About 30 miles west of Ketchikan in southeastern Alaska is the site of a former national monument so obscure that even a lot of Park Service history buffs know little or nothing about it. Old Kasaan National Monument was proclaimed in 1916 to preserve a 38-acre site containing the ruins and remaining totems of an abandoned Haida Indian village. The Park Service moved the village’s totems to a different site, and Congress abolished the park in 1955.
The historic Haida Indian settlement in question is called “Old Kasaan” because the village’s entire population left over a century ago and resettled in a new place, a community that’s formally known as Kasaan (an Organized Village), but can be referred to as “New Kasaan” without creating any confusion. If you visit the latter settlement today you’ll find a small but viable community of Haida people, a federally recognized tribe. If you visit Old Kasaan, however, you'll find only a few sad remnants of structures that stood there long ago. It’s an interesting story.
In historic times the Haida nation, which had a well-deserved reputation for aggressiveness and ferocity, controlled a good-sized chunk of the Pacific Northwest Coast, including the Queen Charlotte Islands (now part of Canada’s British Columbia province) and the southern half of Prince of Wales Island, part of the Alaskan panhandle’s Alexander Archipelago. The latter territorial component was the homeland of a subgroup called the Kaigani Haida. Within the Kaigani Haida homeland was the shoreline village of Kasaan, which was inhabited by the Táas Láanas (Raven) clan. For most practical purposes, their descendants can be referred to as the Kasaan Haida.
Kasaan derives from the Tlingit Indian word "Kasi-an," which means mean "pretty town." The Haida pronounce it "Gasa'n."
The clan living in Old Kasaan village was led by a succession of competent chiefs, including Chief Skowal (aka Skowl), who ruled for at least 20 years before his death in 1882. Skowal, who was a powerful chief, despised whites and particularly hated the missionaries they sent. Until his dying day Skowal urged his followers to safeguard their native culture from foreign intrusion. When he died, his people gave him one hell of a fine funeral.
Skowal, who was wealthy by Haida standards, occupied two houses in succession. The second was an unusually large house called Nahíwaq. There’s some confusion surrounding the translation of “Nahíwaq,” but it is prevailingly thought to mean “Rib House.” Nahíwaq/Rib House was a very lively place. Skowal is known to have hosted many celebrations of one sort or another in his big house at frequent intervals.
Like other Haida villages, Old Kasaan had a variety of totems, including a very nice collection of totem poles. The cluster of poles in front of Nahíwaq, including one that Skowal installed during his tenure as chief, were among Old Kasaan's most precious totems.
Skowal’s descendents continued to live in Nahíwaq until the village’s entire population decamped in 1902-1904 to a new settlement on Kasaan Bay on the Kasaan Peninsula’s southwest coast. The reason for the move was pretty straightforward: a salmon packing plant that had been built there not long before offered jobs. The community that built up around the salmon cannery was named Kasaan after its post office was certified by that name in 1900.
Sadly, a fire that swept through the abandoned village in 1915 burned many of the vacant houses and destroyed or severely damaged many of the totems that had been left behind. Nahíwaq was almost completely burned to the ground, and a totem pole that Skowal had erected was damaged beyond repair. (Some other totem poles, including one installed by Skowal’s successor, sustained little or no significant damage.)
The Forest Service recognized the cultural/historical significance of Old Kasaan, believed that Nahíwaq should be restored, and recommended that the site be made a national monument. The national monument part was taken care of on October 25, 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Old Kasaan National Monument and gave it to the National Park Service to manage. The site restoration part of it would not come to pass. It was just too inconvenient and too expensive. There were much more important things to do with the limited resources at hand.
Finally, in 1938, the National Park Service negotiated with key Kasaan Haida descendents (the Peele, Thomas and Young families) and arranged to move specified totems from Old Kasaan to New Kasaan. The terms of the agreements prohibited moving any of the totems to Ketchikan; the totems were to remain on Haida property.
According to Kavilco, Inc, the Kasaan Haida closed-end investment company, five historic totems were transferred from Old Kasaan to New Kasaan and renovated. These included:
1) Flying Groundhog Pole. This 40-foot totem surmounted by an eagle was one of a pair of totems that stood in front of Chief Skowl’s Rib House. When the pole was moved to New Kasaan, the flying groundhog at the top was replaced with an eagle in 1939.
2) The 50-foot Skowl Pole which stood in front of Chief Skowl’s Rib House. The thunderbird figure at the top was newly carved as the old one had rotted and the surface carved down to solid wood.
3) A totem known as the Spencer Pole which was erected by a Kasaan woman who had married a white man by the name of Spencer. The figure at the top of the pole (Mr. Spencer) was re-carved.
4) Ha'u Pole (East House) which was relocated approximately 18 meters behind the Spencer Pole at New Kasaan. It belonged to the grandfather of Son-I-Hat who actually had the name East and was carved by a Tlingit craftsman. Walter Young worked on the restoration of this pole, which once belonged to his father.
5) Sitting Bear Grave Marker which stands about six feet high. It stood over Peter Jones’ father’s grave and was located inside a small grave house at the west end of the village.
Three copies of historic totems were also installed at New Kasaan, including a Killer Whale Grave marker, a brown bear memorial pole, and a large frog pole. All eight of the totems and additional relics can be seen in the Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House and Totems Historic District in (New) Kasaan.
After its principal cultural features were removed, Old Kasaan village was no longer a national monument-quality site. The site’s remote location also weighed heavily against further National Park Service interest in the place. On July 26, 1955 Congress abolished Old Kasaan National Monument and transferred the property back to the U.S. Forest Service, which administers it today as a component of the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest.
Postscript: All that now remains of Nahíwaq are a few charred posts. Skowal’s totem pole, which survived high tides, wind, and fire for nearly a century, finally fell over in 1980.