Who was Kadjisdu.axtc?

There is a new documentary about how Leonardo may not have been from De Vinci after all, as his biographer Vasari wrote it almost 100 years after Leonardo’s death.

Similarly, it his hard to now who really was Kadjisdu.axtc and where he was from. I may have made a mistake and attribute his Nation to be the Haidas from where is today Canada’s Haida Gwaii in the Pacific Northwest. Kadjisdu.axtc may have been a full blood Tlingit from Wrangell instead, according to this article below published at the Anchorage Daily News.

“The artists name, as spelled by linguists interpreting the Tlingit tongue, was Kadjisdu.axtc – “Kad-jis-too-ach.”

Little is known of his life, except that he may have been a nobleman himself. Historians can only speculate about the date of the Whale House carvings and the artist’s age when he created them. He lived in the village of Kasitlaan, commonly called Old Wrangell, where he had carved the interior corner posts for Chief Shakes’ house.

Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News
Anthropologist Chuck Smythe stands on the main street in Klukwan with the Raven House (left) and the Whale House in the background.

Some time in the early 1800s, a prominent leader from Klukwan named Xetsuwu (“Het-su-wu”) resolved to build a large house, a sort of capital, for his clan, Ganaxteidi. Xetsuwu was “a leader and innovator” of his time, said Chuck Smythe, an anthropologist who has studied the genealogy and clan history of the Ganaxteidi.

The Ganaxteidi was Klukwan’s oldest and most prestigious clan, but by the early 1800s some of its leading families had married below their class and Xetsuwu believed the social order was in danger. So he decided to unite them in a great house, under an old crest associated with the Ganaxteidi: the Whale.

“The Whale House was conceived as a kind of council house,” said Smythe. “It became very successful and became the lead house in the village up until the turn of the century.”

Today, details of the planning of Xetsuwu’s great house are known because of the field work of ethnographer Louis Shotridge, a Tlingit who was born and raised in Klukwan. Shotridge left home to work for the University Museum in Philadelphia, then returned to collect artifacts and record oral history. He wrote his account in 1925.

According to Shotridge, Xetsuwu sent a delegation from Klukwan to Kasitlaan to bring back the famous carver. A clan historian went along to tell the clan’s story to Kadjisdu.axtc, and on the return trip the artist worked out his ideas on cottonwood bark.

The group probably traveled in a large, ocean-going canoe that could carry 30 people or more, said Peter Corey, curator of the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka. Such canoes were traded from the Haidas, who lived in the Queen Charlotte Islands ( now re-named Haida Gwaii) and had access to the best red cedar for the large, sturdy boats.

As Brown and the other carvers copied the Shakes house posts, their work carried them back in time and they found the spirit of Kadjisdu.axtc – art, wood, myth and man merged into one.

Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News
Tlingit carver Wayne Price , who with Steve Brown copied houseposts in Wrangell originally done by Tlingit master Kadjisdu.axtc.

“He lived ’em,” said Wayne Price, a Tlingit carver who worked with Brown. “I’d like to have his dream sometime. He crossed over.”

They completed the last totem by working through the night. The work finished, Price sat back and imagined he smelled the woodsmoke of the clan house where the old posts first stood.

“Not a day goes by where I really don’t think about the guy – he influenced my work so much,” said Price. “I’ve been there. I crossed over.”

Brown, now an assistant curator of Native American art at the Seattle Art Museum, has made a study of Kadjisdu.axtc’s work. He said the Whale House posts show so much artistry they must have been created at the end of a brilliant career.



Fran Durner/Anchorage Daily News
Steve Brown is now the assistant curator of Native American art at the Seattle Art Museum. In 1984 he and two other carvers copied the work of the Kadjisdu.axtc.

If the Shakes posts were carved about 1775, as Brown believes, the carver must have been at least in his 20s at that time. Many years probably passed before he carved the Whale House posts.

“I think their decades apart,” he said.

“You can see a progression through time – an influence of other artists, the evolution an artist will go through by trying to do different things, taking ideas and reworking them. By the time you look at the Whale House pieces, in relation to other Tlingit houseposts, they are very complex.”

An early Tlingit scholar, Navy Lt. George Emmons, visited Klukwan in 1885 and later wrote a detailed description of the Whale House. He dated posts at 1835, or earlier, and that year stuck. But that would put the artist in his 70s or 80s and it seems unlikely that an elderly man created such a monumental work. Brown believes they were carved between 1800 and 1820″.