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.”
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.
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.
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.
This summer, SSP’s Regional Energy Catalyst brought together energy experts to the communities of Haines, Hoonah, and Prince of Wales Island to help commercial building owners identify energy savings through a Level I Walk Through Energy Audit. With the help of on-the-ground Community Catalysts, the team was able to identify plenty of interested commercial building owners, managers and tenants. Jim Fowler of Energy Audits of Alaska audited 35 buildings totaling nearly 230,000ft2! These Level I Audits were paid for by the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with support from Southeast Conference, Renewable Energy Alaska Project, and Alaska Energy Authority. By coordinating the audits all together, the cost of these audits was cut by an estimated 2/3. The effort also included free energy workshops and outreach to numerous other building owners, managers and tenants through a ‘walking workshop.”
Direct follow up is being provided for all building owners that received an audit report. The real results will hopefully be realized in the coming weeks and months. We are optimistic that businesses can save money on their bottom line with energy efficiency measures, and hopefully re-invest in their businesses and community. Thank you to all participants and partners!
On Prince of Wales Island, beside a trail west of the small community of Kasaan, sits Náay I’waans. Also known as the Whale House or, more specifically Chief Son-i-hat’s House, this building is the oldest surviving example of traditional Haida architecture in the United States. Originally built by Chief Son-i-hat in the 1880s, Náay I’waans was once home to the wealthy and revered chief and his family. Today, the site attracts ogling tourists from all over the world. As carver Eric Hamar puts it, the site also serves as the “historical and emotional center of Kasaan.”
The fight to keep Náay I’waans standing has spanned over a century. The building has been re-shaked (roofed) at least twice, reworked and officially restored by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. This labor of love has called on the commitment, creativity and craftsmanship of many skilled workers including Eric and Harley Bell-Holter. The two have been active on the current Náay I’waans Restoration Project, led by the Organized Village of Kasaan and Kavilco Inc., for three years. They are apprenticing under lead carver Stormy Hamar (Eric’s father) with Justin Henricks joining the project in July of last year. This week marks one year until the official rededication celebration, set for Sept. 3, 2016.
I sat with Eric and Harley in the Kasaan Community Carving Shed atop a seemingly bottomless floor of heavenly smelling cedar chips. In the company of visiting community members and an impressive collection of coffee mugs, Eric and Harley share their experiences on the project.
How would you describe Kasaan to someone who has never visited?
HBH: I would say that it is the most unique place you will ever see and witness from the way that the weather hits us, all the way down to the people and everything in between. We operate by a different set of rules, we work towards a better tomorrow. Kasaan is unique because of the longhouse, the trails, the fact that we still look like a village did 50 years ago. The fact that it is the land that time has forgotten.
What is the significance of the Whale House to Kasaan?
HBH: Death [from smallpox] hit so hard in Old Kasaan that they didn’t even have time to bury the bodies. That drove our people to this small place [the current site of Kasaan] because the missionaries promised us education, medicine and religion. That drove Chief Son-i-hat to build this longhouse just outside our village. This was him trying to coax his people into moving over here, away from that disease. By the time he built his longhouse, 32 people lived here with him. After he passed away, everyone moved here. To this day, 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.
What inspired you to work on the project?
EH: I got involved with it in part because it is important to the community. It’s one of the very rare things in the community that everyone agrees is important. And for that, it is important. Historically it is significant as far as the people who lived there, why it was built in the first place. It’s also kind of the historical center, not necessarily the physical center, but the historical and emotional center of the village. It’s the biggest item of pride that we have and so it’s very important for that reason.
What have been some of the challenges?
HBH: It’s an exhausting job most days, the infrastructure here is crazy. This job has never once been as simple as “restoring a longhouse.” From the very start, me, Eric and Stormy went out there and had this very definitive and exact way that we were going to do it. We got there for the first day and realized that one of the corner posts was protruding out the side of the building and was completely rotted. It changed everything immediately. The biggest challenge became the actual physical challenge of doing it because Kavilco and OVK agreed in consensus that we can never fully demolish Náay I’waans, that we had to keep it standing. So physically, that was a challenge and we have had to do things creatively and differently than probably any other building project, maybe, in the history of man.
The scope of the restoration work includes the physical building as well as the totem poles around and within the site. In the shed, Eric applies final touches to the head of a figure he has carved to replace a missing piece of an original Náay I’waans pole. This particular pole was moved from Old Kasaan to Náay I’waans in 1880 and sits in the center of the Whale House. I ask the obvious question: what creature’s head is he working on?
EH: Not completely sure what it is. But given the very interesting nature of the pole, my dad and I have had many talks about it. Whatever it is, I think it’s very powerful. People seem to try and boil down all of the stuff that was portrayed on these poles simply as, ‘Oh it’s a bear, oh it’s a this, oh it’s a that.’ But there are a lot of things that are more complex and natural that aren’t necessarily acceptable in today’s modern American culture to talk about.
So what do you think the figure is depicting then?
EH: The culture that created this pole was very different to the one we live in today. So considering that, I think it is a depiction of birth. Like this here [points to face encircled by the tail of the figure whose head he is carving; see images at right], is maybe a child within a representation of the innards. It’s kind of made me wonder if it isn’t even a depiction of birth from the inside looking out at the doctor and world, which might sound kind of weird and funny now, but at the time that would have been a very serious thing.
As the centerpiece of the longhouse, it makes a lot of sense to me for it to symbolize birth, which is why I think this figure, whatever it is, is female. Of course, nobody will ever know and that’s the greatest part, that it can be so open to interpretation.
There have been people who come in here (who) will be like ‘Oh wow, that is a beautiful eagle, or is that a raven? Or a wolf?’ It is definitely a subject of discussion. Which is what I want to see more of — undefined things. Art beyond just ‘spirit this, raven transformation that, here’s another that, here’s a bunch of ovoids’ — meaning that (it) isn’t easily explainable. This art-form took the entirety of our existence to come up with. You aren’t going to be able to explain it with something as topical as, ‘Oh, it’s a bear.’
Open interpretation and active dialogue keeps this traditional art form alive and modern. The carving shed acts as a central hub for discussion. An endless rotation of visiting community members and tourists pass through. Visitors practice carving and transfixed kids work on ongoing projects. An additional goal of the project is to strengthen enthusiasm for this craft. The warm atmosphere of the shed makes it clear that this objective is being met on a daily basis.
The energy Eric and Harley have for their work is contagious.
HBH: I would implore anybody to pick up an adze and try it. I wouldn’t try and push our profession on people but it would be really cool to give everyone the opportunity to try it. I think it is important that we remain teachers. I have already seen my 12-year old student, Donny Savage, starting to teach his peers because he now has enough confidence to teach it himself. That fills me with pride and that also means that my culture will live on, regardless of Donny’s ethnicity.
The Náay I’waans Restoration Project has entered the final stages and is set to be completed this winter. A second leg of the project is to begin a continual maintenance program for the site. Once complete, the building will be used as a place to visit and tour as well as serve as a facility for community events. The official Rededication Ceremony will be held Sept. 3, 2016, and Kasaan is seeking additional funding to support the event. Visit www.kasaan.org or call (907) 542-2230 for details.
Climate Change Impacts on Traditional Tribal Lands Working with Tribal Youth “To Plant Seeds for a Brighter Future”: Reflections from Carrie Sykes and Sierra Ezrré
The impacts of Climate Change are vast and far reaching. Many of these impacts are being disproportionately felt by small coastal native communities. Carrie Sykes of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and Organized Village of Kasaan and Tlingit Juneau high school student Sierra Ezrré joined Alaska Natives, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians at the Inter-Tribal Youth Climate Leaders Congress (Native CCC) this summer to discuss these impacts. The Native CCC brings together high school students from across the country for a week of peer-to-peer training and education about the impacts of climate change on tribal communities. The U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Environmental Protection Agency partnered to host the Inter-Tribal Youth Climate Leaders Congress (Native CCC) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia the week of June 28 – July 3, 2015.
The Native CCC was an outcome of the President’s Priority Agenda – Enhancing Climate Resilience of America’s Natural Resources and Generation Indigenous initiative. The participants produced an eight minute video on the impacts of climate change on their traditional lands (see below).
The students’ stories are profound revealing how climate induced changes are impacting the land, the water, the wildlife, and traditional cultures. The parting message is hopeful as one hears the voices of the students assert, “…education is the seed for planting a brighter future … the more you know, the more you grow.”
The Alaska Region of the Forest Service sponsored two participants Ezrré and Sykes and both contributed greatly to the Congress. Over the next several months they will be sharing their experiences with the Alaska Tribal Leaders Committee and with Forest Service employees in the Regional Office.
Reflections from Sierra Ezreé, Tlingit High School Student
I just wanted to give thanks for this amazing opportunity to travel to Shepherdstown, WV and attend the Inter-Tribal Youth Climate Change Leadership Congress (Native CCC). The week I spent back east was by far, the best week of my entire life. It was so amazing to be around people who thought the same way that I do – – about how important the land is and how important it is to take care of the land.
It was great to be around people who were raised and taught similarly to how I was. The land has always provided for us, but we are now neglecting our way of life and harming the land.
For example, as a kid I went to gatherings after a single seal was killed to thank the seal for what it would be providing. Now we are harming the land in such a way that soon it will not be able to provide us with certain things that are vital.
It was thought-provoking to see that climate change was affecting every represented Tribe at the Native CCC. Every single place had an issue due to climate change. It was sad to see that people on some reservations do not even have clean drinking water because the water has been contaminated by oil companies. Native people, to try to stop further contamination, sat along the road to stop the trucks from going by. The power of the people with their caring for the land could stop big industry. This is amazing.
Everyone had so much faith in each other. I felt so empowered when we all came together. I felt that we could all change the world because we were all so motivated to do so. We know how our traditional ways are being affected due to climate change. We all want to keep our traditional ways and this can only happen if we come together for this common cause. The future belongs to us and we are the ones who can change what is happening.
Growing up, the number one rule I was taught was respect. It seemed that all of the other Tribes had similar values. Everyone was respectful to the land, one another, and all of the adults. Like me, the 100 or so students at the Native CCC were able to listen and respect when a person was talking and sharing ideas. Students maintained silence and were attentive. I wish this level of respect was practiced everywhere. If this could happen, the world would be a better place.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to have people around me who thought the same way that I did and wanted to do similar things in the world. The experience I had will help me to spread my new knowledge about climate change to my community so people can become more aware of how much climate affects everyone and how we affect the climate. Gunalchéesh.
Reflections from Carrie Sykes, Haida Culture Bearer
I was very honored to be selected as a Haida culture bearer to escort Sierra Ezrré to Shepardstown, WV to participate in the first Inter-Tribal Youth Climate Leadership Congress. It was a fantastic opportunity to gather together with the 100 Tribal youth from more than 20 Tribes that were present from all over the United States to talk about climate change. In addition, there was a lot to be learned from the many indigenous federal government personnel and Tribal chaperones that joined in the conversation.
The first day was spent utilizing an “Open Space Meeting Process,” during which students were asked the question, “As a youth leader, how can you help your school and community meet the challenges of climate change?” Gathered outside in the Commons Area, all were provided index cards and encouraged to get on the stage and share their ideas with the Congress. The students then categorized their ideas into ten areas, which were used to set the Congress topics. It was a great way to assure that the ideas developed were from the students. During the week, the students each selected a topic and were asked to work together to come up with a climate change project, which would be presented at the end of the week. The student’s interaction with each other and brainstorming about solutions was impressive.
The objectives set for the students were far exceeded. By the end of the week, they were able to identify at least three major climate-related issues facing their specific communities, the United States and the world. They heard fantastic speakers from various agencies and knowledgeable Tribal members, many of which have made the care of Mother Earth their focus through research/restoration projects, indigenous stewardship and traditional ecological knowledge. They actively participated in the larger network of like-minded people addressing the issues. In addition to all the information about climate change, they were also exposed to researching, developing a presentation and presenting it to a large group. All of which, provided them with the knowledge to make specific recommendations for actions that the federal government and tribal communities can take to address climate change and its impacts.
Through their presentations, they demonstrated leadership and showed that they have the communications skills to engage with their peers and others about climate change and natural resource conservation in their home communities. They did a great job, especially since most of them had not previously had experience with public speaking.
There were also many fun events that provided an opportunity for the students to get to know each other, such as the community service work done on a campus trail and removing invasive plants, and the river trip where they were able to experience the great outdoors and develop and demonstrate teamwork. And there was the wonderful musical performance by Frank Waln and the Sampson Brothers, who through their music left a great impression on the students about what they can do to make a difference in the world. And the Pow Wow at the end of the week was also a fantastic opportunity for all to share about their traditional culture.
Háw’aa (thank you) to all the agencies that made the Congress possible and to those that provided for the representatives from southeast Alaska to attend. We were both very impressed by the event and we were able to network with people with whom we can continue to work on climate change. I look forward to working further with the U.S. Forest Service, the Pacific Northwest Research Station and others on these resource management issues to ensure we have a sustainable environment and world for future generations.
During the weekend of July 17th , over 40 children and adults from Prince of Wales came together in Kasaan for three days to process and celebrate local bounties of the island.
The second Kasaan Community Harvest was coordinated by the Organized Village of Kasaan, Southeast Conference and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership. Communities participating included Kasaan, Hydaburg, Craig, Klawock, Thorne Bay, and Coffman Cove. In addition, we were honored to have Dolly Garza participate for a second year from Haida Gwaii. Garza and participants were also being filmed in Kasaan by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council about the importance of clean water!
The goal of the event was to build community around harvesting, processing, and celebrating local wild foods. During the Kasaan Community Harvest participants gathered at the Totem Trail Café to share family recipes and methodologies for jarred smoked sockeye and coho, plain packed coho, and venison. They were also able to visit a nearby smokehouse to see firsthand how to brine, hang and smoke the salmon. Participants picked thimbleberries and elderberries and learned how to make jam and jelly. They also prepared Devil’s Club salve using bark that was harvested during the 2014 event.
There was a wide range of experience brought by the participants. For some it was the first time touching a salmon, while others offered decades of experience, traditions, and family recipes. The weekend offered a time to revisit and practice Haida traditions of harvesting and celebrate the resources offered by the sea and land of Southeast.
Harvesting and preserving local foods encourages carrying on traditions and the responsible management of local resources, a practice that encourages sustainable harvesting of wild local foods for future generations.
A significant portion of food readily available to Southeast Alaskans is imported, thus the harvesting and preserving of wild, local foods builds self-reliance on a household and community level. The more imported foods that we can displace with local sources the less dependent we are on these vulnerable sources.
Overall, the harvest event was a great success and there are plans to have it as an annual event!
Below are some of the recipes, photos, and resources that were used over the weekend.
General Canning Resources (UAF Cooperative Extension Service)
- Canning basics: methods, and information on acidic and low-acid foods and the causes of spoilage
- Canning Overview/Equipment
- Canning Acidic Foods – Fruits and Tomatoes
- Canning Low Acidic Foods- Vegetables and Meat
Photo Slideshow: Preparing Devils Club Salve
Recipes and Methods
Cottage Foods Exemptions Information
The processing of non-hazardous foods that fall under Alaska’s Cottage Food Exemptions is a great opportunity for rural communities to participate in local commerce. Under these exemptions non-hazardous items such as the jams and can be sold.
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Resources
Cooperative Extension Service Resources
- Guide to Operating a Successful Home-Based Food Business (University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service)