“Nobody has seen a moosehide boat in sixty years. I have never seen a birch bark canoe in my life. I have never seen a qayaq. And I have never seen a dugout canoe being built. Now they are here in front of us.” – Inland Tlingit elder Douglas Smarch, Sr.
I am breezing down the swift Yukon river, the sky blue and the river teal, as the chanting and clatter of paddles gets louder and more rhythmic with military precision. As my kayak glides up behind a long trailing line of bright red feathers, I can feel the Maori beating their paddles on their waka, their dugout canoe. Behind me, an enormous bright red dugout, 27’ long, cruises up proudly, with silver-haired Tlingit Wayne Price at the stern wielding his steering paddle. He is beaming, the sun is beaming, and I am beaming. We are making history. Maybe it’s not the sun beaming. It’s our ancestors smiling down on us.
Three months earlier, I had gotten a call, an invitation to Whitehorse to build a sealskin qayaq (kayak) for a historic boatbuilding project, Voices Across the Water. Alongside three other master boatbuilders, we would build 4 rare indigenous watercraft. We would animate a huge Tlingit dugout canoe carved from a single spruce, a Tlingit moosehide boat, a Tutchone bark canoe wrapped in a single piece of birch bark, and a 16’ Iñupiaq qayaq covered by the hides of caribou and seals.
I spent a month, along with my partner Addie, working on the qayaq, mostly on sewing the skins. Knowledge of skin sewing has almost vanished across the North. When I began building qayaqs twenty years ago, it seemed that noone was left who had direct experience with qayaq building. Fortunately, I’ve been able to learn to sew the skins again thanks to Patricia Sage and the other women up in Utqiagviq who still sew the skins of umiaqs, the big brothers of qayaqs.
We ran into a lot of setbacks with the hides– the wrong species of seal arrived, our elder with the lifetime of sealskin sewing never made it, and our substitute caribou hides were filled with warble fly holes. Nonetheless, in the spirit of our ancestors, and thanks to the hard work of Charlene Alexander, Anne Mease and Steve Cooper, we made it work. All the other builders had setbacks as well, but the community came together and it worked! On July 6th, during the Adáka Festival, we launched all the watercraft together for a voyage down the Yukon.
Voices Across the Water is also called Dan Kwanje A’naan in Tutchone. Held to celebrate the Yukon First Nations for Canada’s 150th Anniversary, it is the second major multi-culture Native boatbuilding project to be held in North America. The traditional watercraft represented at Voices are all nearly extinct, their original lineages broken by changing economics, motorized boats, and cultural loss. I’ll save my thoughts on the rebirth and resurgence of indigenous traditional technologies for another time, but I will say I felt honored to be building alongside Wayne Price, Justin Smith, Doug Smarch Jr, Joe Migwans, and Halin De Repentigny. Banihan, thank you all, for making these healing watercraft and bringing the people back to the water. – Kiliii Yüyan