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Unangax̂ open skin boat to be launched next month — potentially the first to touch water in more than two centuries

Completed nigilax̂ frame in Daniels' workshop in Ferndale, California
Mike Ferguson
Completed nigilax̂ frame in Daniels' California based workshop. During the 2023 Alaska Native Day, the nigilax̂ will be launched at Metini, potentially the first vessel of this kind to touch water in over two centuries.

With the blessings of local Wiyot and Kin-nis-te' tribal leaders, dozens of people gathered in northern California last month to help tie lashings on an Unangax̂ open skin boat, nearly 30 feet long.

Marc Daniels and Mike Ferguson harvest driftwood for the nigilax̂ frame
Kanesia McGlashan-Price
Marc Daniels and Mike Ferguson harvest driftwood for the nigilax̂ frame on a beach near Ferndale, CA.

Marc and Leah Daniels are owners of Mind’s Eye Manufactory in Ferndale, California, and founders of Make Access Iqyax̂ Apprenticeships. Marc Daniels is not Unangax̂ himself, but he’s helped facilitate iqyax̂ [Unangax̂ sea kayak] builds across Unangax̂ territory for the last three decades.

During a six-week community build at his workshop, Daniels facilitated the construction of a different skin-on-frame vessel: a nigilax̂, an Unangax̂ open skin boat. This is the third nigilax̂ built in the last year, but when it’s launched, it’ll potentially be the first to touch water in more than two centuries.

“There is a great significance to this vessel in my mind, because the removal of it 200 and something years ago was done intentionally to control the Unangax̂ people,” said Daniels.

Like the iqyax̂, the nigilax̂ frame is a collection of artfully shaped wood pieces. Daniels says Unangax̂ designed their vessels to mimic the bodies and movements of sea mammals, like qawax̂, or sea lion. Qawax̂ skins would traditionally cover the frames, but heavy nylon fabric is used today.

The history of the nigilax̂, in comparison to the iqyax̂, is not well-known.

More than two centuries ago, Russian fur traders migrated across Unangam Tanangin, or the Aleutian Chain, inciting a wave of destruction among the Indigenous communities they encountered. They enslaved skilled Unangax̂ hunters for the sea otter harvest and destroyed nearly every nigilax̂ to keep villagers from fleeing.

Iqyax̂ were a necessary tool for the sea otter harvest, which benefited Russian exploitation. Nigilax̂, on the other hand, had an entirely different purpose. The vessels had the ability to carry more than 20 people, which Daniels says was a form of empowerment.

“They could get away,” he said. “They could move, they could pile into one of these, and disappear around the next headland or move to the next island to get away. And so the Russian invaders destroyed the vessels.”

The Russians forcefully evacuated Unangax̂ and other Alaska Natives to California, where they built the fur traders' southernmost outpost. This post was located at Metini, the ancestral homelands of the Kashaya Pomo, also known today as Fort Ross. The Unangax̂ hunters were never brought back to Unangam Tanangin, as they had initially been promised.

For the last decade, there have been gatherings to honor the Alaskan Native people who were brought to Metini and never returned to their homelands. Lauren Peters is an Unangax̂ PhD student at the University of California Davis, and the lead organizer for these events.

Mike Ferguson helps fit the chine stringer to the bow of the nigilax̂
Kanesia McGlashan-Price
Mike Ferguson works on fitting a chine stringer to the bow of the nigilax̂.

She is also a descendant of a family that was enslaved at Metini.

“Stepan, Anesia, and their son, Ivan, were taken down to Fort Ross, Metini, to be the blacksmith there,” said Peters. “And he was the only blacksmith in all of California.”

The Titovs, her sixth great-grandparents, were forcefully brought from Kodiak to Metini, says Peters. She grew up hearing the stories from her mother about what life looked like for the Alaska Native people at Metini, but when she visited in 2013, the fort had little to show about their history.

The first Alaska Native Day at Fort Ross was hosted by Fort Ross Conservancy in 2014.

“We're sitting in the back of the room, listening to all these non-Unangax̂ talk about us and saying, ‘No, that's wrong’” said Peters. “And so I decided right there that if we had another one of these, it would only be us talking about us.”

Since then, the event has been organized and hosted by Alaska Native people to celebrate and honor their existence — past, present, and future.

During the 2023 Alaska Native Day, the nigilax̂ will be launched at Metini. Peters says the Kashaya Pomo have welcomed the vessel’s builders to their lands to commemorate the historic event.

Anchorage Unangax̂ Dancers performing at Alaska Native Day at the Fort 2014
Barb Swetzof Lund
St Paul Island
Anchorage Unangax̂ Dancers performing at Alaska Native Day at the Fort in 2014.

“It just sort of hit us that we should make the first blessing and launch at Metini,” said Daniels. “And so that's where that's going to happen, and it should be a notable celebration.”

Daniels says the nigilax̂ will be for Unangax̂ to participate in gatherings such as Tribal Journeys in the Salish Sea, Celebration in Juneau, and events like Alaska Native Day at Fort Ross.

The launch will take place at Fort Ross Cove on Saturday, May 27. Peters says the Anchorage Unangax̂ Dancers will travel from Alaska to perform, and members of the Kin-nis-te' Tribe, who participated in the build, will travel from northern California to take part in the blessing and launch.

Make Access Apprenticeships is a Dream Maker Project of the Ink People Center of the Arts.

An Unangax̂ multimedia creator from Iluulux̂ [Unalaska], Kanesia is working to amplify the voices of Unangam Tanangin [Aleutian Chain] through web, audio and visual storytelling.
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