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Kayak offers gateway to vanishing culture

Specialists from Alaska to study vessel at Harvard museum

SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF

T. Rose Holdcraft (left), Alfred Naumoff, and Susan Malutin looked at the warrior kayak.

CAMBRIDGE - The kayak rested on velour and foam pads, atop custom-made wheeled aluminum stands. Nearly a dozen people in white lab coats swarmed around it, taking notes on every seam and crack, photographing it inside and out with their iPhones and digital cameras.

The 140-plus-year-old kayak is made of less high-tech stuff: at least five sea lion skins stretched over a wood frame, stitched together with sinew and wool and ornamented with human hair.

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Alutiiq warriors’ kayaks were normally buried with their owners, but this one was stored away at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology for years and is now the focus of a months-long preservation project.

This week, Harvard conservators and staff received help from visitors from Alaska who know the most about these kind of vessels, and hope to learn still more from studying this rare find.

“It’s one of a kind,’’ said Sven Haakanson, executive director of the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak, Alaska, marveling at the kayak before him. “We have lots of models of single-man kayaks, but no full-size ones, so what we can learn from that in terms of size and design is extremely important.’’

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Haakanson traveled to Cambridge this week with the last traditionally trained Alutiiq kayak maker, Alfred Naumoff, and Alutiiq skin sewer Susan Malutin. They spent three days consulting with museum staff on conservation of the 14-foot-7-inch, one-man kayak.

Eventually the kayak will be moved to the Alutiiq Museum on a long-term loan. Haakanson hopes it can be used to invigorate the next generation’s interest in Alutiiq traditions and “repatriate the knowledge.’’

“To see one in this good of condition is quite a deal.’

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“In my lifetime, nobody was ever taught to build kayaks, except for Alfred, and that was because he was curious, he wanted to learn more,’’ said Haakanson, who has a doctorate in anthropology from Harvard. “We can work with him to use this kayak to work with our youth to build kayaks again.’’

“Working with communities to engage with their traditional knowledge and . . . share that with the public makes us more effective at telling the stories of these objects,’’ said project curator Trish Capone, associate curator of the museum.

For centuries, kayaks were central to the lives of the people of the southern Alaskan coast.

“I heard a reference that to insult somebody, you said, ‘Your father had no kayak,’ ’’ Haakanson said with a laugh. Alutiiqs used their kayaks to hunt seals, whales, sea lions, and porpoise, for fishing, and for traveling through the Aleutians and, at least once, as far as San Francisco, he said. “It was critical. Without having those skills to go out and kayak, you were going to starve. You couldn’t survive in Kodiak without that knowledge.’’

Contact with Russian and later American culture severely eroded the indigenous culture and language. By the 1930s, the Alutiiqs had switched to open dories and commercially built craft, Haakanson said.

Naumoff said he got interested as a boy in the 1970s and began asking old men in his family about the traditional ways. He is now a walking repository of information, pointing out strap marks on the kayak’s stern that held the unknown warrior’s equipment - “he was a right-hander’’ - and explaining the long process by which sea lion skins were prepared for use.

His knowledge is different than that resulting from scholarship or high-tech investigation. “Everything he said in there, we did not know,’’ Capone said with a smile.

Such relationships “really develop our understanding of the significance of the collections, because we see them with new eyes through the consultants,’’ Capone said.

The kayak came to the museum in 1869 with the purchase of the collection of Captain Edward G. Fast, who had been sent by the US Army to survey the territory.

Haakanson and Alutiiq elder Ronnie Lind were in Cambridge on another collaborative project in 2003 when, for their own interest, they started looking at the kayaks on a high shelf in a museum storage space. They were shocked to find an individual warrior kayak.

“To see one in this good of condition is quite a deal,’’ Naumoff said, shaking his head. The workmanship, he said, is “mind-blowing.’’

Tops on the project agenda is repairing the double tip of the kayak’s bow, a few inches of which were snapped off, no one knows when. The pieces were still around when the kayak was photographed in the 1930s, but have since gone missing. At least, they were not in the boxes labeled “kayak fragments’’ that now sit on a nearby shelf. On Wednesday, Naumoff and the museum staffers discussed creating matching pieces of spruce and sea lion skin to replace them. They also started identifying other items in the collection as part of the kayak’s gear, including a 112-inch whaling lance.

Museum conservators will be working in the kayak conservation room and available to chat with visitors on Mondays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Tuesdays and Wednesdays 2-5 p.m. for months to come. For more information, call 617-496-1027 or visit www.peabody.harvard.edu.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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