Qayaq project: Dream that became a reality



Sometime in August of 1998 the phone rang; a person introduced himself as Skip Snaith, and said he was from Washington. He informed to me that he had been a boat builder and had become interested in building qayaqs (kayaks). He wanted to come to Alaska, especially to Chevak to learn how to build qayaqs with the elders. The reason he knew about the Cultural Heritage Program in Chevak was from the information of Agayuliryaraput- a mask-traveling-exhibit which went to numerous countries. He was ready to pay his own way to Chevak and volunteer his time for building the qayaqs with the elders. It was a shock to me, because in today’s way of life, everyone wants money to do any work. This was my one-time opportunity to fulfill my dream.

The dream of building a qayaq and angyaq (boat) was one of my dreams in working many years as Bicultural instructor and Cultural Heritage coordinator. I had been asking the elders to help build me my own qayaq, but no to avail. In my mind, the concept of building a qayaq was very complicated. Many obstacles prevented in attempting to build our ancestral relic. The complication of building consisted of the following elements:

    1. Finding parts of the qayaq required many hours of searching in the areas where the drift-wood were beached. Many required the right grains of the wood shapes. Any young man- when he becomes a teenager and is ready to become a hunter- his father planned ahead of time to find the special shaped parts for the qayaq. This process usually took about one year or less, depending on the finding of the right parts. Every part of the qayaq has a Cup’ik name. All of the parts are measured with one’s body height, as well as body parts, so that each characteristic of the qayaq was unique and fitted well with the owner.
    2. Finding the right materials was time consuming, as well as to find the right-grained spruce wood.
    3. Qayaq-building required a long time to complete with no experience. There was no time concept in building a qayaq.
    4. Constructing a qayaq took many men to complete. The construction of qayaq was held in the qaygiq, or men’s house. Today, there is no centralized place for men to gather and perform these interesting projects our ancestors did many years ago.
    5. Men spend time and money for one’s form of survival in living. Many people spend time working for money to support their families. There is no time to become involved in the time consuming projects. The knowledge and the art form have become lost through the invasion of the Western culture.
    6. None of the elders wanted to volunteer to help us construct a qayaq. Many elders insist being paid for passing on their knowledge today.

Time passed, after many hours of corresponding and conversing over the phone, finally the plan became a reality. On the first week of December, Skip, whom we called "qayaq man" or "qayista," was here. There was about two weeks or more layover before the project actually started. Yellow cedar wood was ordered and shipped from Seattle and the response of the dealers was not swift, either. We were very cautious about overpaying outrageous freight costs. We made sure the shipping freight charges were not expensive. Finally after our Christmas vacation, the project finally started.

Our Cup’ik style of communication did not correspond with Western ways, and therefore we assumed that he didn’t need our help. We left him alone to complete his first qayaq in Chevak - after fifty to sixty years of dormancy. One day he looked very depressed, and I spoke to him about the project, what was lacking, as well as our future plans. The elders would come to see him work, but was disappointed that they would not offer their expertise. He was also depressed that we had not helped on the project. I told him that we thought he didn’t need our help. All our misunderstanding and our miscommunication were ironed out without further incident. Once we got four people working from the center, the qayaq was completed in no time. James Ayuluk, Sam Ulroan, and myself became overnight experts by applying our carving skills to the project. We learned to adapt to Skip’s and the elder’s method without any difficulty. We applied our ancestral methods in the process and thus made results. The cauyaraqs, or ribs, were bent in traditional method of biting, the process after steaming them to make them more flexible.

Working together was fun and we discovered that our progress was also rewarding. The atmosphere after it had been gloomy became very cheerful. The elders would come in and offer their observations about the project. Their suggestions were carried out to the precise scale. Some of our methods of carving and constructing of the qayaq did not correspond to the elders’ specifications. The elders were very curious about this white man who was building a qayaq in the Cultural Heritage Center. They would ask me who he was, and I would tell them but tease them and say "since you guys are not going to make us a qayaq, I decided to get someone from down States to make us one." They would laugh and never took it serious. The communications was building up to an interesting level between the young people and the elders. Some of the young men of the Chevak were interested in making their own qayaqs thus volunteered their time and learned their skills in carving and the construction of the qayaq. The young men that came and provide their services were Earl Atchak, Patrick Tall, and Ulric Ula Ulroan. Once they had provided their services and stuck to to it, their turn in building their qayaqs would have became a reality. Many of the elders’ criticisms made a lot of common sense - how each piece fit in its place.

Although it was constructed with the eye and body coordination, every piece corresponded to other pieces attached, as if it was a blue print followed to a precise fit. The strength of the qayaq was evident, because all the stress points were concentrated in applying extra attention; especially to tie the strings to hold the parts together. The construction of the qayaq depended on the owner’s height, weight, and body measurements, such as the fingers, hands, arms, etc. A wise builder would also foresee how big and how many seals would be carried. The waterline is determined as the qayaq is being built. When the waterline is passed, the qayaq will become very tippy and will overturn. Many of these points of concern are discussed each time an elder is present. One caution of the elders was that during the first hunt of the seals in late Winter, it was very scary to go into an unloaded, lightweight qayaq. The hunter must gather weight to balance the qayaq’s buoyancy in water. Usually a gunny sack was filled with chunks of ice, and placed in the back portion of the qayaq. One rule of survival in the sea was that an over turned qayaq had no way of surviving in the water. That’s why our elders were very careful in their spring hunts and always had companions.

The book used in reference in building the qayaq is called "Hooper Bay Kayak Construction. By David W. Zimmerly." The knowledge of the elders does not require a book, but skills developed through many years of building qayaqs for community members. The process of building a qayaq can be learned by anyone. Application of modern and traditional methods are utilized in the construction of a qayaq. Skip’s method of using modern technology and the traditional tools corresponded very well with our own adaptation of building our Cup’ik qayaqs. One requirement needed is groups of men working in unison. While one person works and carves on a specific piece, the others will work on other parts. Building a qayaq requires mental preparation. When, building a qayaq is made complicated in concept; thus will become a large task. This was one of the reasons why we did not attempt to build our own qayaq. Skip’s method of building made it possible for us to actually see the process and gave us courage to build one of our own. When a process to construct a qayaq is happening in the community, the best approach is to consult the elders and use them as consultants. Their advices are followed to a precise level so that the building is smooth and without complications. There is always room in applying the modern tools and technology. Documentation of the process is also important for the students to do. The language development is enriching because many parts of the qayaq are derived from common Cup’ik words. The stories of the elders will also emerge as the construction takes place. The advice of our forefathers comes in to play: "You will never learn to do things by watching, but by actually applying what you have seen before." Observation and then applying what you have seen, makes a person proficient during his learning. Many people may have thought that I was crazy in bringing a man from lower 48 to make qayaqs, but it was one means of fulfilling my dream. Also, I did not want the art of qayaq-making to die with the elders. I wanted our young men to become interested in building qayaqs, and at the same time get our young people to become interested in pursuing to make their qayaqs as a tribe or groups of people. The only thing we need to do is to get the funding for purchasing of the materials. Supplies needed include yellow cedar, and money for other supplies and tools. No one should be paid to build these traditional relics, but should be a volunteer project to build for earning your own qayaq, just the way it was done hundreds of years ago.


Traditionally, there were many uses of the qayaq that our students can document. Above all, every man that hunted and subsisted in our land, rivers, and seas owned a qayaq. The manhood of our hunters was identified by the use of these qayaqs. The advantages in owning a qayaq are numerous. All hunting and fishing are done with the use of the qayaqs. There are few examples; seal hunting in Spring, Summer, and Fall. Qayaqs are quiet, in contrast to the noisy outboard motors that scares seals away.

The traditional short-cuts are identified and used. These shortcuts that our ancestors used are many and are being forgotten. Documenting and video taping of these travel routes will be an interesting project for our young people. They can have first-hand grasp of their historic ancestral routes. Mapping of the historic travel routes will also enrich our cultural heritage program within our schools. The true physical and mental experience will be in the use of qayaqs during camping trips.

From my first hand experience in conducting Seaweek camping trips, the students in rural communities benefited immensely from these types of experiences. Where their ancestors have occupied many years ago, mainly the study of historical and cemetery sites. The cultural heritage of the students is incorporated to science, math, social studies, writing and reading. The traditional knowledge can be applied to scientific skills. Even the architecture of the qayaq can be studied: why each part correlates to each other in making the boat strong and sea worthy.

During the time the fur traders came to this area, the main use of qayaqs were for trapping muskrats. The concentration of muskrat hunting was seasonal and done in the spring thawing of the ice in the lakes. Many of the men traveled many miles in their qayaqs, searching for muskrats that were sold to traders for fifty or seventy five cents a pelt. This activity was done in 1940’s-mid 1960’s. The men used the qayaqs in all subsistence fishing; catching fish by hooks, dipnets, and home-made salmon nets, including nets used to catch small white fish, tom cods, and needle fish. The men spent most of the summer months paddling their qayaqs going from place to place. They would return and deliver their catches to their wives. The qayaqs were also used for gathering driftwood by dragging them through rivers, sloughs, seas, and lakes. Sometimes, the qayaqs were used for families to go from one campsite to another. The men would carry the heavy household needs, while the women and children would walk. The men also used the qayaq for bird hunting. The qayaqs can go to places where boats could not reach otherwise.

In the modern times, the use of the qayaq can be beneficial. It will be an exellent investment for Y2K. Reassuringly, the subsistence activities will not be halted by natural or human disasters. The uses would not be different than those used by our ancestors thousands of years ago. The reconstruction of qayaqs is not too late. There are elders in our villages that still know how to build these. All it takes is time and space to activate these building projects of our ancestral relic that is about to become extinct.


John F.Pingayak

Kashunamiut Cultural Heritage Coordinator