Crafters Carve Kodiak History

christiansen_and_mitch.jpgCJ Christiansen (right) and Mitch Keplinger discuss what to do next on their angyaq. (Photo by Kayla Desroches)

Kayla Desroches/KMXT

A group in Kodiak recently completed an Alutiiq boat that was commonly used on the island in the 19th century, but hasn’t been built on the island for many years. Alutiiq people once used the angyaq to travel over long distances and through rough seas. It’s an open boat, like a dory, with a flat bottom and bulbous bow.
The artist leading the effort says the boat builders aren’t just recreating the past. They’re reviving a piece of history for use now and in the future.

The boat’s 21-inch frame sits on supports in the back room of a former grocery store that’s now mostly used for storage.

CJ Christiansen, who has carved everything from masks to harpoons, says his interest in building the angyaq came from his desire to recover a piece of Alutiiq culture. He says angyaqs were a big part of Kodiak life.

“Anybody should be able to do this. It’s not that hard,” says Christiansen. “It just takes a lot of dedication and pride in what you’re doing. Making sure everything fits. It’s really just taking art to the next level, going from one small art form to something bigger.”

Christiansen says kayaks were the everyman boat, but angyaq were special to Alutiiq people.  

The flat bottom and rounded bow would have helped it float up strong waves.

“They had winter and summer habitations here,” says Christiansen. “So in the summer when they went to put up all their fish and all their food for winter supply, they would pack up the village in one of these boats and move it down to their summer habitation and then be able to bring back all the fish they put up and everything.”
    
Christiansen says villages took the boat hundreds of miles, from the mainland to Southeast, all around Kodiak and the Aleutians.

He says there are only a few sources that prove the angyaq’s existence, which makes building it a challenge. The group partially used the Yup’ik boat, the umiak, as a guide.

“Cause our people are related to the Yupik, we’d looked at their boat designs and had a book on how they were building their boats, and we kinda took their designs and modified them to what our boats looked like,” says Christiansen.
But they also used one of the last remnants of the angyaq – wooden models Russian settlers took back home with them.

The models not only provide physical representations of the boat, but also reveal who might have owned them. Christiansen believes one family may have been responsible for the boat.

“Let’s see, there’s this picture of the boat, so you got the guy up there with the drum, the guy steering, and these guys all paddling, and then you see this guy here, see his hat?” says Christiansen. “Each one of these little rings is how many potlucks he gave. So, you know, three potlucks, he was a rich man, so he probably owned the boat.”

Christiansen says he and the other crafters put about 300 hours into the frame, but he says he was reluctant to track their progress from beginning to end. He didn’t want to fail.

But he says trial and error is the key to building a boat that hasn’t been in circulation for so many years.

“We might not got it 100 percent right right now, but if more people start building ‘em and we start putting these in the water and taking them out and trying them, we’re gonna refine the design back to Russian time, pre-contact. They were probably still   refining it when they had contact,” says Christiansen.

Christiansen says he wants to make this a boat for Alutiiq people now, not just recreate a relic from the past.

“To be building one, it’s just an amazing journey for me to see this thing come to life. You know, I don’t want to be the only one who makes one of these. Ten years down the road, I want to see everyone building them,” says Christiansen.

He says he hopes people will even race angyaqs.

But first, they need to find a place for this one.  Alisha Drabek was the Executive Director at the Alutiiq Museum until her recent resignation. She says the museum will exhibit the boat in front of the Afognak Native Corporation building for its 20th anniversary, which will be on May 13 between 5 and 9 p.m. They’ll then look for a permanent space. Drabek says she’s proud to be able to showcase the boat.

“They’re living the culture,” says Drabek. “They’re not doing this as part of a museum project. They’re doing it out of their hearts.”

Christiansen and his team are excited to see their work on display later this month. And eventually they hope to test out an anyaq in the waves around Kodiak.

Since this first aired on AK last Friday, May 1st, it has been brought to our attention that there have been several other angyaqs built in other areas, such as Prince William Sound. Professor Sven Haakanson from the Burke Museum in Seattle says this is the first full-sized model to be built by Alutiiq people on Kodiak Island.

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