The Whale House - the essay

The Whale House - the essay

The Whale House

interpreting a historic photograph

by Barry Herem

The Whale House of the Chilkat Tlingit of Klukwan, Alaska has long been the most famous and grandiose of all tribal houses in Alaska.  This interior shot was taken in 1895 by Juneau photographers Winter and Pond, the print is a digitized image taken from their original glass plate.

The House, having been constructed in circa 1830, was in disrepair by 1895 remaining primarily as an ongoing repository of clan treasures including, in this image, two of four houseposts - the Woodworm Girl (left) and the Raven post.  These and the two remaining houseposts holding up the opposite end of the House (unseen) were the creation of the most famous Tlingit artist of his day, Kadjis du axtc. In addition one sees here his 16-foot long Woodworm feast dish with its humanoid face and worm-like segmentations.  The also-famous Rainwall Screen,18-feet wide, covers much of the back wall and is a dense tour-de-force of classic formline design closely related to the two-dimensional Northwest Coast design system which prevails throughout the 600-mile northern stretch of

the Pacific Northwest Coast.

In the foreground a broad Tlingit-style face centered on the lower level of the House’s double platforms is flanked in painted form by the extended limbs of a mythic figure said by some to be the spirit of a warrior ascending into heaven. Other details of this interior include (lower center)both the "lid" (on the left) and the interior chest (on the right) of a “telescoping" carved chest used as a repository for many of the valuable and symbolic works of art and culture displayed throughout this scene.  When closed up the left half of this chest is turned and set upright over the right half.  This left side chest is now on view in theBurke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Also on view in this photograph is the unusually large Woodworm girl face-mask located behind the child, right center (note the labret in the lower lip which indicates a female of high standing); the spruce-root Mother Basket which is purported to be the largest of its kind, complete with its multiple fold marks from storage within the carved chest,  plus many woven hats and masks in addition to important items of ceremonial clothing: aprons, leggings, tunics and staffs.  Interestingly, the pipe-smoking man in the upper right may be wearing a Russian officer’s great coat and hat either taken from or traded with Russian seamen during early periods of both contact and conflict (note that it’s a bad fit).  Most of the largest of these objects, including the houseposts,Woodworm Dish and Rainwall Screen still remain in the village of Klukwan on the banks of the Chilkat River, 26 miles north of Haines, Alaska. Many other of these works can be found in a variety of major museum collections.

Also notable is the grave-faced shaman or Tlingit “Doctor” lower left holding his inlaid staff, furs, and spiral spirit tool beneath what appears to be a bear hat.  In contrast the central figures of man and boy seem to be delighted at the prospect of having their pictures taken, immortalized as it turns out in one of the most spectacular and

culturally meaningful photographs ever taken of tribal people from anywhere in the world.  Given the matrilineal nature of traditional Tlingit kinship reckoning, it is probable that all of the male figures shown are uncles, brothers, nephews and son relations to the leading matriarch who is not shown.  To many the most compelling image is of the

boy himself with his beaming, somewhat blurred, smile as he stands among his uncles and clansmen, in the center of his world, surrounded by the most important emblems and artworks of his clan.

Finally, it is telling that, as has been asserted in recent times, it was the leading Whale House matriarch who requested that this photograph be taken in 1895 so that it would  show not only the interior of the house itself but also much of the clan’s material wealth which would normally be put on view only during important occasions - marriages, deaths, the assumption of names, rights and privileges, etc - thereby memorably adding to both the significance of the house and the occasion.  If so this suggests that she  wished to make The Whale House even more famous than it already was, aggrandizing it further by display of the most important House treasures.

Many photographs of the interior of the Whale House were taken at  by Winter and Pond, some show many more people, teenagers, children, the elderly.  In some the House is empty save for its artifacts.  In all cases one man stood behind the early large-format camera, likely mounted on a tripod with a black fabric over his head,

while the other held aloft a portable metal platform with burning sulfer for illumination.  The original glass plate for this image strikes a fine balance between people and artifacts, a second in the same collection shows only the bare interior of the House.

Both of these photographic plates are in Barry Herem’s private collection.  This is the only attempt at a written explication of this photograph that I know of and by no means purports to be complete or above correction. I would appreciate any factual additions or further information regarding this interior photograph of the Whale House. Much more information, with images, can be found on line.

Lastly, a great change has taken place recently in the disposition of the works of Tlingit history seen here.  A large modern museum, decades in the planning, was opened to the public in Klukwan during the summer of 2016.  It houses the four Houseposts, Rainwall Screen and many of the other arifacts seen in this photograph and is a triumph of much effort and coordination beginning nearly 200 years ago when the original Whale House was constructed.

Large format copies of this image (up to 30 X 40) are available upon request.

Barry Herem, April, 2018