A sign welcoming people to town as been changed from saying "Welcome to Haines" to "Welcome to Deishu" on Saturday, April 27, 2024. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)
A sign welcoming people to town as been changed from saying “Welcome to Haines” to “Welcome to Deishu” on Saturday, April 27, 2024. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)

The “Welcome to Haines” signs at either end of town got a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it makeover over the weekend, but have since been restored to their original form. 

At some point last week, someone modified them to welcome people to Deishú, a word that means “End of the Trail” in Tlingít. It’s often used as the Tlingít alternative to the English name of Haines. 

It was a subtle shift. Whoever did it measured and replaced the boards, matched the font carved into the original signs and hung the new signs without fanfare. 

So, people in town were slow to notice. Mayor Tom Morphet went to check the sign at Picture Point after the borough manager saw the change on her drive back into town up Lutak Road. 

He struggled a bit with what to call the act – especially because whoever did it didn’t damage the original Haines sign and set it on the ground nearby. 

“They did it very well – the most creative piece of vandalism I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It doesn’t fit the traditional definition of vandalism for sure. It’s nothing, no value, they left us the sign. They put a new sign in. No value was subtracted.”

He paused for a moment. “It’s a well-done political statement,” he said.  

The signs have been changed back and now bear the original carved “Haines” planks. 

The signs

The two signs that were modified are planks of yellow cedar hanging between red cedar totem poles that were carved at Alaska Indian Arts. 

Lee Heinmiller, longtime executive director of AIA, said the totem at Picture Point was carved in 1979. Originally one 27-foot pole that was installed in a California man’s house, it was cut in two and repurposed as a sign for the community. 

Heinmiller was frustrated about the quality of the modifications. He said they looked thrown together and the wood was cheap. 

“It’s just made out of plywood. It’s just routed into the plywood and painted,” he said. “If it’s not cedar, it isn’t going to last that close to the ocean very well at all.” 

He was also somewhat affronted that someone had modified them without talking to the original carvers. 

“You don’t carve something on somebody else’s work without talking to the original artists and getting permission,” he said.  

Mayor Tom Morphet points out the difference between two types of wood used on a city sign at PIcture Point on Saturday, April 27, 2024, in Haines, Alaska. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)
Mayor Tom Morphet points out the difference between two types of wood used on a city sign at Picture Point on Saturday, April 27, 2024, in Haines, Alaska. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)

Despite his frustration at modifications, Heinmiller said he doesn’t disagree with the message on the signs themselves. 

“Not at all,” he said. 

Any change would be costly if done well, as it would require the use of  yellow or red cedar – antimicrobial woods that would hold up over time.

“Probably a couple thousand for materials and layout and carving and then putting it all back together,” he said. 

What’s in a name?

When Mayor Morphet saw the modified signs, he said it was as an indicator of a larger issue in the community. 

“What message should hang between two totems at either end of town? They are, by their nature, totemic signs so shouldn’t there be some acknowledgement of the culture represented by those four posts that hold up those two signs?” he said. “Maybe it’s a mixed message that we have Western people here that use English superimposed over a Tlingít culture that we’re not really talking about.” 

That community discussion has been happening on and off for decades. 

Most recently during the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee’s April 18 hearing when members discussed a proposal to replace the sign at Picture Point. Committee co-chair Kathleen Menke suggested changing the two signs to “Welcome to Haines/Deishú. Haa Kusteeyí – Our Way of Life.”

“The feedback was ‘Well, we can’t take this to the borough until we know how much this is going to cost,’” Menke said.”So we were kind of in limbo when this popped up.”

When she first saw one of the modified signs, she said she had complicated feelings. 

“I’m sorry this happened, because I thought it would create a harder path,” she said. “But, when I went and looked at it – I mean, yeah it’s not the original carving and it’s not cedar – but, dang, it looks pretty good.”

Menke said she’d like to see a compromise. 

“Instead of going for a change in the name of the community officially, the post office and people’s legal documents, let’s just do this sign,” she said. “That’s kind of a compromise. Itacknowledges both points of view.” 

Still, she thinks it’s going to be controversial. 

“The name Haines has been here a little over 100 years,” she said. 

It was named for Francina E. Haines, secretary of the Presbyterian National Committee of Home Missions, which raised funds for the mission. Haines never set foot in the community. 

And, while the name Deishú has been here far longer, Menke said some people struggle with changes like the one implied by swapping the signs. 

She points to the decades-long naming dispute over Denali which had been called Mount McKinley for nearly 100 years. 

“There are still people that cling to the name Mount McKinley that live in this town. I know those people,” she said. “But, I think there’s a lot of healing that needs to happen between the mission coming in and the boarding school and the land being taken over by the fort. It’s a discussion that needs to happen and it would be wonderful if we could do it in a respectful way.” 

Like Morphet, Menke also waffled a bit on what to call the sign switch. “I think it’s a cultural statement,” she said. 

She also noted that when the name Haines was first decided upon in 1910 – there were a lot of people who weren’t allowed to weigh-in. 

“Native people couldn’t vote. Women couldn’t vote,” she said. 

Artist James Hart grows into new space as part of Tlingit art revival. (File photo/Chilkat Valley News)
Artist James Hart. (File photo/Chilkat Valley News)

Local artist and community leader James Hart agreed with that sentiment. 

“Did the people who live here agree to that name change? Who came up with the original name?” he said. 

Hart pointed out that other communities in Southeast Alaska retained anglicized versions of Tlingít names. 

“We have Juneau (Dzantik’i Heeni, Áak’w), Hoonah (Xunaa Káawu), Sitka, (Sheet’ká), all of these communities that have their traditional names,” he said. Whereas we’re just Haines and that does bother me. It’s an erasure of our culture.” 

Hart said his personal opinion is that he would like to see the community renamed Deishú. 

“I think we have a borough and a town site which may be different than the original area that people may have called Deishú. But, I wouldn’t have any problem adopting just all of whatever Haines is into Deishú.” 

Hart said the idea of changing the name of Haines to a Tlingít place name  is one that has come up for years. 

“I feel like the name ‘Haines’ is erasing the history of people who lived here. I’m still here. I’m not going anywhere. My family is from here, we’re not going anywhere. Why do we need to live under this name Haines,” he said. “Names need to change and the signs need to change with it.” 

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to one of the first people to notice the changed signs as the city manager. She is the borough manager.