DaGinaa Hít: A dying building tells a complicated story of clan, culture, and history
One of only nine remaining clan houses in Sitka is on the verge of collapse. The historic property is deeply rooted in Sitka’s clan traditions, and its passing is a significant milestone.
Note: In our initial report on this issue, we incorrectly identified the English translation of the building as the “On The Point House.” We regret the error.
The century-old frame house is one of a pair, side-by-side on Katlian Street, in a historic district of Sitka that was resettled by Tlingit following conflict with the Russians in the 19th Century.
The house itself was built later, in the early 20th Century, and was steeped in tradition even then.
“So this house was called DaGinaa Hít, and some people translate that as ‘The Far Out House,’” said Roby Littlefield, chair of the Sitka Historic Preservation Commission, and a Tlingit language scholar. “But it comes from a very ancient Raven story, about how Raven pulled the Salmon House to shore from the open ocean, and that’s how the salmon began to swim upstream.”
“So it is a Coho, or L’uknax.ádi House,” Littlefield continued. “And when the Yakutat people 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 Hít.”
The ownership of DaGinaa Hít is caught in the gray area between cultures. In western culture, ownership passes from parents to children — or in other words, it’s familial. In Tlingit culture, clan identity and ownership are matrilineal, and marriages are between members of different clans. So when a father dies and his property reverts to his children under western laws, that property also moves under the care of a different clan — which can lead to problems.
Note: You can learn more about the complicated ownership history of DaGinaa Hít in this article published by the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, by former Sitka Tribe of Alaska attorney Jessica Perkins.
As complicated as this becomes, Littlefield says that it’s important to reflect on what the loss of DaGinaa Hít means.
“What it means to the community is that we’ve lost one more of our ancient structures that embodies the history of the Tlingit people,” she said. “And the only reason we can recite this history in the 21st Century is because that house is standing.”
DaGinaa Hít is slumping into the embankment behind it, and looks like it could further collapse and slide into the roadway. 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 several levels.
The house may not be saved, and Littlefield says that should be acknowledged.
“This house had a spirit, and it’s passing away,” she said. “It’s leaving our world now.”
Littlefield says that in the Tlingit worldview, DaGinaa Hít will remain alive only as long as people remember it.