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KAATX’WAALTÚ /CHOOKANYA TRADITIONAL USE AREA -ETHNOHISTORY/ ARCHAEOLOGY

Written records citing the Chilkat Tlingit village of Kaatx’waaltú are rare, and what has been said is misleading. The Krause brothers, during their 1881-1882 scientific surveys of parts of Alaska, frequently stated that they reached the first of the ‘upper villages’ (Kaatx’waaltú), and shortly after, reached the second upper village at Klukwan (Rasmuson 1993) as they walked the Chilkat trail. They saw crowds of people, although there were only 8 houses, and stated that a great many visitors came from far away to fish specifically at Kaatx’waaltú. During the same time period, the site was visited continually by Presbyterian missionaries who established an outpost in the area (Willard 1881-1883). The first Alaskan census by Ivan Petrof (1884) listed 125 people in Kaatx’waaltú in 1880; by 1890 the census recorded a gradual increase in houses to 10, documenting 19 families with 70 inhabitants, including 33 males and 37 females (Porter 1893). Two historic photographs reinforce this view of Kaatx’waaltú. A popular pre-1900 Winter and Pond (1895) historic photograph of the village is centered on a white milled wooden western-style structure flanked by at least five traditional wooden plank houses captured in the photoframe. The foreground is filled with canoes and people gathered for a blessing ceremony by a Russian priest, presumably for a potlatch. This is the village representation that is repeatedly used to characterize Kaatx’waaltú since it seemed to match recorded descriptions. A year earlier, a lesser known 1894 photograph by John Pratt shows only traditional wooden plank houses without the white milled structure, indicating that this western-style building was constructed sometime between 1894-1895, before the second census, and was one of the additional buildings recorded by Porter. The building is the famous ‘Two-Door House’ moved to Yeindustak.ye, the “lower village,” after a landslide. Then it was moved to Chief Austin Hammond’s place in Haines after epidemics hit the lower Chilkat River site. It was incorporated into the only remaining Chilkat clan house from those three villages, Raven House. Kaatx’waaltú has been characterized by historians as deserted pre-1900 due to a disastrous landslide. However, a search of the archives at the Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center in Haines produced an additional rare historic photograph of unknown date that shows at least 75 buildings hugging the Chilkat River at Kaatx’waaltú, spanning an approximate two-mile area which strongly contradicts the common view of a small village and triggered special research studies.

Since the site had been determined to no longer exist, it was routinely not evaluated for listing on the National Register of Historic Places by Federal agencies during Section 106 studies. A 2015 CHPO evaluation used information gathered through two Native Archaeological Training Programs (2013, 2104) to re-evaluate the site. This data included examining:

  • 9 historic maps (1869-1903);
  • 7 historic photographs (1894-1919);
  • Genealogical studies which listed Kaatx’waaltú as the birthplace of 7 Donnelly and Cranston family members (1892-1919),
  • 6 origin stories which documented
    1. the founding of this village and nearby Klukwan,
      the original village name nucekaā'yí = ‘people back of the fort’
      the first war which occurred at this site, and
      the cause of the first landslide by medicine men;
      the first of two medicine men who lived at the site as a boy
      how killer whale clans became so prevalent at an inland riverine site
  • and 1920s ethnographic interviews which documented a second war on the village site corresponding with the end of historic maps, historic photographs and genealogical evidence
Archaeological surveys located a wooden plank with hand-hewn adzed marks protruding from the river bank at the site. A piece of the plank was removed and submitted to Beta Analytic for radiocarbon dating.
  • The results showed that at a 95% confidence level, the plank would date between 1867 and 1919 56% of the time, the same range as the historic materials listed above [1869-1919] showing site integrity despite continual landslides.
Kaatx’waaltú appears to qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places based on events that have occurred at the site [Criterion A] and the ability to produce additional historical information important to local history and prehistory [Criterion D], at a minimum.