MakeAccess Iqyax Apprenticeships Teaches Boatbuilding

MIKE FERGUSON

A completed nigilax in the shop at Mind’s Eye Manufactory, the home of MakeAccess Iqyax Apprenticeships.

Recent headlines about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the associated atrocities of war too frequently include abduction and deportation of civilians to parts unknown. MakeAccess Iqyax Apprenticeships—a program in Ferndale, California, that teaches Unangax (Unangan) students the craft of building boats once used by their ancestors in the Aleutian Islands—also serves as a reminder that Russians and other Eurasian invaders applied similar tactics to conquer modern-day Alaska in the 18th century.

In that process, many Unangax were captured, enslaved, and forcibly relocated, leaving behind their culture. In their absence, the boats that had been essential to their survival were damaged or destroyed. Many Unangax men were forced to participate in sea otter hunts along the West Coast, from the Aleutian Islands all the way south to Mexico, never to return to their homelands. Instead they ended up at Fort Ross, a Russian outpost on the wild coast of Northern California. Descendants of these Unangaxˆ still live in this area, often having intermarried with members of local tribes, and today are following or participating in the MakeAccess program.

MIKE FERGUSON

Marc Daniels-Aygagnax prepares the 27.5′ (8.4m) 20-person canoe’s (nigilax) floor chine for lashing

For the program leader, master craftsman and boatbuilder Marc Daniels-Aygagnax—who owns the Mind’s Eye Manufactory & Coffee Lounge in Ferndale—constructing traditional Unangax kayaks has become second nature, helping preserve tribal history while teaching traditional skin-on-frame boatbuilding techniques. “We’re not building these boats for the museum,” he told me, “but for people to paddle them.” For more than 30 years Daniels-Aygagnax has built skin-on-frame craft and instructed countless others to create their own replicas of the iqyax (single-seat kayak), uluxtax (tandem kayak), and, currently, a large 27.5 (8.4m) nigilax (multiperson canoe) that weighs just 350 lbs (158.75 kg) and can accommodate up to 20 passengers. These were extremely seaworthy craft used for interisland travel across some rough stretches of water frequently whipped by strong winds and currents.

MIKE FERGUSON

Volunteers in the MakeAccess Iqyax Apprenticeships—a boatbuilding program for Unangax (Unangan) students in Ferndale, California—lash stringers during an Open House event at Mind’s Eye Manufactory.

Archeological evidence suggests that these boats have been used for millennia. “During my research, I was allowed to examine wooden parts that were found in a burial cave,” Daniels-Aygagnax recounts his work with the Museum of the Aleutians. “They turned out to be ribs of a nigilax that was buried with an important individual.” Presumably these century-old pieces are the only physical evidence of once-abundant nigilax vessels in the region. These boats were developed in an area that was not forested, and the Unangax had to use available materials like driftwood and sealskins. “They started with a walk on the beach to find the right shapes of driftwood. And today we do the same, teaching students that driftwood is not junk but a valuable resource and often much better than lumber that is for sale.”

Part of the boats’ construction is intricate mortise-and-tenon joinery and pegs, but most connections between stringers and frames are now lashed with tarred seine twine instead of qawax (sea lion tendons), or softened baleen derived from alamax (humpback whales). Daniels-Aygagnax estimates that to cover a nigilax hull might have required the skins of 15 sea lions, once an abundant and readily available resource in the Aleutians. Before the Russians arrived, Daniels-Aygagnax said, “these people lived seasonally, and made time to tend to their boats in the winter months when they were laid up, fixing frames, restitching seams, and patching skins.” Instead of sea lion skins, Daniels-Aygagnax covers his modern boats with heavy nylon that is tightly woven but exhibits a similar elasticity.

MIKE FERGUSON

Bernadette Lincoln stitches the ballistic nylon covering the stern of the vessel.

Boatbuilding aside, the apprenticeship program also has a strong component in raising awareness and reviving cultural traditions among the Unangax People and the Native tribes in this region of Northern California. Daniels-Aygagnax worked with local Wiyot, Kun-nes-t’e, and Unangax individuals, and received the blessings of the Wiyot Tribe, the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska, and the Tribal Government of Saint Paul Island, Alaska. He reaches out to other tribes and the non-Native community to participate and accepts donations through GoFundMe.

Mind’s Eye Manufactory & Coffee Lounge, 393 Main St., Ferndale, CA 95536, USA, tel. 707–834–3893.

—D.L.