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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Last Kayak

Air Date: Week of

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Alaskan Eskimos who live inland used to hunt by kayak, driving caribou into lakes, but the kayak-making craft has been lost. Producer Amy Mayer reports on efforts to restore the last inland kayak and revive a people's memory at the same time.


ROSS: In the 1970s, Simon Paneak, a Nunamiut Eskimo, built what would be the last inland Eskimo kayak. The University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks commissioned it. Paneak was the last Nunamiut who knew how to build one. But 30 years later, that kayak is falling apart. Now the builder’s son, Roosevelt Paneak—after years of concerted effort—has persuaded the museum to let his community try to repair the boat. Amy Mayer visited the workshop in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska—home of the Nunamiut—and prepared this report.


MAYER: Simon Paneak’s 20-foot long kayak has arrived back in Anaktuvuk Pass, where he made it. This arctic village is 350 air miles from Fairbanks. The kayak’s sitting atop a plywood crate in a room usually used to fix snowmobiles. Word’s gotten out that the boat is here—and that a load of fresh strawberries arrived with it. So people stop by, feel the old skins and learn about how their ancestors hunted.


MAYER: Lela Ahgook examines the stitches on the kayak’s caribou skin seams. Soon, she and two other women will begin covering the frame with new skins. The old ones are cracked and broken—as are some of the boat’s white spruce ribs—the result of being in too dry a room for a time.

AHGOOK: You have to leave a piece from one side, and you sew it on both sides to put it together.

MAYER: Young Nunamiut have never seen Nunamiut kayaks before. Most say they didn’t know kayak hunting existed in their culture. Even the village museum—named for Simon Paneak—doesn’t have a kayak. Years ago, women and children lured caribou into a lake and then the men paddled after the swimming animals with spears ready. Technology changed that equation. Jack Williams describes how the Nunamiut hunt today.

WILLIAMS: We use rifles to shoot it, caribou, we use skidoos to go places and I think that’s it.

MAYER: The Nunamiut hunted with kayaks for the last time in 1944, when there was a wartime ammunition shortage and they temporarily returned to the old way. Few elders remember that last great hunt. And only Nunamiut over 30 could have watched Simon Paneak building this kayak. That’s why Roosevelt Paneak encouraged—and then pushed—museum curators to send his father’s kayak back to Anaktuvuk for the repairs. He’s a humble man, but curators rave about his tenaciousness and his commitment to the project. Paneak says fixing the kayak here is good for the community.

PANEAK: This way they can be right with it and actually touch it and see craftsmen or craftswomen at work.

MAYER: One of those craftswomen is Lela Ahgook. She says that although she and the others have never made a kayak, they have made caribou skin mukluks.

AHGOOK: Just like waterproof rubber boots when we make them. So we know a little bit what we’re going to do, I think.

MAYERL: The first task is to remove old babiche—or caribou skin rope—from the boat’s cockpit. Ahgook says it’s not easy.

AHGOOK: I think this was sewn when it was wet. It’s hard to pull out.


MAYER: Soon, though, they’re ready to remove the old, dry, cracked skins.


MAYER: The three women continue admiring the skins. These old pieces are all the instructions they have. Ruth Rulland and Molly Ahgook talk in Inupiat about the challenge and Lela Ahgook paraphrases.


AHGOOK: She says it’s going to be hard to put it together because we never see them do it, so we just have to do what we see.

MAYER: Angela Linn is the ethnology and history collections manager at the UA Museum. She hitched a ride to Anaktuvuk on a cargo flight with the kayak. Linn says it’s unusual to actually remake museum pieces.

LINN: Replacing them, rather than just stabilizing them, is a really controversial issue. And so the fact that it was never really used, and the fact that it was commissioned specifically for the museum really changed my mind and convinced me that this was the right thing to do.

MAYER: Roosevelt Paneak agrees. He’s been a bundle of stress getting this project organized. But now that it’s progressing nicely, he pauses briefly to reflect on his father.

PANEAK: I think he would be happy that something like this was being undertaken. And bringing it back here, had he been here, I think he would be very happy that there is an interest in such a craft.

MAYER: When the boat is ready, the last inland Eskimo kayak in Alaska will take a new test ride. And then it will return to the climate-controlled galleries of the Fairbanks Museum, where curators hope it will be preserved without need of future repairs. The damage brought this boat back to its birthplace. And that means another generation of Nunamiut Eskimos will remember how their great-grandparents hunted.

For Living on Earth, I’m Amy Mayer in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation environmental information fund. Major contributors include the Oak Foundation, supporting coverage of marine issues, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Support also comes from NPR member stations and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR’s coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR president's council. And Paul and Marcia Ginsberg, in support of excellence in public radio.



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