Kodiak’s Alutiiq Museum is now the sole owner of a rare kayak from the 19th century that had previously been on loan from Harvard University’s Peabody Museum.
The exterior of the kayak, or qayaq, is made from seal or sea lion skin that was stitched together by hand and pulled tight over a wooden frame. Tufts of human hair were also sewn into the seams.
“In the Alutiiq worldview, hair is the whole person’s essence, and so by using hair in this piece, it’s imbuing the piece with just an added bit of power,” said Amanda Lancaster, the curator of collections at the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository.
The kayak’s split, curved bow is also specific to 19th century Alutiiq craftsmanship, and Lancaster said it’s incredibly rare to find one in as good condition.
“It is such a unique piece,” she said. “There just really, to my knowledge, aren’t any kayaks that exist from that time period in this good of shape.”
Visitors at Kodiak’s Alutiiq Museum have undoubtedly seen the kayak before – it spans about 15 feet on the back wall of the main exhibition space, where it’s been on display since 2016. But it was on loan from Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. U.S. Army Officer Edward Fast gifted it to the school in 1869, and it was found more than 130 years later, in 2006, in the Harvard museum’s storage by the Alutiiq Museum’s staff and culture bearers. That loan from Harvard’s Peabody Museum was set to end after 10 years, but the Alutiiq Museum asked for sole ownership of the artifact late last year.
Lancaster said staff at Harvard were supportive of the kayak staying in Kodiak permanently.
“I think there’s sort of a new wave of museum professionals that recognize that culturally sensitive artifacts like this, you know, they might be best cared for in their home community,” she said.
There was no legal requirement for Harvard to transfer ownership of the kayak to the museum. That’s because it falls outside of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, which mandates that federally-funded institutions return certain cultural items, including human remains, to their tribes.
Lancaster said there’s a sense of relief in the community knowing that the kayak is here for good.
“We don’t have to worry about sending it back,” she said. “And just being able to know that it’s here long term, it’s really exciting.”
The museum plans to make the kayak the focal point of a redesigned gallery space in the future.