Group Learning Nearly-Traditional Kayak Making Techniques

The Aleut and Alutiiq people invented the kayak over 5,000 years ago. Since 90 percent of their diet came from the ocean, the kayaks were traditionally used for hunting sea life. At the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, a group of adults are learning the traditional methods of building a kayak. Well, almost traditional.

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In the other side of a lake, behind the main theater of the Alaska Native Heritage Center, three men and a young intern are circling the skeletons of two 21 foot long kayaks. One of the men, Peter Totemhoff, is there to learn how to build kayaks to reconnect with his culture. He says the word is traditionally spelled with Q’s not K’s

“Qayak, it’s qayak….,” Totemhoff says.

They are sticking to traditional building methods, but with a little help from some modern materials. Kayaks were traditionally covered with seal skin. But today the crew is using a synthetic, man-made covering. Totemhoff believes the authentic materials were more well-suited for the Alaska environment.

“The real thing was living, it stretched and dried with the weather,” he says.

The group is also getting a little help from Lowe’s, Home Depot, and electricity, which was not available during traditional times. Andrew Abyo, a cultural ambassador with the Alaska Native Heritage Center says they are about a week and half into the project and about halfway finished building the two kayaks.

“With today’s materials, modern conveniences, we can build the kayaks in three weeks,” Abyo says. “Of course, in traditional times, it took one year to build one kayak. It was just one man building his kayak because he would have to collect all the driftwood. He would have to hunt for the animals. He would have to work and prepare the skin for the kayak.”

Though modern conveniences are accelerating the building process, Abyo says that the general construction plan is traditional.

“All the joints are latched. We have no nails, no staples,” he says. “So, it is made to be flexible.”

Abyo says it is important that the kayaks be comfortable and easy to maneuver because the kayak was such a vital part of the hunter’s life.

“For a hunter to be in a kayak up to 15-20 hours was nothing to them. Can you imagine paddling for one hour?” he says. “They paddled for 15-20 hours without stopping.”

Though no definite schedule yet, but Abyo plans to continue to teach kayak building skills at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. But he says he hasn’t always been this in touch with his heritage.

“Up until 2004, I just did a 9-5 job,” he says. “And at the time, I had my two daughters and they didn’t know their culture, so I couldn’t blame nobody else if they didn’t know their culture, if I didn’t try myself.”

Abyo says it took one class at the Alaska Native Center in 2004 to reinforce his cultural foundations and to make him proud to be an Alaskan native. Now he teaches multiple classes because he values learning and wants to continue to pass down cultural traditions.

In Anchorage, I am Wendi Jonassen

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