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 said this week.
Agreement to display the totemic carvings – secured from the Gaanaxteidi clan during recent 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.
Construction of the center has started but current funds aren’t sufficient for completion.
“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 (site). To see art of that magnitude in its original setting is such a rare thing.”
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.
Created during the zenith of Tlingit indigenous art about 200 years ago, the carvings include four interior house posts, a wall screen and a feast dish ranked as treasures by art experts and historians but 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 Ganaaxteidi 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 for 15 years 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,” Jones Hotch Jr. 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 over time.”
Displaying the artifacts from the Whale House is fitting because 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.”
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 walls 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 of clan members may 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.
A legislative grant of $3.5 million to the Chilkat Indian Village is being used to build the shell of the center. The village needs to raise another $4 million to complete the interior, install exhibits and interior furnishings and do landscaping. The Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center has launched a website: http://jilkaatkwaanheritagecenter.org.