Historic Alutiiq Kayak featured in New Exhibit - April 18, 2016
In 1869, a US Army officer left Alaska with a piece of Alutiiq culture, a skin covered kayak. Now, almost 150 years later, the boat has returned to Kodiak to share its story. The watercraft is a one-man, Alutiiq kayak with an intact, decorated skin cover. Culture bearers Ronnie Lind and Sven Haakanson Jr. recognized the very rare vessel in storage at Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 2003. Since then, the Peabody Museum and the Alutiiq Museum have been working to share the boat in Kodiak.
“The Alutiiq Museum helped the Peabody Museum develop a grant to preserve the boat,” said Executive Director April Counceller. “And two of our culture bearers, Alfred Naumoff and Susan Malutin, traveled to Massachusetts to study the kayak and assist in its conservation. The Peabody staff worked very hard to prepare the boat for travel, while we looked for funds to bring it to Alaska. It has taken many years to make the arrangements but it is finally happening. The boat is in Kodiak, Judy Jungels from the Peabody is here to help us install it, and we have a generous ten-year loan.”
The kayak arrived in Kodiak in early April, carefully packaged for its long journey across the continent. Art handlers in Boston created custom crates for the 14 foot, 39 pound watercraft, double boxing the fragile artifact to withstand the 5,000 mile trip. A moving truck carried the case to Tacoma, Washington, to a Matson shipyard. Containerized, the crate continued by ship to Kodiak. The final leg of the journey, by water, provided an appropriate entrance for this masterpiece of Alutiiq engineering.
“The crate was simply too big to come by air,” explained project director Marnie Leist, the Alutiiq Museum’s curator of collections. “We were thrilled when we learned that the kayak would need to travel home by water. Kayaks are one of the most iconic pieces of Alutiiq maritime technology. They represent incredible knowledge of Kodiak’s waters. Imagine making a boat from driftwood and animal skins without metal tools, a boat designed to weather some of the roughest water in the world. Coming home by water seemed fitting.”
On May 6th, the Alutiiq Museum will share the vessel in a new exhibit–Qayat-Kayaks, an exploration of Alutiiq maritime traditions. The historic kayak will be mounted opposite a kayak frame carved by Alfred Naumoff, one of just a handful of Alutiiq kayak builders whose knowledge has been informed by studies of the historic boats. The exhibit will also share artifacts related to kayaking and historic photographs.
“We placed the two kayaks together to show both the inside and the outside of a boat. Naumoff’s kayak is not covered, so you can really see the details of internal construction–frame design and lashing,” said Leist. “Then with the historic kayak, you get to see how the skin cover is made and attached. We placed the two together to help people to understand the links between old and new objects. This exhibit is also about living culture, about how collections can inspire and inform cultural practices.”
Generous support for the exhibit project came from Institute for Museum and Library Services, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Koniag, Inc., Matson, Marian Owen Photography, and the Alutiiq Heritage Foundation.
Photo: Alutiiq Museum staff members Natalie Wadle and Marnie Leist stand beside the 18-foot shipping crate that carried the historic Alutiiq kayak back to Alaska. Grant funds from the Institute for Museum and Library Services paid for construction of the custom crate and its shipment to Seattle by truck. Matson, a Pacific shipping company, transported the crate to Alaska as a donation to the project.