Thu, January 17, 2013

The Chief Shakes Tribal House as a Historic Monument in Alaska

By Zach Jones

The June 1940 Chief Shakes Tribal House dedication
ceremony, courtesy Sealaska Heritage Institute.

With a light rain falling on the gathered dignitaries, federal officials, and general Alaskans at Wrangell, Alaska, a ceremony marked the rededication of the historic Chief Shakes Tribal House. The tribal house, a Tlingit Indian clan house of the Naanyaa.aayí Clan, had recently been restored as a historic monument as part of a Depression-era New Deal works relief program. Carried out by Juneau-based professional architect Linn A. Forrest from 1937 to 1939, Forrest was contracted by regional forester B. Frank Heintzleman to oversee various Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) operations to restore and preserve totem poles and traditional Alaska Native architecture. During these two years and via a $24,000 federal grant to the Alaska Native Brotherhood as a CCC project, Forrest oversaw the renovation and construction of the Chief Shakes Tribal House and totems at Wrangell, Alaska. In 1939 he also oversaw totem pole restoration work at the Sitka National Park, as well as at other Southeast Alaskan sites. Through these and other efforts Forrest became involved in Southeast Alaska Native life and later wrote a book about his experiences, The Wolf and the Raven: Totem Poles of Southeastern Alaska, which has been republished in over twenty editions. Forrest’s personal photograph album was donated to the Sealaska Heritage Institute by Forrest’s still-practicing architectural firm MRV Architects and documents his work on these historic events in visual detail. The CCC program and federal recognition of Southeast Alaska Native art as monument-worthy, remains an important moment in Alaska’s history.
In recent times the Sealaska Heritage Institutehas posted some images from Forrest’s photograph album online, but scholars and the community of Wrangell continue to recognize and study the importance of the Chief Shakes House and Wrangell’s historic past. Art historian Emily Moore’s (presently teaching at UAA) dissertation focused on the Southeast Alaskan operations of the CCC on Alaska Native art and architecture. As a Visiting Scholar at the Sealaska Heritage Institute in 2011, Moore spoke publicly about her research and the history of the CCC operations relative to Southeast Alaska Native art, which was recorded and placed online.
Of great significant to the community of Wrangell, in May 2013 the Chief Shakes House will again be rededicated. Southeast Alaska’s heavy rainfall and climate precipitated a renovation of the house again, which has been carried out the by the Wrangell IRA tribal government, the Wrangell Cooperate Association. Their work and websitedocuments the process and care for a landmark Alaskan historic site.