Language: Unangam Tunuu (Eastern Aleut dialect)
If perfect symmetry, smoothness, and proportion constitute beauty, they are beautiful; to me they appeared so beyond anything that I ever beheld. I have seen some of them as transparent as oiled paper, through which you could trace every formation of the inside.
—Martin Sauer, from “Account of the Geographical and Astronomical Expedition…in the Years 1785-1794”
Aleutian Island kayaks – built for survival on stormy, tide-ripped seas – have been praised for their sophisticated design, speed, beauty, and skill of construction. Traditional boats varied in length from thirteen to twenty-one feet, depending on whether they were made for one, two, or three paddlers. The finest old kayaks were so narrow and sharp-keeled for speed that they would not float upright without a rider. The Russian name baidarka is commonly used for these boats in the islands today. The split, upturned bow is said to represent a sea otter lying on its back with its paws upraised.
Region: Aleutian Islands, Alaska
Object Category: Boats
Dimensions: Length 34cm
Accession Date: 1916
Source: W. G. Ross Collection (associated collection)
Museum: National Museum of the American Indian
Museum ID Number: 052909.000
Vlass Shabolin: This one here [attached to kayak in front of rear kayaker], that’s the one we looked at yesterday, is a dart thrower It’s got a groove on the other side where you set your harpoon onto it. With one hand he balances it, and then he flips it towards the seal. And these harpoons, he’s got three, four harpoons in the boat there. The guy in front will have to be the one doing the hunting while this other guy’s oaring [paddling].
Maria Turnpaugh: Now the older man is in front.
Vlass Shabolin: The experienced man.
Mary Bourdukofsky: These have their cover [gut parka] around that rim [of hatch to keep water out]. And there is that stomach.
Maria Turnpaugh: The bladder they use for floats.
Vlass Shabolin: That’s the float that I was talking about earlier.
That one is tied to a string at the end of a harpoon. When it hits the seal, the harpoon will not come off [the animal], most of the time anyway. And when the seal dives in the water and takes off when it’s wounded, it’ll drag the float, and then the hunters will watch the seal until the bladder stops moving. And they go over there and pick up the seal. Sometimes if they kill a big seal, they sink. Younger ones do float.
Maria Turnpaugh: And that’s for when you suck the water out?
Vlass Shabolin: Yes, this little round thing [oblong siphon fastened to kayak between kayakers] is the one they use to pump the water out of the kayak when they get water in there.
Maria Turnpaugh: They suction it out. They don’t pump.
Vlass Shabolin: Yes. And there’s two oars [paddles], two-bladed oars on there.
Daria Dirks: Oars and then the ivory tipped paddles on the outside.
Maria Turnpaugh: They used to tie them over the top of the boat in case they lost their oars [paddles].
Aron Crowell: I noticed that a lot of hunting tools and boats are covered with red paint. Is there a special significance to red?
Mary Bourdukofsky: When they’re in the ocean, they could float and they could see it. That’s how they pick it up—red you know. That’s why they use red quite a bit.
Daria Dirks: Look at this, it’s a gun!
Vlass Shabolin: Looks like a ten-gauge, a lever-action rifle.
Aron Crowell: People don’t use those anymore, do they?
Vlass Shabolin: No. Well, they’ve got the 30-30 that’s made in this model.
Aron Crowell: Would that be what you’d use for seal hunting?
Vlass Shabolin: Yes, they do. Down the Aleutian Chain, a 30-30 was a good rifle, because we didn’t have big game like bears or anything. We had seal and reindeer, so we didn’t need any high caliber guns at all.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Here’s a big, long knife—looks like a whaler’s knife. A long handle . . . .
Vlass Shabolin: Yes, whaler’s knife probably. I’ve got one of those myself.
Vlass Shabolin: Mm-hmm. The man in front’s got a hole here [circular design in front]. It’s designed to be a hole where they store the seal or the fish whenever they catch it.
Maria Turnpaugh: It’s just a little thread around it [a design, not an actual hatch].
Aron Crowell: So you think that’s a hatch on the front there Vlass?
Vlass Shabolin: That would be a hatch, but it’s not open.
Maybe they want it covered because they don’t want water to get in there. And when they get the animal, they open it up and put the seal carcass in there and then cover it back up again. It’s beautifully made. The guy that made this was a very, very experienced person who’d been doing that a long time.
Aron Crowell: What sort of hats are they wearing? Those aren’t the regular hunting hats.
Vlass Shabolin: That’s more like a short-rimmed hat.
Maria Turnpaugh: Probably Russian made.
Daria Dirks: It could have been the hats they traded.
Mary Bourdukofsky: I guess they’re wearing—looks like baseball caps. It’s not an Aleut hat.
[From discussion with Mary N. Bourdukofsky, Vlass Shabolin, Maria Turnpaugh and Daria Dirks (Tanadgusix Foundation) at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 4/07/2003-4/11/2003. Also participating: Aron Crowell and Bill Fitzhugh (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA).]
If perfect symmetry, smoothness, and proportion constitute beauty, they are beautiful; to me they appeared so beyond anything that I ever beheld. I have seen some of them as transparent as oiled paper, through which you could trace every formation of the inside, and the manner of the native’s sitting in it; whose light dress, painted and plumed bonnet, together with his perfect ease and activity, added infinitely to its elegance.
- Martin Sauer, 1802 (1)
The traditional Unangax^ kayak—built for survival on the stormy, tide-ripped seas of the Aleutian Island chain—has often been praised for its sophisticated design, speed, beauty, and skill of construction.(2) The boats varied in length from about 13-21 feet, depending on whether they were made for one, two, or three paddlers. The finest old kayaks were so narrow and sharply-keeled for speed that they would not float upright without a rider.(3) Eastern Aleutian kayaks were considered superior to those of the western islands.
(4) The Russian name baidarka—a single, double or three-hatch kayak—is commonly used in the islands today.
This detailed miniature, made by an Unangax^ artist in the early 1900s, shows some of the distinctive features of the Unangax^ baidarka. The split, upturned bow—similar to the Sugpiaq kayak—is said to represent a sea otter lying on its back with its arms upraised.(5) The back end of the boat contracts to a narrow, rudder-like tail, a design seen only on Unangax^ boats. The two men hold double-bladed paddles, which were standard equipment in the Aleutian Islands.(6) James Cook wrote in 1778 that Unalaska kayakers using such paddles could “go at a great rate and in a direction as straight as a line can be drawn.”(7) The paddles have sharp points and when tipped with walrus ivory could be used as weapons.(8) Single-bladed paddles were sometimes carried as spares, or used by old men.(9)
Specialized equipment to deal with every possible opportunity or crisis at sea was tucked beneath deck straps or carried inside the boat.
Included with this model are several sea otter darts with barbed bone points, a rifle, club or large knife, seal dart with bladder float, and kayak bailing tube. Other standard items were a throwing board for launching seal and sea otter darts, specialized darts for killing birds and whales, a water bag made from the bladder of a humpback whale, a seating pad made of grass, and inflated seal skins or sea lion stomachs that would keep the boat from sinking even if it overturned or the skin cover was ripped.(10) Ballast rocks were carried inside for stability.(11)
Each man tied a “spray skirt” made of sea mammal intestines around his waist and to the hatches of the boat to prevent water from coming inside, and these can be seen on the model. Kayakers wore waterproof pants and gut parkas to keep dry and hunting hats or visors on their heads, although on the paddlers in this model wear Russian style caps. Boys began rigorous training as early as age six to learn the difficult arts of handling a kayak and hunting at sea, and by 13 or 14 might have their own boats.
Baidarkas and weapons were beautifully made in order to attract sea otters and other game.(13) Darts and harpoons were painted red and the seams of the kayak cover were decorated with colored thread and the feathers of eagles, cormorants, and puffins.(14) Hunters also carried amulets to attract sea otters.(15)
Men built baidarka frames from pieces of driftwood, carving and steam-bending them into ribs and keel pieces.(16) They tied the parts together with sinew or baleen, placing bone or ivory plates in the joints to reduce friction and allow the frame to flex and bend in heavy seas.(17) Men cut sea lion or seal skins to make the cover, which women sewed into place with waterproof seams. The cover was then given a preservative coating of seal oil.(18)
The rich tradition of Unangax^ kayak building nearly come to an end in the early 20th century, although contemporary builders such as Mike Livingston have sought to revive it.
(19) Kayak models like this one were produced for sale beginning in the 19th century, and continue to be made today.(20)
1. Sauer 1802:157
2. Dyson 1986; Laughlin 1980:34-37; Sauer 1802:157; Veniaminov 1984:270-71; Zimmerly 1986
3. Veniaminov 1984:271
4. Litke 1987:183-84
5. Laughlin 1980:34
6. Beaglehole 1967:463; Chirikov 1988:135; Corney 1965:139; Merck 1980:172; Veniaminov 1984:272
7. Beaglehole 1967:463
8. Laughlin 1980:37
9. Veniaminov 1984:273
10. Beaglehole 1967:463; Bergsland and Dirks 1990:113, 261; Hudson 1992:211; Laughlin 1980:39; Liapunova 1996:93-95; Merck 1980:172; Netsvetov 1980:257; Veniaminov 1984:272
11. Chirikov 1988:135; Laughlin 1980:37; Sarychev 1969:74
12. Hudson 1992:7; Langsdorff 1993:19; Laughlin 1980:28-29
13. Veniaminov 1984:224
14. Jochelson 1933:24-25; Laughlin 1980:37
15. Bergsland and Dirks 1990:81-82
16. Langsdorff 1993:II19; Laughlin 1980:36-37; Sarychev 1969:73
17. Laughlin 1980:34-36; Veniaminov 1984:271-72
18. Laughlin 1980:37; Veniaminov 1984:272-73
19. Steinbright 2001
20. Black 2003:99-100: Hudson 1992:7