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3.3.1 The construction of Arctic skinboats

The construction and design of the arctic kayak and umiak have direct relationships to the human body and are intimately associated with their intended users. The Greenland kayak is built specifically for an individual hunter, the proportions of the boat being taken from the body of the hunter (Arima 1987). Similarly, umiaks are bespoke, constructed to take account of the strengths and weaknesses of particular crew members. Once complete, a kayak is considered part of the hunter. In the Aleut oral tradition, the kayak is not an object; it is a living being, male, a hunting partner, which attempts to identify itself with its master and would like to share his married life. Their fates, indeed, are bound up together, and their lives end at the same time: they disappear at sea together or, on land, share the same grave (Robert-Lamblin 1980, 10). Complex rituals and songs are associated with each stage of boat construction in order to bring good luck and unite the lives of the boat and crew (Lantis 1946; Zimmerly 1986, 40).

Boats are built by the entire community with specific gendered tasks carried out in sequence. The kayaks and umiaks are constructed of a light wooden or bone frame over which a seal-skin cover is stretched. The preparation of skins for boats is a long-drawn-out process that requires basic tools and resources, but also an extensive knowledge of the materials. During the summer seals are harvested. Skins are removed from freshly killed seals in long strips, using a cut that spirals around the body of the seal, mirroring the shape of the intended boat, thus minimising waste and the need for unnecessary stitching (Arima 1987, 117). Removed skins are placed in seal fat, within seal-skin bags, and left to ferment for up to six months. This fermentation process is required in order to preserve the skins and make them supple for stretching and sewing and also aids the removal of fur.

Figure 4

Figure 4: The technique for producing waterproof stitches within sealskin. Redrawn by the author from an original drawing (© McCord Museum, Montreal, Quebec).

Firstly, fur is removed using scrapers and the skins are then stitched together by experienced seamstresses, using embedded waterproof stitches (Arima 1987, 118; Curtis 1930; Sage 2006). The seal skins are sewn together with caribou sinew, on both the top and the bottom side of the skins to ensure a strong waterproof join, and stretched over the frame of the boat (Figure 4). Finally, the skin cover is coated with boiled seal oil, which seals the pores and makes it waterproof. This oiling operation must be repeated frequently, approximately once a month, to prevent the skin from tearing or leaking (Sage 2006). The entire covering must be changed every year, although the frame can be repaired and will last for several years (Robert-Lamblin 1980, 7).


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