The niĝilax̂ makes a comeback after 200 years in obscurity
Dozens of people packed Sand Point’s harbor on July 24. Some crowded the small dock while others sat along a wall overlooking the water.
They were there to watch a group of a dozen people board a long, wooden-framed boat. It was open, like a canoe, but this was a niĝilax̂, a traditional Unangax̂ boat, made from a wooden frame and wrapped in animal skins.
The community built this niĝilax̂ in the spring, but they’ve been waiting for the launch for much longer — it had been 200 years in the making.
“During the Russian fur trade, the Russians took notice of our ancestors’ ability to move mass amounts, to move villages, to move their cargo, and ultimately to escape the Russians during the fur trade,” said Amy Mack, one of many people who helped organize the niĝilax̂ build.
She explained to the crowd that their ancestors used the boat like a cargo ship, and that worried the colonizers. They were able to move entire villages and warriors with ease with this one boat.
“To ensure that our ancestors were completely at the disposal of the Russians, sadly, all the niĝilax̂ were destroyed,” Mack said.
But this summer, the niĝilax̂ has returned. Four communities have built them this year, after studying historical documents, sketches, and artifacts to learn how they were made – one in Sand Point, one in Atka, one in Anchorage, and one in a town in Northern California, where many Unangax̂ people were relocated during the Russian days. Three of the communities have since launched the traditional Unangax̂ boat that hasn’t been seen since the 1800s.
The latest official launch happened at Sand Point Culture Camp, on July 24. That day, Ethan Petticrew, one of the teachers at camp, sat in the boat’s stern and called the strokes, while others chanted in Unangam Tunuu and beat drums.
The group paddled out into the bay and circled Range Island, a small, rocky outcrop about a mile from the dock.
The crew pulled back up to the dock about an hour after pushing off, where Unangax̂ dancers from Atka and Sand Point, greeted the crew with traditional fanfare.
“This is such a moving experience, I’m going to cry,” said Petticrew. “People haven’t done this since the 1800s. This is such a spiritual moment, I feel so connected to my great grandparents. I feel like I’m paddling with my great grandparents.”
Many people suggested names for the nigilax̂ but, ultimately, Amy Mack said the choice was obvious.
Unangam Anĝii, which translates to “Unangax̂ Spirit.”
“We chose that name because we are Unangan people, and we want that spirit of our ancestors to come back,” Mack said.
After the paddle, the niĝilax̂ was hoisted onto the dock and stored at the tribal office. But the Aleutians won’t have to wait another 200 years for the next boat: already, a fifth niĝilax̂ is being built and will be water-ready soon in Unalaska.