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Point House repatriation in Sitka marks new chapter for Kiks.ádi Clan

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The Point House lot (KCAW/Tash Kimmell)

It’s not an uncommon story for cultural artifacts, or tribal property to go missing or fall into the wrong hands. A less common story? For those objects to be returned. In Sitka this July , a Kik.sadi clan house was repatriated after nearly 20 years in the possession of another clan. Its new legal owner, Jerrick Hope-Lang, hopes the historic exchange will spur a greater conversation about repatriation.

To the untrained eye, the overgrown vacant lot on Katlian Street may seem like just that. But to the Kiks.ádi Clan, it’s a significant cultural site. This plot of land is where the Kiks.ádi clan house, known as the Point House, once stood. Last month, after over 20 years outside of Kiks.ádi possession, it was repatriated to its home clan.

Jerrick Hope-Lang, a Juneau-based member of the Kiks.ádi clan now holds the deed. As he explains it, the Point House was passed down in the western tradition via a will, and subsequently torn down. Although no longer physically standing, Hope-Lang says the Point House still holds immense cultural significance.

“Conceptually, we all know that we refer to our people as from the Point House, so the physical structure may not exist. But we as a people do. So the concept of the house being gone. That’s just a physical structure,” Hope-Lang said.

In Tlingit tradition, property and clan affiliation are passed through the matrilineal line, unlike in western culture where property is passed from both parents. Because marriage usually takes place between different clan members, to keep property within the rightful clan, it can’t be passed down through the nuclear family. But in the case of the Point House, that’s exactly what happened. Caught in the clash between Tlingit tradition, and western property law, it was passed down patrilineally, falling out of Kiks.ádi possession. But this isn’t an isolated event. Last year, another clan house collapsed after years in bureaucratic limbo without a caretaker, spurring Hope-Lang to act.

“The Coho House fell down. And I just felt like…it was like a ‘now or never’ thing for me,” Hope-Lang explained

Over the course of a decade, Hope-Lang developed a close friendship with one of the last two living heirs of Point House, who declined to be interviewed for this story. They’d discussed an exchange before, but never followed through. In July, Hope-Lang decided to ask again.

“She had agreed at some point that she wanted to disburse her half of the property to me. I was excited but also nervous,” he said.

Hope-Lang invited her to Sitka, to meet with an attorney and see what the process of signing over the deed might look like. From Juneau, they traveled to Sitka, where the other remaining heir was located. Hope-Lang says he wasn’t planning on signing anything that day, but as fate would have it, both remaining heirs agreed to sign the deed. By the end of the day, he was the new legal owner of the property.

“I was just kind of in shock, because I just thought we were having a conversation,” Hope-Lang said.

Now, he plans to have the house rebuilt as a “mixed use” gathering space. He hopes the revitalization of his clan house will spark a broader conversation around repatriation.

“Our clan house revitalization could be more than this project. I think it starts here, with this ‘land back’ concept, and how we identify that as individual clans, beyond our tribes and how we move forward in that and act in that,” said Hope-Lang. “I’m excited that future Kiks.ádi children can walk into a place and say, this is my clan house.”

According to the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, there there were once 43 standing clan houses in Sitka’s Indian Village District. Now only nine remain.

James Poulson is a member of the Sitka Historic Preservation Commission. He said the proposed rebuilding of the Point House would not only be a cultural milestone but a historical one.

“They’ve been kind of coming down and slowly disappearing. And kind of been replaced with empty lots that get used for storing fishing gear and other industrial gear,” he explained. “This would be the first 21st century clan house built in Sitka.”

One of the few remaining clan houses is the Porch House. Chuck Miller is its caretaker. I met up with him at his ancestral home to learn more about the cultural significance of clan houses in Sitka.

“We’re in Kayaash ka hít. In Tlingit, It’s translated as either the Platform House or the Porch House,” he explained. “Our family refers to it as the Mother Coho House because it was the very first Coho clan house built when the Coho people first came about. So all the other Coho houses come from this house.”

Miller’s clan house is one of the only functioning clan houses left in Sitka, and therefore acts as a cultural hub for other Coho Clan members.

“We have meetings here. And we have people lie in state here when they pass away underneath our family screen to show them honor and respect and our regalia is still here in our clan house. So that’s kind of what clan houses are all about,” Miller said.

Unlike the Point House, the Porch House was passed down to Miller according to tradition, from his maternal uncle. As he explains it, Tlingit tradition recognizes property as being collectively owned. So when western law arrived in Sitka, entire families of 10-15 people would sign the deed. According to Miller, it wasn’t a piece of paper, but an unwritten agreement that’s kept his house within the rightful clan.

“It was just an unwritten thing that says, ‘If I pass, it’ll go to my spouse, my spouse will turn it over to the rightful clan.'” Miller said. “That way, you don’t have to go through 15 people’s signatures to get that permission…So we’ve done it that way since I’ve been here, since my uncle was here, since his uncle was here. So we’ve figured out a way around it somehow.”

After 25 years as caretaker, Miller says the Porch house is more than a building. It’s a point of pride.

“I mean, growing up for me here, I lived down the street, literally. And I remember coming into this clan house when I was a very small, young child, and having all my family here — family functions, meetings, food, et cetera.” recalled Miller. “Having a clan house rebuilt here would be something pretty huge I think, and I applaud the Kiks.ádis for wanting to get this done and taken care of.”

Hope-Lang wants to see the exact same thing for Point House – for the clan house —to be rebuilt now or at least in the lifetime of those generous enough to return it.