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HomeNL-2012-10 Alaskans

Paddlecraft of Native Alaskans
August 2012
by Natalie Wiest

In August I had the good fortune of visiting the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, Alaska. Expecting a large kayaking display, I also got lucky with asking "where are the kayaks?" The husband of one of the skin-sewers for a kayak on display was selling his handicrafts and got up to show me the kayaks; suspended from the ceiling and in poor lighting. He also recommended the book "Qayaks & canoes; Native ways of knowing" which was for sale in their gift shop. Thanks to many hours in transit back to Houston, well after my visit to the Native Heritage Center, I now have a much better understanding of those craft. I only wish I'd known more before I visited.

My photos of the boats aren't entirely high quality, but hopefully will give you a general idea of what the boats look like and I'll give you a brief synopsis. My general observation is that the Greenland style of kayaks and paddling techniques dominates our perceptions of native craft of the northland (thanks to Houston Canoe Club's own former member John Heath). The Alaskan styles are much less known. The variety is amazing in style, size, and materials.

  Map of cultures
Let's start off with a map of the Alaskan (and western Canadian) cultures (right). Notice that NONE of them are labeled "Eskimo", a term that many native Alaskans consider insulting. 

Northwest coast dugout   Northern style  
The first canoe that caught my eye was this one (left),  hanging in the entryway. It is a Northwest Coast dugout canoe, of the Northern style. It, and the other ones pictured here, were produced in 2000 with special funding to Native groups interested in reviving the canoes and kayaks built by their ancestors and in some cases as created and paddled by elders who were youngsters in the 1930s and 40s. Eight craft in all were built but I did not get photos of all. This red and black craft represents the cultures of the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Eyak. It is 19 feet long, 41" wide, and 50" from the highest points on the ends to the lowest point on the hull and weighs 200 lbs. It is carved from a red cedar, as you might expect from this well-watered, and heavily forested part of Alaska. My guess on the design of the high ends is that they would help the boat track well in the huge Pacific swells since this would have been an open ocean craft. I'm wondering if the high ends wouldn't also help to offset the tendency to weathercock that is common to so many of our boats.

The next most colorful boat is this one (right). It is 16’8” in length, 28” wide, and 18” deep, close to the dimensions of many modern day plastic sea kayaks. Its 70 lb. weight would be a bit heavy. In addition to the painted design, the design features I thought were most interesting is the round hole, probably 6” in diameter, in the bow (sorry, a bit hard to distinguish in my photo) and the very large round cockpit that is the highest point in the boat. This would seem to be a good way to keep water out of the boat although it would probably make it more difficult to roll, if the occasion arose. Are you aware that many of these kayaks are sealed against the water by the paddler’s coat attached directly to the cockpit rim? This kayak is from the Central Yup’ik culture, Caninermiut style. It is made of white spruce driftwood, yellow cedar, bearded seal skin covering; caulked with grass and sealed with moss and seal oil. The book goes into much more detail on the trials and tribulations of the boat builders in getting just the right materials for their boats. All frames of the kayaks are of wood, a particularly challenging source for the people above the arctic circle where driftwood can be found but no trees grow.

Athabascan birch
bark canoe
I had always associated birchbark canoes with the Algonquian and other Native American tribes of northeastern North America. I was pleased to note as I walked around Anchorage that there were indeed many white birch trees and sure enough, their abundance was noted by the native canoe builders. Here is a picture (left) of an Athabascan birch bark canoe, Black River style. It is 12’6” long, 27’ wide, and 12” deep; reminds me in size and style of my favorite tan-colored fiberglass canoe. I wonder if it is as tippy?  In addition to the birch bark covering, it has a spruce wood frame, birch ribs, spruce root lashings, and spruce pitch caulking. Note its highly upswept ends and decked bow.

  Aleuts (Unangan),
  Skewed bow
Last up in my photos is a tandem kayak. It is 21’ long, 24” wide, and 13” deep and weighs 70 lbs. It is in the style of the Aleuts (Unangan), Uluxtax. (right 1)  It is made of spruce, red cedar and oak frame, sea lion and bearded sealskin covering. Notice the interesting bow design, function unknown. The one pictured looks like it may have had a collision with an immovable object, or otherwise assumed a skewed shape in keeping with the natural tree root that formed the bow. (right 2)  I have to wonder if tandem paddling in a craft that Aleuts depended on for life and livelihood catalyzed wonderful paddling conversations dealing with “what the heck are you doing…” as modern tandem canoe paddling is known to do.

As I paddle about in Goretex and plastic rain coats (you really need them in Alaska) and remember how wet and cold I got “back in the day” when I had to make all my own equipment, I am impressed by what the Native Alaskans had done to keep dry (and therefore warm) in this cold climate. Many seals gave of their intestines to this endeavor, and many hours of hand stitching waterproof seams kept their wearers alive. Grass was sewn into the seams; when wet it would swell and keep the water out. 

If in Anchorage, be sure to put the heritage center on your “must visit” list. If you can, read up on the kayaks and canoes before you go for a full appreciation. Alaska is a big state and there’s a lot to know about its peoples, handicrafts, and traditions.

Book quoted: Jan Steinbright. Qayaks & Canoes: Native ways of knowing. Anchorage, Alaska: Alaska Native Heritage Center, 2001.

Alaska Native Heritage Center, 8800 Heritage Center Drive, Anchorage, Alaska.

Alaska Natives map original from: to do...

Natalie Wiest