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Kasaan | The Re-Dedication of Naay I’waans (the Chief Son-I-Hat Whale House)

Oral history indicates the Haida people have inhabited Haida Gwaii for over 17,000 years. Archeological findings have established habitation on the islands as far back as 13,700 years. Regardless of which number is correct, that’s over 100 centuries of cultural history, dating back beyond 10,000 BC. So when the Haida invite you over to share some of their traditions, it packs quite a bit more weight than a “tradition” like watching football on television at Thanksgiving.

The Haida arrived in Southeast Alaska around 200 years ago from Haida Gwaii. The first clan leader to arrive took the name Son-I-Hat. Son-I-Hat’s household settled at the Old Kasaan village (Gasa’aan) site as early as the 1700s. After the first Son-I-Hat passed on, his nephew (born in 1829) took and carried on the Son-I-Hat name. The village grew to include up to 500 people living in 18 lodges with up to 60 totem poles. In 1862, a smallpox epidemic killed almost ninety percent of the population in Old Kasaan. Son-I-Hat moved his remaining family to a new site (about 10 miles to the north) to a new house he built in 1880. The new house Naay I’waans, was nicknamed the “Whale House.”

By October 2011, the Whale House had fallen into disrepair and a plan was made for its restoration. A team of four carver/craftsmen was tasked with rebuilding the Whale House using traditional methods and with as much of the original components and material as possible. Five years later, the work was complete, and yesterday the village of Kasaan (population normally around 50 people) was packed with hundreds of visitors celebrating the re-dedication of the only remaining Haida longhouse in the United States.

Last summer when we visited Kasaan for the first time, we met several of the carvers on the project. They invited us to come back a year later for the celebration and re-dedication, and so we did!

To start things off, people gathered on the beach in front of the Whale House to greet the canoes from other tribes and clans as they arrived.

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Kids playing in the water while the canoes came in. (I heard some people a little unhappy that the kids were ruining every photo, but I disagree.)

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This kid got right in on the action of greeting the first canoe to land (from Klawoch):

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Chief John McAllister warmly greeted every canoe and gave permission to come ashore:

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This canoe was designed by Marvin Oliver (Quinault/Isleta Pueblo), and the canoe was paddled over 30 miles to Kasaan from Ketchikan the day before. They are Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian (with friends of Salish, Quinault, and Chinook heritage):

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Carver, Harley Bell-Holter bringing in the canoe from Ketchikan:

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Announcing arrival and asking for permission to come ashore:

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We were standing next to this kid’s mom, and I believe she said the piece he’s wearing was carved by his grandfather and indicated it was very precious to her…she was freaking out a little bit every time he leaned over the side of the boat with it (which I get! look how cool it is!)

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After the canoes had landed successfully, everyone made their way up the beach to the Whale House for the re-dedication.

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First, there was dancing and singing…the dancers/singers danced and sang, circling the Whale House and then filed inside, filling it with the good spirit. When they were finished, the speeches and dedications and thank yous began (much of it in the Haida language, which in itself is incredible since there are only a couple dozen people who still speak Haida, and most of them are over 70).

Julia Coburn, the eldest Haida matriarch, spoke early on, flanked by her daughter Jeanie and her grandson Lee.

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The carvers, L to R: Harley Bell-Holter, Stormy Hamar, his son Eric Hamar, and Justin Henricks.

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And speaking of carving, would you take a look at this adze work!

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Each of the carvers spoke about the effect this project had on them, and it was….you know what? There are just no words to describe how incredible this whole thing was. I’m trying, but the level of heartfelt communication coming from every person was something so special to witness. Harley talked about the longhouse being a beacon not just to Haida people, but to ALL people, and it really feels that way. The community is so friendly and welcoming, and the level of respect and honor for the Haida culture and tradition is impressive.

Stormy Hamar and his grandmother:

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He said he was trying to be all cool and then his gram came up and made him get all teary and messed up his cool. It was pretty sweet.

I took quite a few detail shots of people and regalia during the in-between times.

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Detail of Chief John McAllister’s head piece (while it was not on his head):

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I couldn’t help this next shot. This little boy was grabbing hands of gravel and pouring them over his open sandals. Then, he’d go sit on a stump and remove his shoe, pour the sand and gravel out, put his shoe back on, and then do it again. 🙂

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The re-dedication ended and everyone made their way back via the trail to the village center for food, more singing and dancing performances, gift-giving, and socializing. The canoes, leaving the shore:

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There was a large variety of wonderful food: salmon, halibut, spot prawns, crab, corned venison and cabbage, deer ribs (bbq style), deer stew, and many side dishes including salads, sea asparagus, pastas, fry bread, fresh fruit, and many, many cakes. The Totem Trail Cafe cooks were killing it…it was a potluck though, so I don’t know which things they did and which things people brought (I know we brought a big lemon/caper/pasta salad with shaved brussels sprouts, but that’s all I know.)

Gifts (such as gorgeous, hand-carved war helmets, masks, drums, and other amazing pieces of art) were presented to those who had a key part in enabling this restoration. The potlatch and gift-giving tradition is integral and central to this culture. Interesting side note: Potlatches went through “a history of rigorous ban by both the Canadian and United States federal governments.” The generous, gift-giving economy centered around potlatches was seen as “wasteful, unproductive, and contrary to ‘civilized values’ of accumulation.” (Wikipedia)  WTF?

Okay, and now more singing and dancing!

The Carver’s Dance:

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And I tried, but I do not remember which dance groups were from which places (and they were not listed in the nice program that was handed out, dangit). They were all wonderful:

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That’s carver Justin Henricks there, next to the man holding the carved orca rattle that was AMAZING. He was behind us in the food line (his little son was playing with the rattle), and he told us it was very old and had been in his family for a couple generations.

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I mean seriously (I zoomed in), how great is this??

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Here’s a short compilation video of footage that Kevin took, to give you some sound and movement to go with the still photos:

As the festivities wound down (some time after 7pm), we made our way along the shoreline trail back to Airship.

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It was a beautiful evening, and a beautiful day (in all ways).

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We hung out on the boat and talked about the day, and then a little bit later we heard some drumming and singing. I opened the door and listened. On the shore, a group of people was playing drums and singing around a couple of bonfires. The sound carrying across the water, combined with the clear, starry sky, after such an amazing day…we grabbed our chairs and some blankets and sat up on the top deck, thinking it just couldn’t get any better. And it couldn’t have, but then it did.

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Háw’aa.