Our ancestors made these marks
Graham Richard —
Over two centuries ago a Haida leader of Yáadaas, a Kuusdek Eagle clan, set out with family and friends in three canoes to round the southern end of Prince of Wales Island. As the sleek canoes went travelling along Xyuu southeast wind suddenly came up and struck them, driving them on to the island’s southern shore and destroying the canoes.
The Yáadaas clan leader demanded that Xyuu pay for his offense, telling him there would be no problem if he left three whales on the beach by the following morning. Because the wind failed to make retribution for the destroyed canoes, the leader instead took one of Xyuu’s Tlingit names as compensation, Son-I-hat.
After the first Son-I-hat passed on, his nephew Kóyongxung, born in 1829, took and carried the name. The new hereditary leader of the Yáadaas Eagles had at least three children including Tákimash, Xakhú, and Shidla aówa kinás. His family derived its wealth of houses, monumental poles, gold, and slaves by transporting furs from around the northern Gulf of Alaska and Kodiak Island to California. This involved extensive business with the Hudson’s Bay Company in Lax Kw’alaams. In addition, Son-I-Hat carved silver and gold.
Son-I-Hat’s household had settled at the original Gasa’aan Old Kasaan) village site sometime before 1860 and as early as the early 1700s. There they lived with numerous other families in a town whose name means ‘pretty place’ or ‘town on a rock’ in Tlingit. The village swelled to include up to 500 people in 18 lodges with up to 60 poles.
After Haayhiilas the smallpox epidemic of 1862 struck the community, Son-I-Hat left the old village at the mouth of Polk Inlet to live close to a Christian mission on a point 13 km to the north in neighbouring Kasaan Bay. The disease had left its victims throughout the old village both inside and outside of houses, having reduced the community’s population of up to 500 to about 80 people. Even so the promises of education, medicine, and religion were not enough to overcome the deep reservations many Haida maintained towards living in the company of missionaries.
To convince his remaining family to join him at the new site, Son-I-Hat constructed a new house in 1880. Náay I’waans, was nicknamed the “Whale House” or “House Without Nails”. The house was constructed according to traditional techniques, and all the houses that come after it in Gasa’aan were built in the new, style which included Western elements. Later a copper-mine, sawmill, post office, store, and cannery sprang up nearby and by 1902 all the citizens of the community had relocated from the old village site.
The incorporation of western-style doors and windows became common practice towards the end of the 1800s and Náay I’waans was no exception. When it was first constructed four double-hung windows and a stock panel door were included as contemporary features. The Victorian-style sliding windowpanes and rectangular, compartmentalized doors characterize the traditional English construction of buildings like 10 Downing Street in London. The remainder of the house was of traditional Haida design and built entirely from Red cedar, which is favoured for its durability, lightness, large size, and ease of working and splitting.
Náay I’waans is roughly 45’ long, 45’ wide and 25’ tall. The 2025 square-foot home sheltered a family of 31 or 32 people, including two male slaves belonging to Son-I-Hat’s wife and one female slave belonging to Son-I-Hat. In 1891, 28 years after the American Emancipation Proclamation, which changed the technical legal status of slaves within United States borders to ‘free’, Son-I-Hat adopted the three children of his former slaves. Between Son-I-Hat and his wife, the household spoke three languages; Xaad Kil, Sm’algyax Tsimshian, and Chinook.
Haida-style houses are built by lock-and-key, a construction method that remains foundational in modern longhouses like Tluu Xaadaa Naay in Gaaw and HlGaagilda Xaayda Kil Naay in HlGaagilda. This technique provided Náay I’waans with its second nickname, House Without Nails.
Like most Haida longhouses, Náay I’waans is based around four large corner poles, the front most of which are called gáats (uncarved support poles). Across the tops of these, from the front to the back of the house, run tsán skágat (support posts). Supportive cross beams run horizontally on top of these. Large split cedar shakes are then placed on the roof and secured with heavy stones, logs, or line. Finally split cedar planks are slotted into sills along the sides of the house, creating walls. Naay xíilaas, a wide and tall cedar chimney tops the structure, funneling smoke from the home’s central fire.
Inside the house, an excavated square called a da’ay contains a fire and forms the centre of the house. In each corner of the da’ay a triangular cupboard contains dishes. Those inside can exit the house through the centered front door or a side-door near the front right corner. When it was first constructed outbuildings included a lean-to and root cellar behind the house.
The members of the family slept on a raised, square cedar platform that wrapped around the da’ay. They occupied traditional positions within the house. Son-I-Hat, his daughter, and his wife stayed against the farthest wall. Lower-ranking family members slept on the planks in the middle of the house and the family’s two slaves stayed at the threshold beside the front door.
The original house had four carved, monumental poles, all of which survive today. The oldest came from an earlier clan-house and was commissioned or carved by a previous hereditary leader sometime before 1880. The undated masterwork still serves as the monumental centerpiece of the home. Head House Totem faces the front door with its back against the far wall.
To its sides Son-I-Hat placed two supporting pillars engraved with ‘wasguu. According to the k‘aygang.nga ancestral stories these amphibious supernatural creatures used lakes as their lairs and travelled through subterranean channels to the sea to hunt whales. These poles reference a young hunter named Coon-Ahts who trapped a ‘wasguu named Gonaqadate and donned its skin. He was then compelled to go to sea to hunt whales, a feat he soon performed with innate skill.
The 55-foot frontal pole is a replica. Yaadaas clan descendant, James Peele, carved the facsimile of the original century-old house frontal pole in 1939. While its five intertwining portions discuss the origins and supernatural benefactors of Náay I’waans, many of the figures are now subject to interpretation. Carvers had to combine two trees to recreate the original pole, which was dismantled in the late 1930s and still lies nearby buried 10 feet underground.
To recognize the new house the family hosted a five-day ‘waahlG_ahl (potlatch) where witnesses received gifts including wool blankets. The visitors raised the main structural members and the genealogical pole. The remainder of the work came later. This was only the first in a series of potlatches the clan provided for their community, one of which cost Son-I-Hat over $20,000, a sum roughly equivalent to a half-million dollars in modern coin.
Son-I-Hat passed on at age 83 on January 18, 1912. Since his passing the community has maintained and restored the heirlooms he left to Gasa’aan as lasting monuments. Today, 136 years after its construction, the community is preparing to rededicate the building on September 3, 2016. The celebration will bring an end to three years of restoration.
This isn’t the first time the longhouse was refurbished. By 1938 wet and windy coastal weather had left the landmark in a state of disrepair. Only the four corner-posts, roof beams, house posts, and bit of framing remained. At the time the Civilian Conservation Corps worked with Haida craftsmen to help restore the house. The undertaking involved a crew of up to 20 people, including eight Haida carvers and carpenters.
In contrast, the crew that tackled the project in 2013 involved just four core team-members; Gitajang (Glenn “Stormy” Hamar) along with apprentices St’igíinii (Harley Holter-Bell), Nang K’adangaas (Eric Hamar), and wooshdeiteitxh (Justin Henricks). This time, the effort was led by the Organized Village of Kasaan and the Kasaan Haida Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit established by Kavilco Inc.
As the crew began work on the project they realized that, even though Náay I’waans’ southeastern front faced the wind and water and had suffered from the most weathering, much of the rest of the building remained useable. Sound construction methods had preserved the building well over its 75-year run, and the team incorporated as much of the original materials as possible in the refurbishment. To preserve the original parts of the home the crew carefully dismantled its tongue and groove construction and restored the heirloom piece-by-piece.
In some places rot was in the tongue-and-groove, and fallen planks had let the weather inside. Where weathering had made lumber unrecoverable the workers hand-adzed new material to replace it. Logs purchased from and donated by Sealaska, Alaska Mental Health Trust, and the U.S. Forest Service were transformed into four brand new corner posts and a reshaked roof.
The carvers of the insect world had also been working industriously when the crew found the poles inside the house had been weakened and hollowed out. In 1940, the first renovators had added Yellow cedar logs as supports for the gaats. Seventy-five years later assiduous arthropods had accumulated around 30 gallons of powdery frass. To dry the poles and rid them of insects workers surrounded them with wire frames, wrapped them in plastic, and heated them to above 50ºC for over 30 minutes to kill the insects.
With tenacity, dedication and some serious problem-solving over the three-year refurbishment, the small crew brought their efforts to completion in the spring of 2016. Now the 75-person community of Gasa’an is preparing to host the Náay I’waans rededication this September 3 and are expecting canoes full of people to arrive from up and down the coast.
“Náay I’waans, the longhouse I have the privilege of working on every day, is a beacon of light to our culture and has been since its original building,” said St’igíinii (Harley Holter-Bell). “This house has followed our community through time. In that time it has been a symbol not just of our community’s power, but of the kind of power that we want to celebrate. Our power comes from our history, our creativity, and our skill, and especially from our connection to our ancestors.”
The crew stands before their work at various stages of completion. Credit: Gitajan