As the morning of Sept. 3 broke warm and clear over the village of Kasaan, a small southeast Alaskan village of approximately 50 year-round residents, a sense of excitement and celebration — along with laughter, music, and the sound of carving tools on wood — filled the air. Carver Gitajang (Glenn “Stormy” Hamar) along with apprentice carvers St’igiinii (Harley Holter), Nang K’adangaas (Eric Hamar), and Wooshdeiteitxh (Justin Henricks) were in the carving shed, preparing for the rededication of Náay í’Waans (The Great House), better known as the Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House.
“It (Náay í’Waans) is our history and connects us to our heritage, our ancestors, and means everything to the people and to the village of Kasaan,” said Gitajang.
Prior to the past three years of reconstruction, the longhouse, built in 1880, was subject to insects, adverse weather and vandalism. Gitajang and his crew have replaced rotting and weakened poles, planks, and roofing, carefully restoring Náay í’Waans to its traditional beauty and strength. They’ve used as much of the original longhouse as possible.
As the day progressed, nearly 1,000 visitors began to make their way from Kasaan to Náay í’Waans, a leisurely stroll along a sun dappled trail, to meet canoes from Kasaan, Klawock, Ketchikan, and as far away as Juneau. St’igiinii ran briskly along the trail, calling out greetings to guests as he raced to meet the first of them.
St’igiinii has worked tirelessly on Náay í’Waans. Many who call him nephew or friend have heard his laughter in the carving shed or through the forest. On Sept. 3, however, he was serious when he spoke of what the longhouse means to him. “Náay í’Waans was a beacon of hope to the people of Old Kassan,” he said. (A century ago, many people moved from Old Kassan, on Skowl Arm, to Kasaan for jobs and the school.) “It was built to preserve and protect the Haida culture. And today it still serves as that beacon of hope to this community. It still preserves and protects the Haida culture and connects us to our ancestors.”
Náay í’Waans, The Great House in Kasaan, as seen from the beach. Photo Quinn Aboudara
That morning, a young voice announced the sighting of the first canoes as they rounded the point into the small bay in which Náay í’Waans sits, its main entrance facing the beach. People began to fill the beach as the canoes paddled closer to shore. Both those on water and on shore sang traditional songs as each canoe passed the beach, allowing the standing Chief Son-i-Hat, John McAllister, to recognize them before they gathered off shore and waited to be recognized. (Kóyongxung was the original Chief Son-i-Hat, a wealthy Haida chief and the man who commissioned Náay í’Waans; he died in 1912.)
Standing Chief Son-i-Hat’s voice sounded across the water as he identified each of the canoes and granted them permission to land upon the shore before Náay í’Waans. Those on land sang them in, and St’igiinii waded into the water to help the crews disembark and join those gathered on the gravelly beach. People sang songs of celebration and welcome as they walked the canoes up the shore with the rising tide; guests and locals filled the area around Náay í’Waans. As the grand entrance began, dance groups from Hydaburg, Klawock, Ketchikan, Juneau, and Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), circled the longhouse, singing and dancing as they entered. Their voices and drums filled the air and drifted through the trees.
Standing Chief Son-i-Hat, John McAllister, welcomes and grants permission to canoes to land on the beach before Naay i’Waans. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
Canoers from Juneau passthe shore to be recognized before requesting permission to land on the beach before Náay í’Waans. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
Haida elder from Kasaan Julie Coburn gave opening prayers and recognition to Taslaanas, the bear clan of Kasaan. Then Anthony “Tony” Christiansen, mayor of Hydaburg, and Chalyee Éesh (Richard Peterson), President of Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, who is from Kasaan, took over the duties of announcing the speakers for the event.
Speakers included Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot, Kavilco Incorporated president Louis Jones Sr., Organized Village of Kasaan tribal president Ronald Leighton, City of Kasaan mayor Della Coburn, Rasmuson Foundation representative Jason Smart, Skidegate Traditional Chief Russ Jones, and Chief Son-i-Hat descendant Clinton Cook Jr.
As the speeches ended guests began to make their way back toward Kasaan, where an evening of celebration awaited before the recently opened Totem Trail Café. Kasaan community members and volunteers had been preparing throughout the day, cooking and setting up seating for their guests. They filled long tables with traditional foods: salmon, halibut, venison, and more, along with endless pots of hot coffee and strong tea.
Lt. Governor Byron Mallot speaks before Naay i’Waans. Also standing, to the right, is Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA) President Richard Peterson (Chalyee Éesh), who is from Kasaan. Photo Quinn Aboudara
As dance groups from around Southeast Alaska and Haida Gwaii sang and danced, gifts of carved panels, woven cedar hats, headdresses, and regalia were given to honored guests while gifts of t-shirts, jams, honey, jarred salmon, jewelry, posters, clothing, and many other items were given in thanks to all that attended.
And as the sun set on Náay í’Waans and the village of Kasaan, the carvers had been honored, respect had been given to all who had made this historic event possible and Náay í’Waans, The Great House, often known as the Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House stood, restored, in the brilliant glow of the setting sun, a continued beacon of hope for the preservation and protection of the Haida culture and a testament of strength and unity.
The traditional Haida longhouse restoration project was made possible through the partnership of the Organized Village of Kasaan (OVK), Kavilco Non-Profit, and the Kasaan Haida Heritage Foundation. The efforts were also aided through funding from the Rasmuson Foundation as well as donations of timber from Sealaska Corporation, The U.S. Forest Service, and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.
Whale house carvers dance before guests at the Discovery Center/Totem Trail Café in Kasaan during the rededication of Naay i’Waans. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
Written for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly
Student Zach Gardner measures stream width as part of forestry training on Prince of Wales. Photo by Quinn Aboudara.
April 4 began early for Prince of Wales resident Buck Grasser. A single father of two living in Craig, he was busy getting his children ready for school while hastily checking that he had everything prepared for his first day of training at the Forestry Training Academy. “It’s a long drive from Craig to Thorne Bay, but I’m excited that this opportunity is available,” he said as he buckled his children into the car.
The Forestry Training Academy is an intense two-week course made possible by a collaboration between Sealaska’s Haa Aaní, LLC, the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Kai Environmental, the United States Forest Service and the State of Alaska. Its goal was to provide Prince of Wales residents with free forestry skills training.
Organizers chose eight people to attend training in Thorne Bay through a competitive application and interview process open to all residents on Prince of Wales Island. The academy covered diverse topics in forestry such as timber inventory, logging operability, protection of fishery and karst resources, and deer habitat enhancement. Skills training included stream and land surveying, land navigation, first aid and CPR, as well as plant and animal identification.
Many of the students were longtime residents of Prince of Wales Island, with families and children, homes and property located around the island. Several of the students, such as Grasser and Tally Carlson of Hydaburg, had to drive several hours to Thorne Bay each morning.
“It’s worth it though,” Grasser said. “This is the kind of thing that Prince of Wales needs. We keep sending people off island to get training and they so rarely come home. Or, if they do, they find that their degrees and schooling aren’t applicable. It’s much better to train us on our home turf for the kind of work being done here.”
The work Grasser mentioned includes the transition from the harvest of old growth timber to young growth timber in the Tongass National Forest, a task that will require continual monitoring and data collection. It also includes the opening up of new economic opportunities for local communities and a more community based approach to resource management. U.S. Forest Service land managers, and industry, will use data collected by the students during their training and afterward to develop better resource management plans that have less environmental impact while supporting growing industries such as tourism.
The amount of opportunity in this field is vast. “One thing that I like about this training is that we’ve been exposed to numerous fields that can be pursued. We’re being trained in general forestry, but it includes geology, hydrology, biology, and a lot of others,” says Michael Melendrez of Craig.
A recent forestry academy on Prince of Wales trained a local workforce to carry out work typically contracted to non-local crews. Photo by Quinn Aboudara.
During the second week of the Forestry Training Academy students stepped into the woods near the Harris River Interpretive Site. They were eager to apply the lessons and skills they learned in the classroom to the reality of the woods. The instructor, Carol Mahara of the Thorne Bay Ranger District, gathered the students around her, ankle-deep in a stream. She rapidly pointed out its various features as the students identified them or asked questions for clarity. Then with a quick “Get to it!” Mahara turned the students loose.
The students, who ranged in age from 21 to 51, broke into two person teams, strung surveying tape across various points of the stream, and took measurements. They measured bank height, stream gradient, and streambed substrate as Mahara moved from team to team giving advice or asking clarification.
As each team finished its survey of the reach, or section of a stream, Mahara moved them downstream, stopping to point out features and changes. As the teams finished data collection for the morning, Mahara turned the students over to the next instructor.
“They’re a great group,” Mahara said. “They’re locals — most grew up here and know the areas that they’ll be physically working in already. That’s great.” She laughed and added, “There’s less chance that they’ll get lost. But seriously, this is the perfect application of using local knowledge to manage local lands.”
Mahara’s comment reflects a growing trend in Southeast Alaska, one that is being supported and developed through the collaborative efforts of land managers, local tribes and regional partnerships. The goal is to keep more money, more opportunity and more expertise, closer to home. Training and teaching locals to be more involved and proactive in fields that have typically been filled by a non-local workforce is a step forward for Prince of Wales residents seeking career opportunities at competitive wages.
Student Harrison Voegeli takes measurements of young growth during forestry training on Prince of Wales. The data will be used to determine the health and productivity of young growth timber as a sustainable resource. Photo by Quinn Aboudara.
Alana Peterson of Sealaska’s Haa Aani, LLC, said “This needed shift of local management of our lands on Prince of Wales is an example of how all communities in Southeast Alaska can reach self-determination. If we know the most about our lands and resources, we will be the best stewards of the land because we live here… This is stewardship in action.”
Forestry Training Academy student Harrison Voegeli of Craig’s words reflect that sentiment as well. “Train us at home and we’ll work for our homes. We’re closer to these areas than anyone else… Why wouldn’t we be? We live here for a reason. Train us and we’ll prosper. Make this training mean something,” he said.
While only eight students out of roughly thirty applicants were chosen this round, the number of applicants that were submitted shows that residents of Prince of Wales Island are turning their eyes toward the future of the island and being more proactive in how the lands they call home are managed.
• Quinn Aboudara is a lifelong resident of Prince of Wales Island and can often be found wandering the woods and waters of his home. He may be contacted at the Sustainable Southeast Partnership office of the Klawock Cooperative Association or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lawrence Armour, Brian Holter, and Marilyn Bell-Holter of the KCA participating in subsistence practices.
With branches laid in place on Thursday and Friday, the waters around the kelp beds turning from their dark blue to the welcomed milky pastel green that signals the beginning of the spawn, the staff of Klawock Cooperative Association (KCA) waited impatiently through the weekend.
Morning arrives, overcast with a bit of a chill in the air as the crew climbed aboard the boat and headed out to check the hemlock branches that had been anchored out several days prior.
Arriving at the kelp beds the area was wild with life, sea lions and gulls, ducks and sea otters, seals and of course, the herring. The water was active and the air was filled with the smell of spring as the crew began to pull in the branches.
Slowly they rose to the top, like a white flocked Christmas tree rising through the cloud of spawning herring came the branches to be pulled into the boat. Grinning, excited voices mixed with the happy first tastes of this spring subsistence harvest as the gear was hauled in and the branches securely stowed.
The boat starts and moves closer to the kelp bed, the kelp hook arcs into the air to splash behind a strand of kelp and the crew begin to haul it in. Kelp fronds are carefully selected and picked leaving the kelp bulb intact so that next year the fronds will grow back. The large leaves show a healthy layer of herring eggs as they’re also carefully stowed away, the crew enjoying a fresh morning snack of fish eggs on kelp as they finish their diligent harvest then start the boat once more and turn toward home, sending a brief message ahead of them to let the community know that it’s been a good harvest.
Brian Holter and Robert Jackson of the KCA offloading herring eggs.
The boat arrives at the dock as the sun begins to break from behind the clouds, and even as it ties up people are waiting, small children on tip-toes, elders smiling in anticipation as the crew lifts the heavy totes from the boat to the dock. The sounds of laughter and celebration fill the air as the crew begins to bag and distribute the harvest, we make sure that the elders get first pick, the kelp being highly prized goes first and the elders grin and smile as we make sure they have what they need.
Children dart in and out among those assembled to snatch little bites here and there from the branches or small pieces of kelp passed to them “slyly” by staff and elders alike. The sun warms us as we share this time together, the community members coming and going as the tides themselves, the staff smiling and making sure that we share as much as possible with those who visit us.
You can feel it in the air, palpable and real, an electric current that passes between the staff and the community, a connection, a bonding developed through this sharing, a tie to the past and to the culture that we’ve continued into the modern age.
Thanks are given as we pass out the last of the harvest, we wash down the dock and the boats and the gear, the community thanks the KCA, and we in turn thank the herring and the ocean that provided for us once more this year.
It’s a good day, the sun is warm, the crew is tired, the community is happy and provided for, we welcome spring and the beginning of the subsistence season.
How do residents of Prince of Wales Island know it’s spring time? Well we don’t put on our fancy suits and consult an over-sized rodent for starters. We know it’s spring time by consulting the weather and the water that are so closely linked to our lives as “Islanders”. When you see the whales entering the channels and bays. When you hear the grunting of the sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks. When you smell that distinct blend of fish and brine. That’s how we know it’s getting close.
Marilyn Bell-Holter and Lawrence Armor enjoying the boat ride to the spawning grounds.
The last couple weeks of March and the first couple weeks of April herald the new season in an explosive manner. A welcome sound after our Alaskan winters is the word that the first herring have been sighted. And then the flurry of activity begins. We gather the branches of hemlock trees (and in some cases we simply gather entire young hemlock trees), we check the fuel in our boats and don our rain gear. It’s Fish Egg season!
This week I had the pleasure of joining Lawrence Armour, Brian Holter, and Marilyn Bell-Holter in enjoying the weather and practicing a yearly spring subsistence activity. We laughed and joked as we loaded our gear into the boat, “complaining” about how much we “hated work” today. Our gear consisted of a bundle of hemlock branches that we were going to set in anticipation for the quickly approaching herring spawn. After getting gear stowed aboard the boat we began trip out to areas that have been traditional subsistence areas since the first people settled in the areas around Klawock.
As we slowed to observe a mother humpback whale and her calf in the distance we repeatedly mentioned how amazing it was, to be on the water, watching life returning to the area, and how we hoped for a good fish egg season. Herring roe (or as commonly referred to as fish eggs) is one of the first large harvest subsistence foods of the subsistence season. Every year the waters come to life as herring return to these areas to spawn on kelp, eel grass, hemlock branches (placed in the water by local subsistence users), and even the rocks along the shore. It is an important sign that winter is over, and is a greatly anticipated cultural food. It brings people together, they cluster on the docks as the harvesters return, hoping that with the returning boats is that first taste of spring.
Brian Holter and his daughter Marilyn on the watch for whales.
We enjoyed the company in the skiff, each taking turns pointing out one or another spectacle of sea life that caught our eye. We stopped at a beach to gather rocks to use as an anchor for our hemlock branches, Brian and I talking about how this season had been years before. Children were taken out of school, entire families piled into boats and headed for the spawning grounds, thick kelp beds along the rocky shores of Southeast Alaska. We reminisced about how the families would gather on the beaches after laying out their branches and everyone would join together. Large bonfires would be lit, and we would share our meals. The last of the previous year’s salmon would be passed around, and crab freshly harvested would be boiled. Children would run along the beaches or play on improvised rope swings.
A pair of humpback whales passing through the channel.
It was a time of celebration, a fair well to the winter, and a time to gather together and share. My younger cousin Marilyn mentions that it’s not that way anymore, and we look about. There are no children on the beaches, and besides commercial fishing boats we don’t see the skiffs loaded with families coming to celebrate spring with us. It’s a moment that we share of a time that may be passing in our own lifetimes. The bond between the land and our own lives. As more and more families assimilate into a “9 to 5” job, and the culture of our island way of life begins to become more structured we sense that practices like this are becoming less and less “important”.
The spell is broken for a moment, but quickly returns as Brian shouts “They’re breaching!”. We turn to look where he’s pointing, a little too late, as Brian laughs we stand waiting for the next, but that too passes and we turn back to business. We clamber into the skiff and prepare our anchor, tie together the branches and guide the boat to a promising looking area. We’re still a little early, so the water is still dark and not the milky green that shows when the herring are spawning, “Good, we beat them here, we’re early,” Brian states. While we would have enjoyed that fresh taste of herring roe straight from the water we know that they’re coming and our branches will be ready when they arrive.
We zip from kelp patch to kelp patch to check and see how things are looking, the kelp looks healthy but still no eggs yet. We follow the flocks of seagulls, watching for them to circle and dive, a good indicator that a ball of herring is there, but they’re still just moving into the area. We watch the sea lions to see where they’re clustering, another good indicator that the herring are nearby. We get lucky as we watch a small group of whales that have been patrolling the channel, they come in close to the shore and the herring in their desperation to avoid the whales throw themselves into the air. A quick silver flash, a wriggling fish struggling off the rocks and back into the water. We head that way.
A pod of sea lions sunning and rolling about, their stomachs full and their appetite satiated for a moment.
We approach a small kelp patch, the water still dark, but not quite as dark as the rest. We pull up a kelp leaf and inspect it, spring and fortune smile upon us as we notice the first few herring eggs. They’re not thick, but they’re there, we note the area, making reference to several of the islands and the shores. Tomorrow we’ll return to lay branches in this area and check the branches we set today. As we turn the boat toward home we can see the water slowly changing color in the kelp patch, from the dark blue of winter to the milky pastel blue-green of spring.
Gunalchéesh herring, our little heralds of spring. We hope that tomorrow we will be able to make a small harvest, we’ll bring some home for our families and our elders so they can enjoy the bounty of the waters, and we will be thankful that winter has ended, and that spring has returned.
We hope to see more families out over the next few weeks, we hope that we can gather on the docks and the shores of the spawning grounds. We hope that we can enjoy the company of our community and celebrate the return of spring again. We hope to share the wealth of the waters and the thrill of watching the life that flows around us.
Forest Anderson, a Behavioral Health Aid (BHA II), with SEARHC has a unique way of engaging her audiences. Using analogy and props she creates the opportunity for her audience to engage her. Today she visited Thorne Bay high school to present her Resilience Workshop with a group of middle and high school students.
She begins by bouncing a basketball, a popular sport on Prince of Wales Island as the students settle into their seats. Then she asks what the basketball does, to empty silence as the students aren’t sure of how to respond. “They bounce back,” Forest answers for them, “They bounce back, because they are resilient.” A few heads nod as they make the connection, but it’s apparent in their faces that they’re still not sure what Ms. Anderson means.
Forest engaging with the audience
Forest continues by presenting a prop that many in this community of around 560 residents find quite familiar, a Lund skiff (complete with an Evinrude motor cut out). She explains that the boat represents our bodies and our mental health. She asks the crowd of students what happens when that boat isn’t balanced properly, a young voice responds “It’ll tip over.”
Congratulating the participant she continues to discuss what makes a person resilient, what helps us, as humans, carry on even through adversity and hardship. The students begin to respond, they begin to engage as Forest ask for participants from the crowd to help pack the boat. Students select items including boxes, a fishing pole, and even a small gas jug, each with a trait or an idea that that builds resilience, and as each item enters the boat there’s discussion about what these mean to the students. Some students are quieter than others, but as their peers pose their opinions and thoughts more join in.
Finally she engages the students (and the staff) in a physical exercise, forming large circles and tossing inflated beach balls into the air, demonstrating once more in a hands on way, all the many responsibilities, and pressures that students and adults are juggling. Amid the laughter and the wildly flying beach balls you hear students and staff calling out things like: Relationships, chores, schoolwork, family, bills, and so many others. As the exercise winds down and the beach balls are once more collected Ms. Anderson gives the students a chance to seat themselves then wraps up her presentation stating “We all juggle so many things in our lives, it can be confusing, it can be challenging, but if we use the things we’ve packed into our boats, into ourselves, we will be resilient, we can grow stronger and more capable.” The students nod, you can see that these analogies, these physical representations of ideas and concepts have sunk in, each member of the audience thinks about the things they juggle in their lives and the resources they have to be resilient.
Harley Bell- Holter waiting to speak at the Reslience Workshop
The next speaker for the day is Harley Bell-Holter, a 22 year old carver from Kasaan. Harley introduces himself, explaining that he is Haida and Tlingit, and that he was raised in Hydaburg, a nearby community with a predominantly Haida population. He explains that when he was still in high school his parents separated, and he moved to Klawock, another nearby community, but with a predominantly Tlingit population.
Harley shares his own struggles as a teenager and the struggles he still has as a young man. And as he shares he advocates for self-pride, to be proud in who and what you are. He expounds that there are three stages in life, the past, the future, and the present.
He tells the audience, “The past… You can’t do anything about, that’s what’s already been done. The future… We can’t truly know what’s in the future, and that’s why we live in the present. The present shapes the future. Any decision you make today will affect tomorrow.”
Harley utilizing physical props to represent the Past, Future, and Present.
He advocates to the audience to be individuals, to build their strengths and grow their resilience. Harley encourages the audience “Don’t seek recognition for what you do, seek a better future by what you do.” The audience hangs on his words, this young man, who is only a few years older than many in the audience speaks to them as an older peer.
Harley shares with his audience a vision of a brighter, more positive future. One built on the strengths of the individuals seated in the bleachers. His words resonate with the youth seated before him as he finishes his presentation.
The students and staff file out, many thanking Forest and Harley for coming out today and for sharing. It’s a very positive sight as the students return to their classes. Forest, Harley, and I stick around for a few moments and chat afterwards.
Harley seems pleased, “I was very happy with how today turned out,” he explains, “A lot of the time we do a presentation and we might have one or two kids that share, but today they all seemed really engaged with us.”
Forest Anderson with her Resiliency Workshop props.
Forest agrees “Yeah, this was a good group. Very well behaved and positive.”
Harley and Forest both have different approaches to how they engage their young audiences, but between the two they are a formidable force of positivity and hope. You can see that many of the struggles of Alaskan youth weighs heavily at times on them both, but they’ve both found a place to channel their energies.
Forest Anderson is a local woman from Craig Alaska. She has had an interesting life working in fields as diverse as commercial fishing and therapeutic foster care. She is well known throughout Alaska as a tough, tenacious, and vibrant woman who cares deeply for her family. She is also closely involved with many of the issues and challenges that face Alaskan youth, especially those from rural communities.
Harley Bell-Holter is a local carver from Kasaan, raised between Hydaburg and Klawock he is deeply attached to his cultural roots and believes that everyone has a culture to be proud of. He advocates deeply and passionately for forward progress, of remembering the past but striving to create a brighter future. Harley’s message is one of inner strength and hope, and to remain a positive strong individual.