Eric Hamar (left) and Harley Bell-Holter (right) stand in the doorway to the Kasaan Community Carving Shed.
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.
View of the Whale House from the beach in Kasaan.
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.
Walls are down in Náay I’waans, the oldest surviving example of traditional northern Haida architecture in the United States. The project is in the final stages of restoration and the rededication ceremony is set for September 3rd, 2016.
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.
Carver Eric Hamar applies final touches to the head of a figure that has since been returned to the central pole in Náay I’waans. Photo B.Goodrich
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.’
Harley Bell-Holter, Eric Hamar, Justin Henricks and Stormy Hamar stand beside the central pole in Náay I’waans to celebrate the returning of the missing face. Eric carved the replacement. What creature is it? Not sure. Hamar appreciates the mystery (as described).
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.
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)
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
A collective goal of these complementary programs is to support increased Indigenous leadership and local capacity-building for natural resource management in communities across our shared rainforest.
The coasts of our region are a truly sacred resource and extend far across international borders. International collaboration between Southeast Alaska and British Columbia on resource monitoring and indigenous stewardship present new opportunities to better protect these resources for generations to come. Photo Credit: Brenda Berry
While in Haida Gwaii, Sykes and Christianson participated in the Coastal Stewardship Network Annual Gathering. The Coastal Stewardship Network Annual Gathering brings together stewardship representatives from the First Nations to share information and strategize about important issues related to governing traditional areas. This year, the conference was opened to guests from northern Vancouver Island, the Northwest Territories and southern Alaska.
“Although the Haidas have been separated through a migration to Alaska, we are the same nation and we need a unified voice to protect our customary and traditional resources on both sides of the border. This relationship must include other First Nations and Alaska Native Tribes. We are united by our Native culture, resources and water. When we stand united we have strength and can make a difference for future generations,” says Sykes.
Through the Coastal Stewardship Network Gathering, it became clear that the Alaskan Haida and Canadian Haida have much to learn from one another in areas, such as cultural tourism, resources management, co-management, and the protection of culture. Developing this partnership further presents opportunities for collaboration and sharing of information and research processes that could greatly improve local management of traditional resources.
“It was very exciting to learn about what the First Nations are doing in British Columbia to assert their self-governance and sovereign authority. Although the management regimes are quite different between the two countries, there are similar concerns such as impacts from development, competing uses for the resources, challenges facing the eulachon and clams, and potential impacts from sea otter and invasive species,” Carrie Sykes says.
The transboundary relationship with First Nations in British Columbia and Alaska Native Tribes means strength through unity on issues that are important to both nation’s coastal communities. One prime example is with promoting best management practices for mining operations on the Stikine, Taku and Unuk Rivers. These rivers are very important to Alaskan Natives for salmon, and are equally important to Canadian First Nations.
Other important collaboration opportunities identified during this exchange include:
Collective data management: How can community resource managers effectively share and access cross boundary data sets to improve management practices at an international scale?
Co-management agreements: How can indigenous communities support and facilitate agreements with the Providence and U.S. Federal Government to support cross boundary relationships?;
Guardian Watchman Program development in Kasaan and Hydaburg: Can elements of British Columbia’s successful indigenous natural resource stewardship program be brought to Southeast Alaska? ;
Monitoring of traditional lands and waters: How can both nations learn from one another and improve natural resource monitoring programs at a grand scale; and the
Haida Gwaii Heritage Tourism Strategy: How can Southeast Alaskan Haida communities learn from Haida Gwaii’s tourism successes and improve local tourism development (particularly with the development of a Kasaan Tourism Plan).
The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is eager to turn this knowledge and strengthened international partnership into action for rural communities here in Southeast Alaska.
Alana Peterson is the Program Director of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.
“The indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest have it engrained in our culture to be good stewards of the land and its resources. Indigenous values are a natural platform for creating sustainable community development. Although there is an international border that separates southeast from British Columbia, we have historically shared information and ideas up and down the coast. We see great value in continuing to share ideas and information with our neighbors in British Columbia,” says Peterson.
Registration Begins for the Southeast Alaska Farm and Fish to Schools Conference
Connecting Alaska’s Schools with Local Food Entrepreneurs
Registration has begun for the Southeast Farm and Fish to Schools Conference. This event will be the first regional opportunity focused on building connections between Alaska’s school systems and local food entrepreneurs. Anyone interested in bringing more local foods into our school system is invited to collaborate and connect with regional experts to strengthen fish and farm to school programming across the state.
Southeast Conference, the regional economic development organization, is coordinating the conference in conjunction with the newly formed Sustainable Southeast Partnership, a diverse network of organizations working together on community sustainability in Southeast Alaska.
Alana Peterson, program director of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Haa Aani, LLC comments:
“Often we find that the barriers to achieving access to local, healthy foods can be overcome if we work together as a region to make this initiative a priority. By bringing all the key players together for a conference we are hoping to achieve just that.”
Fish and farm to school programming offers significant economic, environmental cultural and nutritional opportunities to our rural communities and region.
“Schools in southeast received more than $500,000 last year to buy Alaskan produced foods through the Nutritional Alaska Foods to Schools grant program.” Shelly Wright, Executive Director of Southeast Conference comments. “However, schools are often limited by what they can procure. There are untapped opportunities for, farmers, fishermen and small business in our region. We are eager to break down barriers and grow the opportunities for everyone.”
About the Southeast Alaska Fish to Schools Conference
Carrie and Minnie helped organize assemblies at the Kasaan and Hydaburg schools as I brought the Energy Hog with me. What is the Energy Hog you ask? The Energy Hog is a great way to introduce students to energy use and energy savings concepts in a fun, entertaining and memorable way. This is the second year that the Alaska Energy Authority has rented the costume and coordinated its appearance in schools around the state. Here’s footage from Energy Hog assemblies done in Angoon, Hoonah, and Kake, starring Tasha McKoy as the Energy Hog Buster. Video courtesy Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority and Nathan Havey of Thrive Consulting Group: http://youtu.be/8iDAMfs7iuk. I’ve participated in these programs and am pleasantly surprised at how engaged the students are. We had a lot of fun at both schools. I was also able to speak to the principals about AK EnergySmart, an Alaska specific curriculum developed by Renewable Energy Alaska Project and Alaska Center for Energy and Power with the support of Alaska Housing Finance Corporation.
In Kasaan, Carrie is interested in promoting energy efficiency opportunities for residents. We will continue to discuss the most effective ways to do this. I’ll share more about this soon. In Hydaburg, the tribe is interested in energy efficiency and district biomass heating for some of the larger, centrally located commercial buildings in town. I look forward to following up with Minnie, the Tribe and the consultants who have been looking at the buildings already. I also met with Machelle Edenshaw and Dennis Nickerson in Kasaan. They are working to build even further collaboration on energy and environmental issues among the Island’s tribes, and organize the Earth Day event on Prince of Wales. It was great to finally meet Dennis, as we have been emailing for months now. I will help them look into options to improve Kasaan’s energy independence. At the very least I hope to be involved in the Earth Day event in 2015, which draws hundreds of students Island-wide.