The Dying Sitka building tells a complicated story of the clan, culture and history
One of the nine remaining clan houses in Sitka is on the verge of collapse. The historic property is deeply rooted in Sitka clan traditions, and her passing is a milestone.
The century-old frame house is one of a pair that sits side by side in a historic Sitka neighborhood on Katlian Street. It was built at the start of the 20th century but was already steeped in tradition.
“So this house was called Daginaa Hít, and some people translate this as “The Far Out House,” said Roby Littlefield, Chairman of the Sitka Historic Preservation Commission and Lingit language expert. “But it comes from a very old story from Raven of how Raven pulled the salmon house to shore from the ocean, and that’s how the salmon started swimming upstream.”
“So it’s a Coho, or L’uknax.ádi House,” Littlefield continued. “And when the people of Yakutat moved to Sitka in the 1800s, they brought their house with them in name, and when they built this house, it also became the newest Daginaa Hit.
Owned by Daginaa Hit is caught in a gray area between crops. In Western culture, ownership passes from parents to children. In Lingit culture, clan identity and ownership are matrilineal, and marriages occur between members of different clans. So when a father dies and his property reverts to his children under Western laws, that property is also transferred into the custody of another clan, which can lead to problems.
As complicated as it gets, Littlefield says it’s important to think about what the loss of Daginaa Hít means.
“What this means for the community is that we have lost another of our old structures which embodies the history of the Lingit people,” she said. “And the only reason we can recite this story in the 21st century is because this house is standing.”
Daginaa Hít collapses into the embankment behind him and it looks like he could still collapse and slide on the pavement. Sitka Police plan to keep the street closed indefinitely, until the city works out a stabilization plan with the owners – and that will be difficult on many levels.
The house may not be saved, and Littlefield says that should be acknowledged.
“This house had a spirit, and it is disappearing,” she said. “He’s leaving our world now.”
Littlefield says that in Lingit’s worldview, Daginaa Hít will only be alive as long as people remember her.