restricted access In Honor of Nastáo: Kasaan Haida Elders Look to the Future
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In Honor of Nastáo:
Kasaan Haida Elders Look to the Future

We have to re-define what it means to be Haida today. . . . So what do we teach them? Teach the good things about being Haida: respect, identification of who you are. Not the fact that you've got the biggest totem pole, or the most wealth, but the fact that you've done it, or you were a part of it. . . . We teach them what we know, and what we can learn. . . .

Willard Lear Jones (Nastáo) Táas Láanas, Raven, Brown Bear (1930-2007), Gá sa áan Xaadas Guu suu: Kasaan Haida Elders Speak July 20011

Storytelling, oral histories, the perspectives of elders and women have become an integral part of all indigenous research. Each individual story is powerful. But the point about the stories is not that they simply tell a story, or tell a story simply. These new stories contribute to a collective story in which every indigenous person has a place.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples

Nastáo, my maternal uncle, was one of seven Alaskan Haida elders who participated in an oral history interview project conducted in 2000-2001 by a group of us "younger" Haida, originally from Kasaan village, but who are no longer living there. Kasaan is one of only four remaining Haida villages in the world. The others are Hydaburg, also in Southeast Alaska, and Masset and Skidegate in Haida Gwaii (Haida Island, or Islands of the People), previously known as the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia, Canada. In the above epigraph, Nastáo responded to one of the central questions of our project: What is the most important of our Kasaan Haida traditions to pass on to our children, grandchildren, and future generations? His response, along with what other Haida [End Page 53] elders have said, is significant not only to family and clan members, most of whom now live far from Kasaan, but also potentially relevant to other Native peoples living in urban areas, far from their own homelands. Their perceptions also provide the means to consider what it means to be an "urban" Alaska Native in today's world.

In order to understand Nastáo's response in the context of our overall project and its impetus, it is important to understand something about Kasaan Haida people, where we come from, who we are today, and why we thought such a project was important.

Kasaan Haidas are a tiny group within a relatively small group of Indigenous peoples. Some estimates put the Haida population at time of contact (on both sides of the now-international border) in the range of 10,000-15,000, with subsequent reduction of 80 to 90 percent due to infectious diseases such as smallpox and influenza, which devastated Indigenous peoples worldwide (Boyd 144). Sometime after contact with Europeans, several different groups of Haida migrated north from Haida Gwaii to the southern end of Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska and established at least five villages, but after those villages suffered population losses from diseases introduced by the increasing number of immigrants moving into the area, now only Hydaburg and (New) Kasaan remain. Both villages are relocations from original sites.

The 2000 US census counted approximately 4,300 Haida (the 2010 Census statistics are not yet complete as of this writing). About 1,300 Haida live in Alaska, and of these, only 400 or so live in our two villages, Hydaburg and Kasaan. Most have moved to Alaska's larger towns and urban areas—Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, and Anchorage, and still others have moved out of state. Kasaan's peak population in the early 1930s was about 130, and the population now rests at around 45 (Kavilco n.p.). About one-third to one-half of Kasaan's population includes Haida or members of other Alaska Native tribes. The other residents are non-Native. Unlike the "Lower 48," as we in Alaska often call the continental United States, Natives here are not part of the reservation system,2 and lives are structured in relation to the Alaska Native...