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Qayat – Kayaks

Cockpit of historic Alutiiq kayak, ca. 1868.  Courtesy Presidents and Fellows of Harvard University, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. PM# 69-30-10/1619 (digital file# 993202XXX).


Before motorized boats, Alutiiq people traveled Kodiak’s waters in qayat. Every Alutiiq man owned a qayaq, a, swift, lightweight craft expertly assembled from wood and animals skins. The qayaq was both a lifeline and a symbol of manhood. Men harvest from the ocean, traded across great distances, and brought supplies home. Children could even travel along, lying inside the boat.

Collected by U.S. Army Officer Lt. William Fast in 1868, this one-man qayaq is from Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Alutiiq culture-bearers identified the qayaq in Harvard’s collections and consulted on its care. Although its exact origin is unknown, the boat’s construction is uniquely Alutiiq. It features an upturned bow, a hallmark of qayat built for the rough, windy waters of the Alutiiq world.

Fast Kayak Facts: 14.5 feet long – lashed wooden frame – covered in oiled seal skin – decorated with hair and beads.


Historic Alutiiq kayak, ca. 1868.  Courtesy Presidents and Fellows of Harvard University, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. PM# 69-30-10/1619 (digital file# 993202XXX).


A flexible wooden frame, upturned bow, and oiled skin cover helped qayat cut through Kodiak's rough waters.


Every qayaq was custom built to fit its owner's proportions. Craftsmen carved qayaq parts from driftwood and lashed them together with sinew and baleen. Women sewed boat covers from de-haired seal or sea lion skins, using special waterproof stitches. A coating of oil helped the skin cover slide over the frame and glide through the water.
Photo: Two-man qayaq in the Karluk Lagoon, c. 1890, Albatross Collection, National Archives, Washington DC, 22-FA-1154.


Light weight, water repllant jackets stitched from bear and sea mammal Intestine protected paddles from rain and sea spray.


Alutiiq qayaqers wore Kanaglluut–rain jackets fasioned from animal intestine. The bottom of each jacket had a wide openning and a drawstring. The paddler climb in his boat and tied the bottom od his jacket around the opening. This prevented water from getting in the qayaq and warm air from leaving. Around their wrists, paddlers tied cuffs of baleen to keep water from running up their sleeves. Qayaq skins were also waterproofed, repeatedly treated with oil to form a barrier between the boat and the water.
Photo: Alutiiq man wearing a gutskin parka, Kodiak, 1919, National Geographic Society Katmai expeditions photographs, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.


Every paddler filled his qayaq with essential equipment.  Men carried hunting and fishing gear, tools for boat maintenance, food, water, and amulets.


Qayaqers traveled with a set of essential tools. To the deck of their boats they lashed harpons, killing lances, quivers filled with arrows, fishing rigs,a stunning clob, and an extra paddles. Inside the boat, they carried survival gear–a bailer, containers of fresh water, food and sewing tools for emergency repairs, a bag of spare harpoon parts, and amulets for hunting luck. Grass mats or skin pads provided a cushion for kneeling paddlers.
Objects clockwise from left:  Alvin hunting visor by Jacob Simeonoff, KANA collection; kayak paddle, gift of the Rowland family; Water Pump by Peter Lind Jr.; harpoon points and throwing board, Koniag, Inc. collection, Karluk One; sewing bag courtesy the National Museum of Finland.

Challenging Weather

Seafarers in the Gulf of Alaska regularly encounter dangerous winds, heavy rains, dense fog, freezing spray, and towering waves.


Sturdy boats, waterproof clothing, and knowledge of the weather are essential for all ocean travelers, especially in Gulf of Alaska waters where threats of hypothermia and drowing are always present. Alutiiq people came to Kodiak by water and perfected their maritime technologies over 7,000 years of coastal living.
Photos:  Storm system image in the Gulf of Alaska, courtesy NOAA, other images couresy Alutiiq Museum collections.


Harvest at Sea

From their qayat, Alutiiq men pursued a wealth of sea mammals, fish and birds, harvesting in the open water and along the shoreline.


Kodiak's ocean waters are enormously productive. In spring, halibut, cod, and herring move close to shore to fed and spawn. These fish attached sea mammals and birds. Seals and sea lions give birth along the coast in June, and whales pass by on their way to the Bering Sea.  IN the fall, thousands of ducks, geese, and swans stop in Kodiak during their southward migration. Each of these animals was a source of food and materials for Alutiiq people.
Photos of sea mammals and birds courtesy Marion Owen.


Youth leanred to build and paddle qayat from their parents.  Today, craftsmen are revitalizing the qayaq-making tadition.


Young boys learned to make qayat by building boat models, small replicas of full-sized crafts. With the Western conquest of Kodiak, knowledge of qayat construction faded. In the 1980s boatbuiling classes at Kodiak High School and the Kodiak Area Native Association helped youth learn the art. Studies of historic boats preserved in museums are also helping to return knowledge of qayaq construction to Kodiak.
Photos: Student building a kayak model, KANA Collection; model kayaks Koniag, Inc. Collection, Karluk One;  Students building kayak models, photos by Sven Haakanson, Alutiiq Museum collections.

Learn More:

Listen to Elder Natalie Simeonoff shares her memories of traveling by kayak.

Watch presentations on Harvard University's collaboration with Kodiak Alutiiq culture bearers to preserve the Alutiiq qayaq. Speakers include T. Rose Holdcraft (Peabody Museum Conservator), Sven Haakanson (University of Washington Anthropologist).

Video Series

Read about Alutiiq qayat:

  • Qayaq: Kayaks of Alaska and Siberia, David W. Zimmerly, 2000, University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks.
  • Qayaqs and Canoes: Native Ways of Knowing, edited by Jan Steinbright, 2001, Alaska Native Heritage Center, Anchorage.

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This project was generously supported by
Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, Institute for Museum and Library Services,
Alutiiq Heritage Foundation, Koniag, Inc., Matson, and Marion Owen Photography.