Restoring the 'Center of Kasaan': Q&A with Eric Hamar and Harley Bell-Holter

Eric Hamar (left) and Harley Bell-Holter (right) stand in the doorway of the Kasaan Community Carving Shed.

On Prince of Wales Island, beside a trail west of the small community of Kasaan, sits Náay I’waans. Also known as the Whale House or, more specifically Chief Son-i-hat’s House, this building is the oldest surviving example of traditional Haida architecture in the United States. Originally built by Chief Son-i-hat in the 1880s, Náay I’waans was once home to the wealthy and revered chief and his family. Today, the site attracts ogling tourists from all over the world. As carver Eric Hamar puts it, the site also serves as the “historical and emotional center of Kasaan.”

The fight to keep Náay I’waans standing has spanned over a century. The building has been re-shaked (roofed) at least twice, reworked and officially restored by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. This labor of love has called on the commitment, creativity and craftsmanship of many skilled workers including Eric and Harley Bell-Holter. The two have been active on the current Náay I’waans Restoration Project, led by the Organized Village of Kasaan and Kavilco Inc., for three years. They are apprenticing under lead carver Stormy Hamar (Eric’s father) with Justin Henricks joining the project in July of last year. This week marks one year until the official rededication celebration, set for Sept. 3, 2016.

I sat with Eric and Harley in the Kasaan Community Carving Shed atop a seemingly bottomless floor of heavenly smelling cedar chips. In the company of visiting community members and an impressive collection of coffee mugs, Eric and Harley share their experiences on the project.

Photo circa 1900s taken within Chief Son-I-Hat's house. Photo courtesy Manuscripts, Special Collections, University Archives, University of Washington Libraries

How would you describe Kasaan to someone who has never visited?

HBH: I would say that it is the most unique place you will ever see and witness from the way that the weather hits us, all the way down to the people and everything in between. We operate by a different set of rules, we work towards a better tomorrow. Kasaan is unique because of the longhouse, the trails, the fact that we still look like a village did 50 years ago. The fact that it is the land that time has forgotten.

What is the significance of the Whale House to Kasaan?

HBH: Death [from smallpox] hit so hard in Old Kasaan that they didn’t even have time to bury the bodies. That drove our people to this small place [the current site of Kasaan] because the missionaries promised us education, medicine and religion. That drove Chief Son-i-hat to build this longhouse just outside our village. This was him trying to coax his people into moving over here, away from that disease. By the time he built his longhouse, 32 people lived here with him. After he passed away, everyone moved here. To this day, Náay I’waans, the longhouse I have the privilege of working on every day, is a beacon of light to our culture and has been since its original building.

What inspired you to work on the project?

EH: I got involved with it in part because it is important to the community. It’s one of the very rare things in the community that everyone agrees is important. And for that, it is important. Historically it is significant as far as the people who lived there, why it was built in the first place. It’s also kind of the historical center, not necessarily the physical center, but the historical and emotional center of the village. It’s the biggest item of pride that we have and so it’s very important for that reason.

What have been some of the challenges?

HBH: It’s an exhausting job most days, the infrastructure here is crazy. This job has never once been as simple as “restoring a longhouse.” From the very start, me, Eric and Stormy went out there and had this very definitive and exact way that we were going to do it. We got there for the first day and realized that one of the corner posts was protruding out the side of the building and was completely rotted. It changed everything immediately. The biggest challenge became the actual physical challenge of doing it because Kavilco and OVK agreed in consensus that we can never fully demolish Náay I’waans, that we had to keep it standing. So physically, that was a challenge and we have had to do things creatively and differently than probably any other building project, maybe, in the history of man.

The scope of the restoration work includes the physical building as well as the totem poles around and within the site. In the shed, Eric applies final touches to the head of a figure he has carved to replace a missing piece of an original Náay I’waans pole. This particular pole was moved from Old Kasaan to Náay I’waans in 1880 and sits in the center of the Whale House. I ask the obvious question: what creature’s head is he working on?

EH: Not completely sure what it is. But given the very interesting nature of the pole, my dad and I have had many talks about it. Whatever it is, I think it’s very powerful. People seem to try and boil down all of the stuff that was portrayed on these poles simply as, ‘Oh it’s a bear, oh it’s a this, oh it’s a that.’ But there are a lot of things that are more complex and natural that aren’t necessarily acceptable in today’s modern American culture to talk about.

So what do you think the figure is depicting then?

EH: The culture that created this pole was very different to the one we live in today. So considering that, I think it is a depiction of birth. Like this here [points to face encircled by the tail of the figure whose head he is carving; see images at right], is maybe a child within a representation of the innards. It’s kind of made me wonder if it isn’t even a depiction of birth from the inside looking out at the doctor and world, which might sound kind of weird and funny now, but at the time that would have been a very serious thing.

As the centerpiece of the longhouse, it makes a lot of sense to me for it to symbolize birth, which is why I think this figure, whatever it is, is female. Of course, nobody will ever know and that’s the greatest part, that it can be so open to interpretation.

There have been people who come in here (who) will be like ‘Oh wow, that is a beautiful eagle, or is that a raven? Or a wolf?’ It is definitely a subject of discussion. Which is what I want to see more of — undefined things. Art beyond just ‘spirit this, raven transformation that, here’s another that, here’s a bunch of ovoids’ — meaning that (it) isn’t easily explainable. This art-form took the entirety of our existence to come up with. You aren’t going to be able to explain it with something as topical as, ‘Oh, it’s a bear.’

(Left) Harley Bell-Holter, Eric Hamar, Justin Henricks and Stormy Hamar stand beside the central pole in Náay I’waans to celebrate the returning of the missing face. Eric carved the replacement. What creature is it? Not sure. Hamar appreciates the mystery (as described). Photo by Frederick Olsen. (Right) Harley sands a mask in the carving shed. 

Open interpretation and active dialogue keeps this traditional art form alive and modern. The carving shed acts as a central hub for discussion. An endless rotation of visiting community members and tourists pass through. Visitors practice carving and transfixed kids work on ongoing projects. An additional goal of the project is to strengthen enthusiasm for this craft. The warm atmosphere of the shed makes it clear that this objective is being met on a daily basis.

The energy Eric and Harley have for their work is contagious.

HBH: I would implore anybody to pick up an adze and try it. I wouldn’t try and push our profession on people but it would be really cool to give everyone the opportunity to try it. I think it is important that we remain teachers. I have already seen my 12-year old student, Donny Savage, starting to teach his peers because he now has enough confidence to teach it himself. That fills me with pride and that also means that my culture will live on, regardless of Donny’s ethnicity.

The Náay I’waans Restoration Project has entered the final stages and is set to be completed this winter. A second leg of the project is to begin a continual maintenance program for the site. Once complete, the building will be used as a place to visit and tour as well as serve as a facility for community events.  The official Rededication Ceremony will be held Sept. 3, 2016, and Kasaan is seeking additional funding to support the event. Visit or call (907) 542-2230 for details.

For a historical review of Chief Soni-i-hat’s house, by Pat Roppel.