Editor's note: Second in a two-part series on Kasaan's Whale House restoration.
Southeast History: Kasaan's Whale House restoration 012313 OUTDOORS 1 Capital City Weekly Editor's note: Second in a two-part series on Kasaan's Whale House restoration.

Photo By Pat Roppel

Chief Son-i-hat's replicated Whale House as it appeared in 1972.

Photo By Sealaska

In this photo from Sealaska's website describing the restoration project, the Whale House is shown in its deteriorated condition.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Story last updated at 1/23/2013 - 2:07 pm

Southeast History: Kasaan's Whale House restoration

Editor's note: Second in a two-part series on Kasaan's Whale House restoration.

Chief Son-i-hat, head of a group of Haida Natives migrated in 1880 to a point west of what is now Kasaan, as we learned in last week's column. He built a traditional house on a point of land that bears a corrupt spelling of his name, Sunny Hat Point.

Twenty-six years later, in 1938, under Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) program, totem restoration became a major Alaskan project under the management of the U.S. Forest Service. One of the projects took place at Kasaan. Descendents agreed to have the totems restored or recarved and the Chief Son-i-hat's Whale House replicated.

A photograph taken at that time shows three house posts and a few remaining structural members. The ground in a photograph shows some wooden debris. Perhaps the hand adzed siding and shake roofing were removed and used by other Kasaan Haidas.

Local Native laborers and local carvers were hired with CCC funds. The land was cleared on Sunny Hat Point near the previous traditional house site. Crews built a carving shed and cleared and graveled a trail from Kasaan, about three-eighths of a mile, to the site and nearby cemetery. They began the lengthy work of adzing the timbers and side boards and splitting shakes for the roof for the new house.

Carvers reproduced or restored eight totems retrieved from Old Kasaan. These totems had been selected for their condition: were the features still distinct and visible? Would they withstand being moved? Was there solid wood at the center? Signed releases from the heirs or owners were obtained. After being taken down, the poles were barged or floated to the new site. Men scrapped rotten wood from some of the poles and recarved the features into the interior solid wood. Other poles were replicated from new cedar trees.

The replica of Whale House was constructed on the same spot, on the original sills, using plans from an architect coached by local Haidas. Old-time Kasaan residents told the architects that no shelves were in the rear corners of the fire pit. A photograph I took in 1972 of the interior shows no shelves. James Peele, the son of Chief Son-i-hat, told stories to the USFS officials and others involved in the restoration. However he said that the center post was brought from the chief's uncle's house in Old Kasaan. It came to Whale House after the uncle's death. When asked, Peele said that he could not translate the post's story from the Haida language. The name "Head House Post" continued.

A frontal totem, as seen in this article's illustration from 1972, was carved by local carvers. The eight totems were raised east of Whale House.

Other totems had been erected near Whale House during Chief Son-i-hat's lifetime. By 1938, the killer whale with dorsal fin had fallen from its short post near the beach. It had been put up on the grave of Tom Skowl by Paul Young, father of Walter Young and the uncle of Jacob Thomas. Five owners, Edward L. Young, Walter Young, Felix A. Young, Robert P. Young and Jacob Thomas, agreed that the figure could be replicated. It was still standing in July 2003 when we visited. However by 2006, the dorsal fin was gone.

Another grave, outside of the cemetery, is that of Paul Jones. The USFS officials learned that it had been moved from Old Kasaan. Jones, who eventually went blind, could speak English. This Haida man had taken the name Paul Jones of Naval fame. The tombstone continues to honor the memory of the man who selected this English name for himself and his expanding family. He was the forbearer of the Jones family in Kasaan.

Today, the Whale House and area around it are owned by the Organized Village of Kasaan (OVK) and Kasaan Village Corporation (Kavilco). The corporate entities determined it was time to care for the deteriorating Whale House and totems. A plan to renovate and continue preservation was funded in 2010 by the National Park Service - Historic Preservation Office. It was approved by the two Kaasan agencies in October 2011.

It will take seven phases to complete the work. Traditional carving and construction knowledge, tools and techniques will be used throughout the phases. Phase 1 started in December 2011 to make immediate repairs to protect the existing building and the three house posts. The Whale House has suffered from weathering, vandalism and insect damage. When we visited in 2003, part of the roof had collapsed, fortunately not over the house posts. Temporary repairs to the shake roof have been made. Evidence of wood boring insects was found on the carved posts. After consultation with the Alaska State Museum conservation staff, a localized heat treatment was used. Photographs on www.kavilco.org show this work.

Visit both the Kavilco website and www.kasaan.org sites to keep current with this important Haida restoration.

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 patroppel@hotmail.com.