October 9: Indigenous People’s Day

In 2017 Alaska became the second US state (behind South Dakota) to replace Columbus Day, the second Monday in October, with Indigenous People’s Day. Since then other states have followed suit. If you think getting away from celebrating Columbus is a capitulation to wokeism this might be a good time to shut off your internal dialogue and meditate on a few things.

*Columbus didn’t discover America. According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) indigenous people in North America probably diverged from Asians about 35,000 years before Columbus was a gleam in his father eye. Another theory holds that Ice Age Navigators followed sea routes to North America by boat across the Atlantic around 20,000 years ago. As far as more modern European exploration is concerned, it’s documented the Vikings established an outpost in North America during the 11th century, hundreds of years before Columbus. And in 1976 Tim Severin, with a crew of four, sailed an oxhide currach from Ireland to Newfoundland proving it’s possible that St Brendan reached North America in the sixth century.

*No one today knows what Columbus looked like. Portraits we were shown as kids were done long after he died. The written portrait left behind by those who knew him, including himself, reveal to the modern eye an ugly visage of brutality, rape including children, and oppression of indigenous people and Europeans alike.

*It’s fair to say Columbus was a product of his times, and that he achieved remarkable feats of seamanship and exploration. But so did a lot of sailors who don’t get their own holiday.

*Plus, Columbus didn’t build his own boats out of driftwood like these guys.

Indigenous People’s Day 2023: It seems appropriate on this day to address some gift or other that has come down to us through millenia of refinement by indigenous people. This year let’s talk about: Kayak and Umiak

I love skin on frame boats. Always have. Mine is a modern version, a two person Klepper kayak: canvas skin over wood frame that you can assemble or dissemble in a few minutes. It fits into 3 bags that you can toss into a float plane for field work, voyaging, or hunting in remote areas where you need a boat. They’re not fast as traditional kayaks, but they’re so seaworthy people have crossed the Atlantic in them.

A Klepper can carry two people, plus camping gear, and a deer with no problem. You can even sail them.


Traditional Skin on frame Kayak

Skin on frame boats of various sorts have been around for thousands of years maybe tens of thousands. Indigenous peoples in Europe, especially Welsh and Irish, were using roundish coracles (basket boats) for river crossings and fishing when Julius Cesar arrived with his legions. Farther north, indigenous people had long been making what has become one of the most widely used watercrafts in the world. Kayaks are light, fast, seaworthy, and their construction is adapted now to every type of paddling condition.

Authentic indigenous kayak builders, those who are left, are like bespoke tailors, those who are left, in New York City in the sense that every aspect of the finished product is cut and sewn by hand according to the body dimensions of the owner. As the city man’s tailored suit is a statement of his wealth and livelihood, the essential accoutrement of a man of substance in the pre-contact far North was his kayak. With it he could hunt seals, sea lions, swimming caribou, birds, and fish. He could migrate seasonally, transport his family, feed others in the community which increased his status.

Some kayak measurements from a lesson posted on Chugiak Heritage website.  Hole in upper bow is for pulling kayak onto shore or ice. Other sources give the diameter of this hole as equal to the owner’s fist with the thumb outstretched.

Kayaks were considered living beings often outfitted with carved talismans and treated with respect. Having no trees in the far north people collected driftwood for the frames which the men would build with simple hand tools and no metal fastenings. Driftwood pieces were spliced together,some parts pegged with wood or bone, most of the frame was lashed with sinew. When the frame was complete women would cut and stretch and stitch seal hide frames (sometimes they used sea lion hides further south).

In later days canvas could be substituted when seals were in short supply but canvas wasn’t as safe as seal skin because if temperatures drop and ice starts to form, seal skin is tougher and stands up to ice better. Still, as with all boats, maintenance was a constant.

The Arctic umiak and Irish currach have similar form and usage, both being fairly large, with distinct bow and stern, and able to carry heavy loads. Both come in sizes between 20 and 40 feet but some were said to be larger in the old days. Skin on frame boats degrade back to the earth fairly quick leaving no trace. It’s generally assumed these boats evolved separately but with new theories on human migration and new tools to test those theories, who knows? In Europe the craft fell out of fashion for many years leaving few places outside western Ireland where anyone could still build a traditional currach. There was a revival of interest in modern Ireland (helped by Tim Severin) while indigenous people in the Arctic were still building traditional umiaks into the twentieth century.

Tuktu 2 The Big Kayak: How to build a kayak out of driftwood. National Film Board of Canada 1966 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKbwNdes0SY&t=1s


James McMullen comparing aleut/greenland kayaks

Kayak video by Alaska Dept. of Education and the Alaska State Museum. (Directed and filmed by my friend Lisle Hebert) 1987 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hT8_SrPG-5U

Umiak Construction by King Islanders  Jesuit Missionaries Collection Rasmuson Library, Fairbanks circa 1945