Thursday, April 26, 2012

Kayak Piece

The Baranov Museum Hosted a Historical Writing Workshop in the fall of 2010. This is a version of what I wrote as a teacher / participant in the class.

When we study kayaks of Alaska, we often see them through the eyes of early Russian explorers. Baidarka is the Russian name for kayak, and it is not only the Russian language that filters our insight into this miraculously living boat. We construct an image of the kayak through the written words of awe-inspired and baffled Russian sailors, Naval Officers, and Missionaries. The kayak was “so light that a seven year old child could easily carry” one, noted Veniaminov, or St. Innocent of Alaska, a missionary who learned several Alaska Native languages and travelled by dog sled and reindeer around the North he loved. Lisyansky, famous or infamous depending on who you’re speaking with for his defeat of key Tlingit clans during the battle of Sitka, addressed the kayak in more practical terms: “At first I disliked these leathern canoes, on account of their bending elasticity in the water, arising from their being slenderly built; but when accustomed to them, I thought it rather pleasant than otherwise.” We gain insight and even awe about the kayak from these observations, but we have to dig through them like a midden pile to find salvageable truth about these man-made sea creatures that could approach even 10 knots of speed. Today’s kayak can go 5 knots at the fastest.

Veniaminov noted the kayak’s elasticity in water, and attributed it to their slender size. If we allow ourselves to approach the kayak with that same elasticity of imagination spiced with the ancestral memories and stories of Alaska Native peoples, we find ourselves awash with the elegance of nature. The elasticity emerges from dozens of joints constructed from animal bones; driftwood collected patiently over a period of years, each grain lovingly noted; female sea lion and sea otter skins oiled until their transparency reflected the ocean waves; thorough sinew stitching completed with the meticulous prayers of survival. The kayak was never complete and like any living creature required grooming, new skins, new oil on old skins, and patched punctures. The delicate creature-in-becoming offered the privilege of stepping into another world, an animal world, that of seal or salmon or whale. One Alutiiq elder from Old Harbor described her grandfather’s story of sitting in his kayak, holding his paddle between his teeth as the other end vibrated in the water, responding to waves and sea creatures. That was his sonar, his livelihood.

The Alutiiq kayak features a unique bifurcated bow that one can explain in many practical ways; the “bulb” effect in which waves are broken by a protrusion, and hull flexibility, a theory that is not particularly backed by any scientific evidence. Local children in the Baranov Museum consistently catch another, deeper meaning when examining the Kayak on exhibit. That looks like a salmon! Or That is definitely a Humpy or That is like a breaching whale! I smile at the immediate wisdom of the young. A sailor named Sauer integrated the practical and animal explanation in 1802, stating that “the head of the boat is double to the lower part, sharp, and the upper part flat, resembling the open mouth of a fish, but contrived thus to keep the head from sinking too deep in the water.” An unknown and unnamed Russian noted that “the entire stempost represents the head of an otter with its mouth open.”

It is perhaps too easy for me to create a gaping gulf between Alaska Native boat-builders and early Russian explorers in my desire to understand the kayak of yesterday. One Alutiiq elder I encountered in a language class seamlessly resolved this tension with her simple statement we have many Russian words – that’s now a part of our language. The grace of her acceptance of another language and culture despite the devastating changes amongst her people reminded me of a kayak dancing with the waves.

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