It’s been over a century since members of the Sugpiat community on Southern Alaska’s Kodiak Island have used a traditional Angyaaq. These boats were once an essential part of their livelihood and culture for thousands of years before being destroyed by Russian settlers in the 1860s.
The knowledge of these boats was thought to be lost.
But all of that changed when Sven Haakanson, Curator of North American Anthropology and a member of the Sugpiat community, turned to a model Angyaat from the Burke and other museum collections to revitalize this traditional boat-building practice and build two Angyaaq—one here at the Burke Museum in Seattle and one in Kodiak Island, Alaska.
“The idea was to take that traditional knowledge that’s embodied in the original model and bring it back home, back to my tribe and back to the community so that we can then use it again and celebrate it,” Sven said.
Beginning in 2014, Sven reverse-engineered the model Angyaat in the Burke collection before building a full-size version with the help of University of Washington students and Burke Museum staff and volunteers. He simultaneously shared this experience and knowledge gained with community members on Kodiak Island where another Angyaaq was being built.
During the Burke’s Maker: Market in December 2015, Sven and his students covered the previously built frame in airplane fabric, waterproofed it, and stitched it together. By the end of 2015, Sven’s team had completed one full-size Angyaaq at the Burke Museum, and a frame of the boat completed on Kodiak Island.
The team also worked on carving and painting 12 paddles for riders to use. In the spring of 2016, Sven, UW students and master boat-builder Alfred Naumoff painted the paddles using traditional paddle designs.
Revitalizing these boat-making skills and bringing back the Angyaaq is not only a celebration of Sugpiat history, but a celebration of their ancestor’s ingenuity.
Ingenuity and efficiency in design
The Sugpiat were incredibly advanced engineers for their time, constructing a voyaging vessel that catered to their needs and surroundings. “They adapted to not only the local environment but also adapted to designing boats that were efficient,” said Sven.
The bulbous bow of the Angyaaq increases the speed of the boat, making it so that voyagers could paddle less in the rough weather. It also helped them cut through the waves far more easily. Bulbous bow designs have only recently seen an influx in boat design for the last 20 years, but this design was prominent hundreds of years ago in boats made by the Sugpiat peoples.
“Being Sugpiat, it’s a celebration of the ingenuity of indigenous peoples.”
Restoring and revitalizing
In May 2016, the Burke Angyaaq made its maiden voyage on the water in Magnolia Park. It was a successful launch and stayed afloat! Through this process, the Angyaaq team learned a lot about how to better balance the boat and that they needed to make the paddles longer than originally planned.
A few months later, Sven and several students returned to Kodiak Island to help the community finish stitching the waterproof fabric on their Angyaaq frame. Finally, the boat was launched on Kodiak Island for the first time in 150 years, and is now part of the Sugpiat community.
Sven will continue his work this summer on revitalizing the boats of the Sugpiat community. He hopes to improve the stability of the Angyaaq and build from its current use in the water.
The Angyaaq project’s success reveals the power in bringing different communities together to restore ancient knowledge. “It was one of these wonderful community collaborations, which is how Angyaaqs were traditionally built.” said Sven.