On Saturday, the community of Unalaska joined Shayla Shaishnikoff, Camp Qungaayux̂ coordinator for the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska, as she launched her first iqyax̂—an Unangax̂ skin-on-frame sea kayak—into Margaret Bay.
"I'm just really looking forward to getting this build in [the water] and to customizing this iqyax̂ to me and my body," said Shaishnikoff. "We are a water people. The water is just everything to us and brings us food and life and energy and transportation and happiness really."
Shaishnikoff crafted her iqyax̂ over a span of about 14 days with the guidance of instructor Marc Daniels—professional iqyax̂ builder and owner of True North Boats and the Make Access Iqyax̂ Apprenticeships program—and help from Dustin Newman, youth services coordinator with the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association.
"The whole process starts with going out to the beaches and combing the shores for the right shapes of driftwood because a lot of the parts in an iqyax̂ are curved, but they have to be strong," explained Daniels. "So you take a pattern out with you and you select out the pieces of driftwood that match and are the right type of wood and are in good shape. And you bring those back to the shop and carve those down into the pieces."
From there, Daniels said the process involves many long hours in the wood shop, then steaming and bending of the ribs as the iqyax̂ begins taking on a three-dimensional shape. Once the framework is complete, Daniels said the iqyax̂ is wrapped in a heavy nylon fabric—as opposed to the traditional sea lion skin—which is sewn tight around the frame and then covered in a waterproof coating. The process wraps up with the launch and blessing of the iqyax̂.
When it is done at Camp Qungaayux̂, the region's annual culture camp, which was cancelled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the iqyax̂ is constructed in about five days. But for Shaishnikoff's build, as part of Daniels' apprenticeship program, they slowed the process down.
Typically, Shaishnikoff would travel to California as well, to learn and build with Daniels in his workshop. But because of the pandemic, she said she was unable to travel there in March, as she'd previously planned to do.
But Shaishnikoff was determined to craft her own vessel, so she and Daniels collaborated with APIA and the Qawalangin Tribe to move forward with the build by bringing Daniels to Unalaska despite the cancellation of the culture camp.
And while things are happening on a different timeline and location, Shaishnikoff said she's excited to have the opportunity to build her own iqyax̂ in her home community.
"That initial launch out to sea really sets you up for the rest of the course of your iqyax̂," said Shaishnikoff. "So to be able to do that here, in our Unangax̂ waters and on our lands, I think is pretty significant."
For Shaishnikoff, the build is not simply a physical process, but also an emotional, cultural, and spiritual one.
And for Dustin Newman, who has built three kayaks of his own and joined Daniels to help guide Shaishnikoff, the construction is also about fostering mental wellbeing through cultural practices.
"We have a value called kayutuux̂txin, which is 'be strong,'" said Newman. "I tie that into that same ideology of, you have to be strong mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually, to get through tough times. And having your cultural awareness, having those values instilled in you really helps get through those tough times."
It's a process of passion for Newman and Shaishnikoff, and also for Daniels, who has been building iqyax̂ and other Aleutian sea kayaks since the 1980s. When he described the process and the structure, his enthusiasm was immediately apparent through his acute attention to detail and the audible excitement that carried through his voice.
"The cleft, the two part bow, and the truncated stern, that exact number of ribs, the exact dimensions of it—it's perfect," said Daniels. "It fits the human body and makes a human being into a marine mammal."
He said he became obsessed with the Aleutian kayaks when he saw them in various museums when he was younger. He started researching and reverse engineering them and eventually was invited up to St. Paul, in the Pribilof Islands, to teach and build.
Daniels said he feels privileged to help mend the gap of cultural knowledge that was created when the Unangax̂ people were removed from their homes, many never to return.
"And it feels really meaningful to be picking that stuff up and sort of mending that wheel and getting it back to where it's spinning again," Daniels reflected.
For the blessing of her iqyax̂, Shaishnikoff said she is following Newman's lead. And like Daniels, Newman also approaches the build as a process that unites past and present.
"Mine personally, I'll embellish with our ivory carvings and circle dot motifs," explained Newman. "Circle dot motifs traditionally are what allow our ancestors to be with us. It invites them to be on the waters and dancing with us and everything."
At the launch of her vessel on Saturday night, Shaishnikoff included an ivory carving of a sea otter nestled into the inside of the iqyax̂, and attached to the outside, near the head of the vessel, a humpback whale—"alamax̂" in Unangam Tunuu—a symbol that is particularly special to Shaishnikoff and is also her Unangax̂ name.