Brief History of the King Island Kayak and Its Role in Inupiaq Life ~ By: Sean Gallagher

The King Island kayak was invented out of necessity to survive the harsh conditions on King Island, which is located in the Bering Sea off the coast of Willy Lagoon by about 70 miles. Willy Lagoon is in between Nome and Teller on the Teller road. Kayaks were necessary for trade, hunting and also transportation while living in this very remote village. The kayak itself is said to date back about three to five thousand years, but this is up for debate because there was no written history of the kayak. There is only the history of words passed down through generations, the oral history of the native people of the north. Thus it is very possible that it dates back even further in pre-history than we know.

The construction of the King Island Kayak was done in the summer months on the small beaches of the island. In the summer months there was more beach and fewer waves to interfere with the construction. The frames were constructed with driftwood that they found in coves and on the island, sometimes they would take the time to travel to the mainland were they would find areas with driftwood and pick out what they needed. Picking out pieces was an art in itself. The builder looked for the parts he needed and his experience from making past Kayaks gave him the knowledge of what to look for. The parts would show themselves to the builder in driftwood form and this was how the builder would pick the pieces off the beach. It was less work to find a piece that looked like the one he needed than to cut a piece to the right shape.

Kayak construction was done with minimal tools. The tools used were a bow drill that was stabilized with a mouth piece for the ultimate in accuracy; a straight knife and a crook knife were also used. The construction was done without the aid of metal fasteners or nails, using wood pegs and lashing instead. The lashing was a sinew that they got from the caribou people on the mainland through trade, or it was strips of baleen from past wale hunts. The skin of the kayaks was split walrus skin from the early spring hunts.

The women were in charge of the skin preparation and also the sowing of the skin to the Kayaks. The walrus skins used were female walrus; this was done because the spirit of the kayak was thought to be female. After the skin was put on the kayak the men would discourage the women from making contact with the kayak in fear of bad luck. The relation between the men and their kayaks was considered to be like a marriage in a sense, this is why they discouraged their wives from making contact with the kayaks. It went both ways; he wanted to avoid jealousy from the wife and also the kayak. A jealous kayak makes a hunt sour and not very profitable. Kayaks were considered to have a life force and the men would go as far as to make grooves in the kayak gunnels to give it a blood line. The relation with the Kayak had to be strong and healthy because this was the life blood of the community. It was the gate way for food and supplies for the King Island people.

This site is © 2006 Sean Gallagher/Anayak Kayaks. Design by Diana Adams
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