Kodiak Island (USA): The last kayak: 1860 Alutiiq boat
The last kayak: 1860 Alutiiq boat hold clues to an Alaskan culture
Video : Alutiiq warrior's kayak
Around 1860 near Kodiak Island off the south coast of Alaska, an Alutiiq warrior built a streamlined kayak by stretching and sewing the hides of five female sea lions around a sophisticated wooden frame.
A warrior and whaler, he gave his kayak the biurficated, or double bow, his people favored to slice through the rough seas of the Gulf of Alaska to hunt whales with javelin-sized harpoons.
For reasons still unknown, the Alutiiq stitched into the kayak’s surface near its prow several strands of human hair.
Perhaps the last of its kind, the 14-foot, 7-inch kayak is being conserved in a special gallery at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University so visitors can watch.
“This is a really unique object,’’ said T. Rose Holdcraft, head conservator at the Peabody. “We’re conserving it so people can learn from it.’’
After completion of the project, the Peabody plans to loan the kayak to the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository for 10 years.
Donated to the museum in 1869, the kayak’s unique significance came to light in 2003 when tribal members Sven Haakanson and Ronnie Lind saw it in a high storage shelf and recognized it by its double prow as a rare artifact of their culture.
Based on Alutiiq oral history, Haakanson, then a doctoral student who’s now executive director of the Alutiiq Museum, and Lind, a tribal elder, thought the human hair and other details signified a warrior’s kayak.
“Over 7,000 years of our people’s living knowledge went into construction of this kayak. There is no known kayak of its age today. It’s unique and holds so much information,’’ said Haakanson by phone from Kodiak Island. “We hope in time to bring it back home to put this information into a living context so our youth can learn and understand from it.’’
He said the Alutiiq, whose name means “the human beings,’’ are also called Pacific Yupik or Sugpiaq and have lived in Alaska for more than 7,500 years. Now numbering about 4,000 people, most live on or near Kodiak Island and belong to 10 tribes.
Haakanson regards the kayak as a “sacred object’’ because of the human hair, the meaning of which remains elusive.
While some speculated the hair was akin to a trophy-like scalp, he’s tending toward the idea the hair was attached to the kayak because “it embodied the spirit of somebody powerful who could help or protect (the kayak’s owner) on whale hunts or war.’’
The winner in 2007 of a MacArthur “genius’’ grant, Haakanson, who has a doctorate in anthropology from Harvard, believes a “very high status warrior or whaler’’ within 19th century Alutiiq society owned the kayak though the possibility remains it belonged to a group within his tribe comparable to a “guild.’’
Virtually nothing is known of the original owner of the kayak which came to the museum in 1869 when it acquired the collection of Captain Edward Fast who’d been sent by the U.S. Army to survey the region.
It is believed Alutiiq warriors, who hunted whales, porpoises, sea lions and seals, were typically buried with their kayaks.
Throughout the conservation project, museum staff will collaborate with experts from the Alutiiq Museum on Kodiak Island and Alfred Naumoff, the last traditionally trained Alutiiq kayak maker.
Ellen Promise, a graduate student in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, said researchers have been taking tiny samples to determine if the kayak’s surface was waterproofed with sea oil or vegetable oil or some other natural product. They also want to find out whether the sinew thread used to sew the seal hides came from sea mammals, porcupines or possibly caribou.
Presently, the museum has been showing several intriguing artifacts related to Alutiiqs.
They include a conical cap made from sea mammal intestine, a rare double-bladed oar and a 9-foot harpoon of the sort the Alutiiq whaler might have used.
Unlike New England whalers who used rowboats heavy enough to exhaust a harpooned leviathan, Alutiiq hunters had to take a very different approach.
Haakanson said hunters likely used harpoons with slate points that would retain a locally made poison. The poison would eventually paralyze the whale, preventing it from using its flukes so it would roll over and drown within several days. He said harpoons had a small inflatable animal skin bag to keep them buoyant.
“The whaler might have to wait several days,’’ said Haakanson. “Then, using their knowledge of local currents and winds, they’d sail out to find the dead whale.’’
Observing the kayak through a historian’s eyes, he sees details others might not recognize.
Haakanson said scrape marks on the kayak’s side from straps used to secure the whaler’s fishing gear indicate he was right-handed. The boat’s maker used the hides of female sea lions because they were thinner and more pliable and have fewer scars and holes than usually found in the hides of more combative males.
Haakanson said the Alutiiq museum is “honored’’ to work with the Peabody Museum on the project.
“We look forward to working and sharing what we learn from the warrior’s kayak,’’ he said. “The knowledge we gain from this exchange will not only help the Alutiiq people learn, but allow us to share and maintain a disappearing tradition of kayaking on Kodiak Iskland.’’