the south end of Prince of Wales Island by a southeasterly storm. The wind could not give monetary satisfaction for this insult, so the chief took the wind's name in revenge.
James Peele, son of Chief Son-i-hat, told the U.S. Forest Service that the chief's original house was constructed in 1880 when he moved from Old Kasaan at the mouth of Polk Inlet. The reason he moved was that many people had died from disease and were buried, sometimes within or beside buildings as well as the cemetery.
Traditional construction of such a new house was the occasion of a potlatch. Neighboring clans were invited to participate in the house raising and were paid various goods, including the traditionally-given Hudson's Bay wool blankets. In this instance, only the main log structural members and the genealogical pole were raised by the visitors. Reportedly the remaining work was done by the chief and his immediate family. Hand-split shakes were nestled together, and a smoke hole placed in the middle of the structure. The entrance fażade had four double-hung windows and a "stock panel" door - non-traditional features, according to Peele. Also a plank door was near the front corner of the building on the right side. In addition, the chief's family dug and kept a garden at the rear of the building where a lean-to and root cellar were added.
The house was called "Whale House" because of the house posts along the inside wall opposite the entrance. The whale was a crest in the Eagle phratry to which Chief Son-i-hat belonged. Two side posts represented whales and the one in the center was called only "Head House Totem."
Peele told a USFS official that seven families lived in the house: 31 people including two male slaves of Peele's mother's and one female slave of his father's. Chief "Sanheit" swore before a Justice of Peace in Howkan, in 1891, to officially adopt three children belonging to his former slaves. Chief Son-i-hat spent his time as a silversmith, making rings and bracelets from gold and silver coins. These were sold to tourists or visiting officials as the village of Kasaan began to grow.
Gov. John G. Brady realized that totem poles at places like Old Kasaan were rotting if not vandalized or stolen. Why not rescue these poles and bring them to Sitka to a park where people could view them. An opportunity presented itself when, in 1901, Governor Brady assumed the task of preparing the Alaskan exhibit for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Son-i-hat agreed to give a 70-year old totem pole, four house posts, a war canoe and a community house from Old Kasaan to the people of Alaska.
Kirsten Griffith, of the National Park Service, quotes in her book Early Views: Historical Vignettes of Sitka National Historical Park, a letter from Son-i-hat to Brady: "You helped me get a school so I feel good and will say yes. At the time the Totem pole was put up [in Old Kasaan] it cost me a good many dollars. I give a big potlatch and everything was high. The coeneau (canoe) I paid a hundred dollars for and was used by me and my people for a war coeneau and have kept it for a long time in a shelter where it still is." The Revenue cutter "Rush's" crew member who took dictation spelled the chief's name "Soneheart." He couldn't spell "canoe" either.
Over the next two years, assisted by the Rush's crew, Brady toured Tlingit and Haida villages asking to be given totems. In October 1901 the "Rush" arrived at Old Kasaan to take down the Chief Son-i-hat totems and dismantle the old community house to remove the carved house posts. During the first week of March 1902, the pole and house posts were erected in what was known at that time as the "Indian River Park," now the Sitka National Historic Park. The 47-foot canoe was placed on the edge of the Parade Ground in front of the Marine Barracks (today's Pioneers' Home). The community house was dismantled to get out the house posts, and it was the intention it would be taken to Sitka to be reassembled to make a shelter for the canoe. Unfortunately the house was never brought to Sitka and the canoe, that may have been placed at the entrance to the park, was left uncovered and it rotted.
Brady arranged to have 15 totems delivered and installed at St. Louis. At the close of the exposition, most of the totems were transported to the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland for another exhibit in 1905. Finally the poles were returned to Sitka in 1906 to be installed along the park trails, where these restored or replicated totems can be seen today.
Governor Brady knew there was an obligation incurred by accepting the poles. According to Griffith, he requested $75 from the federal government appropriation for the exhibit. He planned to buy gifts to thank the Native donors. His request was refused because the expenditure could not be allowed under existing law and treasury regulations.
In May 1906, Chief Son-i-hat was reported to be moving to Redondo Beach to spend the remaining years of his life. At that time he was an old man and blind. The Sitka newspaper The Alaskan of May 26, 1906, reported that he was accompanied South by six totem poles and a traditional house. He planned to assemble the house and display the totems for an exhibition of Indian tribes of the United States. Nowhere on-line can I find what exhibition this would have been.
Chief Son-i-hat either returned to Alaska, if he ever went, or his body was returned after he died on Jan. 18, 1912. He is buried in the Kasaan cemetery under an ornate tombstone.
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.