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Niĝilax̂ workshop launches in California

A niĝilax̂ is a traditional Unangax̂ boat — it’s a skin boat like the more-familiar iqyax̂, but much larger, able to hold as many as a dozen people.

Marc Daniels, who's been building and restoring traditional sea kayaks for decades, is leading a niĝilax̂-building workshop in Northern California, along with KUCB’s Kanesia McGlashan-Price who is apprenticing and documenting the process.

Daniels and McGlashan-Price recently sat down at KMUD, the public radio station in California where the workshop is being held. They discussed Unangax̂ history, culture and the little-known connection between California and the Aleutian Islands.


MARC DANIELS: We're going to be building this large niĝilax̂ [in Ferndale, CA.] It’s a large open skin boat. It's going to take up pretty much the entire shop and it's going to be quite a spectacle. Hopefully we'll have family and friends working with us from time to time. There'll be a lot of celebrating, and there'll be a number of people there. You know, having fun, building the boat and visiting. Hopefully a lot of non-Native locals coming in and getting to know everybody, too. So, it's gonna be a fun time. It's going to be going on for about a month and a half.

KMUD: Are there Unangax̂ people that live locally in Northern California?

DANIELS: Yeah, there are. There's an interesting point about why there are so many displaced people, so many thousands of miles from Alaska, from their homelands. Back in the late 1700s, when the Aleutian Islands got invaded by the Russianfur-seeking fleets that were looking for sea otters —they came through the Aleutian Islands, and saw an opportunity for extraction of sea otter pelts, which were in high demand back in Russia and China. And what they ended up doing is essentially dominating and enslaving the young people to do that work. They quickly found that with a niĝilax̂, a community could pack up and leave, get away, everyone could pile in and slip away in the night. And they couldn't have that happening. So, they put an end to it by destroying … all these vessels. And the Unangax̂, at that point, subjugated the people. They took them on the massive sea otter hunts all around the coast of Alaska and down the inside passage through Puget Sound and all the way down the coast to California — which is where the Russian,American Company had built Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast and was their southern outpost. It was their fort. The young people that were taken down the coast that way, as they were being taken away from the islands, they were told, “If you ever want to see your family, again, you need to do this work for us.” Well, they never made it back. They were never reunited with their villages. The ones who remained ended up living in California.

KMUD: Can you tell us a bit more about what you mean by a skin boat and the process? The history of the skin boat.

DANIELS: It's pretty much treeless in the Aleutian Islands, very windswept. Very cold, and the beaches are covered with driftwood. So traditionally, they would split the driftwood, use those tiny pieces, lash them together, cover them with a skin and that's how they made their ocean-going vessels. And by watching nature, they could see a sea lion swimming gracefully through the water. And you imagine, you look at it and it's got ribs, it's got a frame, it's got skin, it's graceful, it flies through the water. And that's essentially what these skin boats are. They're a frame with animal skin stretched over them. We're not using animal skins today.

KMUD: Kanesia, what does it mean for you to be connecting with this now and working to tell the story?

KANESIA MCGLASHAN-PRICE: It's quite a unique opportunity that I have here. As an Indigenous content creator, I really want to use my platform to share Unangax̂, and other Indigenous voices. And so, being able to help tell this story for our people, our people feel is really important. There's the short term goals of sharing a radio story and making a video, but long term,it feels really important that I'm learning these things to also share down the line with my people.

Sofia was born and raised in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. She’s reported around the U.S. for local public radio stations, NPR and National Native News. Sofia has a Master of Arts in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism from the University of Montana, a graduate certificate in Documentary Studies from the Salt Institute and a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Arts from the University of Colorado Boulder. In between her studies, Sofia was a ski bum in Telluride, Colorado for a few years.
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