Cultural center in Klukwan will display prized Whale House masterworks

Tom Morphet
The Dakt’ootl (“Strong Man” or “Black Skin”) and Salmon posts from the Whale House in Klukwan are photographed on their return to the village in 1994.
Tom Morpher
This much-reproduced photo by the Juneau firm of Winter & Pond, taken around 1895, shows the interior of the Whale House.
Daily News archive
Klukwan villagers celebrate the return of the Whale House posts in 1994. The Woodworm post is on the left; the Sea Creature post (partially obscured) is in the center.
Tom Morphet

HAINES -- The Whale House artifacts, rarely seen masterworks of Northwest Coast Indian art, will be displayed at Klukwan's Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Heritage Center, village officials recently reported.

Agreement to display the carvings -- secured from the Gaanaxteidi clan during meetings in Haines -- represents a commitment of major art pieces to the center and a potentially powerful magnet for attracting additional funding and exhibits, said Lani Hotch, director of the nonprofit that is overseeing the project.

"This is monumental," Hotch said. "I think it will generate a lot more interest in our project, knowing these artifacts are going to be in there."

Steve Henrikson, senior curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum, said agreement to put the pieces on display is of international significance. "This is like a UNESCO World Heritage decision. To see art of that magnitude in its original setting is such a rare thing."

'Michelangelo territory'

The Klukwan carvings -- notably four house posts and a mural screen or wall -- are thought to be the work of Kadjisdu.axtc of Wrangell, who also did the artwork for the Chief Shakes House in that town. They have been admired by the outside world since the first photographs were taken, more than 100 years ago and became the subject of legal argument reported in depth by the Daily News in a series that ran April 4-9, 1993.

Henrikson described the artifacts as the equivalent of "Alaska's Parthenon." "The level of work exhibited by that art, and the sensitivity of it can be appreciated by people who don't know anything about art or the culture. This is Michelangelo territory. The emotion in those faces just blows people away."

Whale House caretaker Jones Hotch Jr. said an agreement to display the pieces was forged in Haines on June 2 among 40 members of the clan, who came from other parts of Alaska and the Lower 48.

The group decided to put the art in the proposed center on a loan basis for at least 15 years. The plan is to re-evaluate the arrangement in 14 years or when and if a new clan house is built.

Created during the zenith of Tlingit indigenous art about 200 years ago, the carvings and a feast dish also associated with Kadjisdu.axtc are ranked as treasures by art experts and historians. But they have been kept under wraps for most of the past 50 years.

Museum collectors and art dealers pursued the carvings for nearly a century, and a removal attempt in 1982 got them as far as a Seattle warehouse. The pieces were returned to Klukwan in 1994, following a historic tribal court trial in Klukwan that determined they were Gaanaxteidi clan property.

The clan was to meet soon after the artifacts were returned, but that didn't happen. In the interim, the Chilkat Indian Village tribal council has been working with local members of the Gaanaxteidi clan for several years to clean and make repairs to the totems and make protective crates for them, Jones Hotch Jr. said.

The decision to loan the pieces to the cultural center didn't come without debate. A recent groundbreaking for the village museum "raised the ire of some clan members who were opposed to placing the treasures in the center," Lani Hotch said.

Putting clan property on public display and in a building other than one controlled by the clan are relatively new ideas that run counter to traditional Tlingit practice. Some early suggestions for the village cultural center included separate rooms inside for each clan.

"Some elders learned the old way and still have misgivings about it. They're remembering the old time. Klukwan life has changed since then," Lani Hotch said. "We have to adapt with the times and we're doing the best that we can. Not everybody's on the same page, but I think people will come around to the idea in time."

Displaying the Whale House artifacts is appropriate as the Gaanaxteidi clan founded Klukwan and the Whale House was its most prestigious house, Hotch said. "It makes sense to have their pieces be the centerpiece exhibit of the village cultural center."

'Force for good'

Historically, Klukwan was home to at least seven clans and more than a dozen longhouses, each affiliated with a clan. People lived communally in houses named after important clan symbols, such as "Frog House," "Killer Whale Fin House" and "Drum House." Symbols or crests were carved into the posts and wall screens of longhouses.

Clan houses suffered when cultural changes -- including factors like influenza epidemics -- drove villagers to build individual family homes, Lani Hotch said. Often, clan-owned crest pieces remained in the vacant clan houses. "When those houses started to fall, the question became, 'Where do you put these clan trust items?' "

There are modern clan houses in the village, and house members responsible for them may still choose to keep crest pieces there, she said. "These are going to have to be clan decisions, and it's hard to get all your clan members together. That's a part of the difficulty."

In Tlingit culture, crest pieces -- including smaller items like ceremonial hats and rattles -- were typically brought out only on special occasions. Pursuit by cash buyers in the 20th century made villagers even more protective of the pieces, driving them further out of sight.

The state museum's Henrikson said he understands the cultural sensitivity surrounding the objects but believes the time has come to display them.

"This is living history. It gives people a chance to hear about the amazing things people in the village did to protect these artifacts. They found a way with their tribal government to hold on to them. Not every village was able to do that," Henrikson said. "This material is a powerful force of good in the community. It has the power to change people's lives."

A small Frog House blanket and a full-sized Chilkat robe are among items stored elsewhere that will be kept at the center. House posts from Klukwan's Frog House stored at the state museum in Juneau also were to be kept in a Klukwan center, but those commitments by an earlier generation likely will need to be revisited, Lani Hotch said.

Before 1982, the Whale House pieces were kept in an unoccupied cement building located across the street from the current ANS Hall in Klukwan.

Construction of the center has started, but current funds aren't sufficient to complete the structure. A legislative grant of $3.5 million to the Chilkat Indian Village is being used to build the shell of the center. The village still needs to raise another $4 million to complete the interior, install exhibits and interior furnishings and do landscaping.

In addition to housing art and artifacts, the center will also serve as a bald eagle observatory and education hub.

"Klukwan is surrounded by the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve," said Lani Hotch. "The Bald Eagle Council Ground, which gets the highest concentration of eagle is right in the vicinity of Klukwan." The bald eagle count in the 23,000-acre preserve numbers between 3,500-4,000 in the winter months between November and March.


Read the Whale House series (originally published April 1993)
Chilkat Valley News