How does a crafter construct a vessel without any blueprints? How about a boat that hasn’t been built consistently since the mid-19th century? That’s one challenge a group of curious, crafty people faced in the village of Akhiok this summer.
Former executive director of the Alutiiq Museum and current Burke Museum Curator of Native American Anthropology, Sven Haakanson, says in 2001 he began research on the angyaaq, a traditional open boat.
“Angyaaqs actually were used to move entire villages. When the Russians first came in 1784, with Shelikof and then Baranov, they immediately took those boats. They took those boats because every village had enough of those boats to pick their village up and move, and so the Russians didn’t want them to have those boats.”
Which means no full-sized examples now exist, unlike the kayak, which Haakanson says was useful to the Russians for hunting sea otters. Or rather, sending Alutiiq people out to hunt them.
Models of the aangyaq do exist – 13 small models in museums across the world. And there are texts, many in Russian, which contain information regarding the boat.
Haakanson says he discovered during his research that Native Alaskan cultures used the term ‘angyaaq’ from Prince William Sound to just south of Nome.
“I was looking at this book, and it’s in Russian and in there, the title is written Umiaq and Bidara, but then inside, you look, and I’m reading in Russian and I just start chuckling, because they’re like, well, these are the terms we use, but the Natives call them angyaaqs. I’m just like, why don’t you call it an angyaaq instead of an umiak? ‘Cause it’s a very different boat.”
During his ongoing research in 2014, Haakanson says he and others started building models, and in 2015, they began work on the frames of full-sized boats both in Seattle and in Kodiak.
Haakanson says he flew to Akhiok in August to work with Mitch and Judy Simeonoff on the Kodiak-based vessel, and they enlisted the help of the community and members of the Akhiok Kids’ Camp. He says they tied the frame, covered the aangyaq with fabric – which represents the traditional sea lion skin covering – , and made paddles
“Everybody in the camp helped make 11 paddles, and so it was basically a whole camp-wide effort to help us finish the boat in that week, so it took us literally two weeks to finish an angyaaq from start to finish working on it as a community.”
He says when they then tested the angyaaq in the water, they tipped it.
“The wonderful thing behind that experience was there was there was kids there watching, what are we gonna do, are we gonna give up? And we all got out, we were sort of laughing, because we felt and knew probably it was going to happen. So, we were just laughing, we got out, we tipped the boat, we emptied it out, and immediately Mitch and Albert and Roy got back in it, and they paddled around, and it worked perfect.”
One idea Haakanson has to prevent the boat from tipping is to make the bow heavier, which will also help the vessel to take the brunt of the wave.
Overall, Haakanson says he has more questions now than when he started.
While the modern day crafters may not have their ancestors to show them the way, they do have the models and the instructive value of trial and error.
Haakanson says there’s a lot left to test, and the next step is to learn from that experimentation.