Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Learning about Aleut Kayaks

Painting of an Aleut man cod fishing on Unalaska Island in 1872
Last week, while at the Arctic Conference, I had the opportunity to view collections of artifacts and ethnographic objects collected in Alaska during the first half of the 20th century.  These artifact are now located at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. The items were collected by Anthropologist Frederica de Laguna who was a professor at Bryn Mawr. Frederica de Laguna was one of the first (or maybe THE first) female anthropologist to work in the Northern parts of North America, including Greenland and Alaska beginning in 1930. She was trained as an anthropologist at a time when everyone not only learned, but practiced a four-field approach to anthropology (cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and archaeology). To southcentral Alaskan archaeologists she is well-known for defining the "Kachemak Tradition," or middle prehistoric period on Kodiak and surrounding areas of the mainland dating to about 4000-1000 years ago. She also worked extensively on ethnographies with the Tlingit in Alaska.

The collections we looked at in the U Penn Museum were from all over Alaska and included many amazing bone and wood artifacts not preserved in most archaeological sites. Because I have never worked at a site with wood preservation, most of the wooden artifacts were completely foreign to me. At one point I picked up a long, cylindrical object and asked what it was. Someone explained that it was a kayak bailer. I had never seen anything like it before. This turned out to be a bit of a coincidence...

Back in Seattle, Ryan has been reading Ivan Veniaminov's book "Notes on the Islands of the Unalaska District" which is an ethnography of the Aleut of the Eastern Aleutians written in the 19th century by a Russian Orthodox Priest. Ryan has been continually amazed (as have I) at the ingenuity of the Aleuts - at how they were masters of a very harsh environment. This weekend when I got home he was telling me that he had been reading about Aleut kayaks. He went on to explain that he had read about kayak bailers, their shape and how they were used, at which point I exclaimed that I had just seen one at the U Penn Museum and knew exactly what he was talking about! Veniaminov explained them perfectly in his book:

"It is nothing other than a cylindrical tube about a half arshin long, a little thicker in the middle than an arm, but tapering gradually toward the ends, so that the end itself can be taken into the mouth."

Not only did Aleuts have kayak bailers, but they also had paddle floats - used in exactly the same way we use paddle floats. The only difference is that an Aleut kayaker was more likely to exit his kayak on purpose to perform repairs to the skin of his kayak, than to capsize on accident. Imagine just hopping out of your kayak in the middle of the freezing cold North Pacific to sew up a rip in your boat! In calm weather, the sea mammal bladder would be used as a kayak float to get back in. In rough weather the bladder would go inside the kayak to keep it from sinking, even if it was swamped. Veniaminov reported that these bladders became obsolete during the Russian time period because kayakers never had occasion to venture out alone, as they had prior to Russian occupation.

Throughout the book, Veniaminov states that the Aleut are superior to the people from Ka'diak in many ways, from kayak construction to warfare. His comments always make me chuckle and wonder if he would have thought the same if he had lived in Kodiak instead of Dutch Harbor. I'll end with this quote where he talks about Aleut kayaks:

"One has only to look at the baidarkas of the Kad'iak people, the Aglemiuts (people from the Alaska Peninsula) and other northern inhabitants...and at the first glance, the advantages of the local baidarka over them all are apparent."


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