Totems Historic District | Chief Son-I-Hat's Whale House


A look into the History

    According to the house history, provided by Haida Laas – Graham Richard: Over two centuries ago a Haida leader of Yáadaas, a Kuusdek Eagle clan, set out with family and friends in three canoes to round the southern end of Prince of Wales Island. As the sleek canoes went traveling along Xyuu southeast wind suddenly came up and struck them, driving them on to the island’s southern shore and destroying the canoes.

   The Yáadaas clan leader demanded that Xyuu pay for his offense, telling him there would be no problem if he left three whales on the beach by the following morning. Because the wind failed to make retribution for the destroyed canoes, the leader instead took one of Xyuu’s Tlingit names as compensation, Son-I-hat.

After the first Son-I-hat passed on, his nephew Kóyongxung, born in 1829, took and carried the name. The new hereditary leader of the Yáadaas Eagles had at least three children including Tákimash, Xakhú, and Shidla aówa kinás. His family derived its wealth of houses, monumental poles, gold, and slaves by transporting furs from around the northern Gulf of Alaska and Kodiak Island to California. This involved extensive business with the Hudson’s Bay Company in Lax Kw’alaams. In addition, Son-I-Hat carved silver and gold.

   Son-I-Hat’s household had settled at the original Gasa’aan (Old Kasaan) village site sometime before 1860 and as early as the early 1700s. There they lived with numerous other families in a town whose name means ‘pretty place’ or ‘town on a rock’ in Tlingit. The village swelled to include up to 500 people in 18 lodges with up to 60 poles.

   After Haayhiilas the smallpox epidemic of 1862 struck the community, Son-I-Hat left the old village at the mouth of Polk Inlet to live close to a Christian mission on a point 13 km to the north in neighboring Kasaan Bay. The disease had left its victims throughout the old village both inside and outside of houses, having reduced the community’s population of up to 500 to about 80 people. Even so the promises of education, medicine, and religion were not enough to overcome the deep reservations many Haida maintained towards living in the company of missionaries.

   To convince his remaining family to join him at the new site, Son-I-Hat constructed a new house in 1880. Náay I’waans, was nicknamed the “Whale House” or “House Without Nails”. The house was constructed according to traditional techniques, and all the houses that come after it in Gasa’aan were built in the new, style which included Western elements. Later a copper-mine, sawmill, post office, store, and cannery sprang up nearby and by 1902 all the citizens of the community had relocated from the old village site.

   The incorporation of western-style doors and windows became common practice towards the end of the 1800s and Náay I’waans was no exception. When it was first constructed four double-hung windows and a stock panel door were included as contemporary features. The Victorian-style sliding windowpanes and rectangular, compartmentalized doors characterize the traditional English construction of buildings like 10 Downing Street in London. The remainder of the house was of traditional Haida design and built entirely from Red cedar, which is favored for its durability, lightness, large size, and ease of working and splitting.

Náay I’waans is roughly 45’ long, 45’ wide and 25’ tall. The 2025 square-foot home sheltered a family of 31 or 32 people, including two male slaves belonging to Son-I-Hat’s wife and one female slave belonging to Son-I-Hat. In 1891, 28 years after the American Emancipation Proclamation, which changed the technical legal status of slaves within United States borders to ‘free’, Son-I-Hat adopted the three children of his former slaves. Between Son-IHat and his wife, the household spoke three languages; Xaad Kil, Sm’algyax Tsimshian, and Chinook.

   Haida-style houses are built by lock-and-key, a construction method that remains foundational in modern longhouses like Tluu Xaadaa Naay in Gaaw and HlGaagilda Xaayda Kil Naay in HlGaagilda. This technique provided Náay I’waans with its second nickname, House Without Nails.

   Like most Haida longhouses, Náay I’waans is based around four large corner poles, the front most of which are called gáats (uncarved support poles). Across the tops of these, from the front to the back of the house, run tsán skágat (support posts). Supportive cross beams run horizontally on top of these. Large split cedar shakes are then placed on the roof and secured with heavy stones, logs, or line. Finally split cedar planks are slotted into sills along the sides of the house, creating walls. Naay xíilaas, a wide and tall cedar chimney tops the structure, funneling smoke from the home’s central fire.

Inside the house, an excavated square called a da’ay contains a fire and forms the center of the house. In each corner of the da’ay a triangular cupboard contains dishes. Those inside can exit the house through the centered front door or a side-door near the front right corner. When it was first constructed outbuildings included a lean-to and root cellar behind the house.

The members of the family slept on a raised, square cedar platform that wrapped around the da’ay. They occupied traditional positions within the house. Son-I-Hat, his daughter, and his wife stayed against the farthest wall. Lower-ranking family members slept on the planks in the middle of the house and the family’s two slaves stayed at the threshold beside the front door.

The original house had four carved, monumental poles, all of which survive today. The oldest came from an earlier clan-house and was commissioned or carved by a previous hereditary leader sometime before 1880. The undated masterwork still serves as the monumental centerpiece of the home. Head House Totem faces the front door with its back against the far wall.

This resides on private property owned by the Kasaan Village Corporation (Kavilco)

Click the button below to find out more about Kavilco

Naay I'waans Restoration Project


Kavilco,Incorporated and Organized Village of Kasaan partner to restore the “Whale House”

Kavilco, Incorporated owns Naay I’waans (“The Great House”, Chief  Son-i-Hat Whale House) and the surrounding land. Having responsibility  for the property, Kavilco contracted with MRV Architects in 2007 to  perform a condition survey of the Whale House and eight nearby totem  poles. In 2010, Kavilco and the Organized Village of Kasaan (OVK)  developed a joint strategy to move forward on implementing critical  restoration work. Through a grant funded by the National Park Service –  Historic Preservation Office (2010-2011), MRV and OVK drafted the  “Son-i-Hat Whale House Renovation & Preservation Plan. Kavilco and  OVK formally approved this plan in October, 2011.

Purpose and Goals:

The purpose of this Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House Restoration Project  is to preserve and protect the Haida architectural form and physical  structure of the Whale House located in Kasaan, Alaska. An additional  purpose is to preserve and practice the traditional carving and house  construction methods of the Haida people for future generations.

Traditional Focus:

The renovation project will use traditional carving and construction  knowledge, tools, and techniques to renovate the Whale House in the most  traditional manner possible to maintain a legacy link to the past. The  renovation project will be faithful to the house that was originally  constructed in the 1880’s and reconstructed in 1938-1940.

All sound existing wood and strucutres will be utilized as carefully  as possible, both out of respect to the original carvers and structure,  and to minimize the number of boards and structures that need to be  re-fabricated. Further, all renovation activities will adhere to  relevant guidelines found in the National Register of Historic Places.

Please donate to this worthy cause!

The Organized Village of Kasaan is selling shirts and hoodies to help raise funds to “Save the Whale House”.  Make sure to check them out in our Gift Shop

Trail Guide


Additional Information

   Chief Son-i-Hat (1829-1912), of the Yáadaas clan (Eagle moiety,  Beaver and Frog crests), became one of the wealthiest of the Haida  chiefs. Son-i-Hat (Kóyongxung) built Náay I’waans (The Great House)  around 1880.   

 Náay I’waans got the nickname “Whale House” from the stories conveyed on its original interior house posts.
The four house posts supporting the roof, or “gáats” (pronounced “gots”), were carved around 1880 specifically
for this building.  The back center house post–The Head House Totem–predates Naay I’waans and we do not
know the date of carving, possibly 1700s or early 1800s.

Between 1938 and 1940, the Civilian Conservation Corps program funded reconstruction of Náay I’waans and
created a nearby totem park, using totem poles from Old Kasaan (Gasa’aan, “pretty town” or “beautiful village”).

The “Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House and Totems Historic District” became listed on the National Register of
Historic Places in 2002.  The building was  renovated the second time from 2011 to 2016.


NOTE: Please enjoy respectfully. Kavilco, Incorporated owns the private property including the trail, totems,
Naay I’waans, and the cemetery. During 1938 to 1940, the park was  created with funding from the Civilian Conservation Corp.  Kavilco has  given the Organized Village of Kasaan exclusive rights to commercial  tours.

Map Legend

1) Skaawaal “Southeaster” House Frontal Pole, original carved in the mid 1800s, top figure recarved in 1940

2) Bear/Bear Memorial Grave Marker, replica, 1940

3) East (“Daybreak”) House Frontal Pole, undated original, top figure recarved 1940

4) “Flying Groundhog” Pole, undated original with replica 1940 top portion

5) The Spencer Pole, undated original frontal pole with replica 1940 top figure

6) Frog and Eagle Nest Memorial, replica without eagles, 1940

7) Killer Whale Grave Marker, replica, 1940

8) Brown Bear Grave Marker, undated original

9) Naay I’waans Frontal Pole, replica, 1940

10) Naay I’waans (“The Great House”, Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House), 1880