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Wainwright residents are making a skin boat for the first time in decades

Apr. 2—When Iñupiaq hunters search for whales in spring, they move silently, navigating the waters in traditional skin boats. In the whaling village of Wainwright, skin boat making hasn't been practiced for over 30 years, but residents are now reviving the practice.

Fifteen Wainwright whaling captains, captain's wives and crew members attended a series of March workshops in Utqiaġvik to learn how to sew sealskins to cover boat frames. The nonprofit Arctic Education Foundation, in partnership with the Iñupiat Heritage Center, hosted four days of workshops as part of a broader effort to preserve whaling traditions within North Slope communities, said Katie Roseberry, Arctic Education Foundation manager of cultural programs.

"There was a lot of hands-on learning for us," said Wainwright resident and whaling captain's wife Edna Ahmaogak. "It brought a sense of energy and revitalization to a practice that has just been quiet for a while and hopefully will begin again in our community."

Boats covered by the skins of bearded seals, called umiaq in Iñupiaq, have been traditionally used by Yupik and Inuit people for hunting and whaling. In modern days, whalers in Utqiaġvik and Point Hope rely on skin boats early in the spring whaling season, when the open lead in the ice pack is small and they are more protected from strong waves. In skin boats, whalers can move more quietly, without startling the whales.

In Wainwright, skin boat making has not been practiced since the late 1980s, and for about 30 years, whalers have been using aluminum and sometimes fiberglass boats.

The reasons the practice stopped might be numerous, Ahmaogak said. Maybe whaling crews thought that using the aluminum boats would be easier, she said. Maybe they could no longer get enough bearded seals. Maybe the older generation couldn't connect with the younger generation to pass down the practice.

But with a surge of Indigenous revitalization efforts, the younger generation now shows more interest in Iñupiaq traditions, from learning the Iñupiaq language to reviving traditional practices — including making skin boats, Ahmaogak said.

[Wordle takes off — this time, in Iñupiaq]

Tommi Ahmaogak, who is Edna Ahmaogak's niece-in-law, agreed: "It's like there's a gap between our grandparents and us. Our parents never learned how to do it, and it's something our community don't do anymore. So I've always wanted to learn."

The yearlong process of making a skin boat

In Utqiaġvik, where the practice of making skin boats has endured, it takes place in spring before the whaling season. But preparations happen year-round when residents harvest caribou and bearded seals and dry the skins.

"Everything is a cycle," said Utqiaġvik whaling captain Joe Mello, who led the workshops for Wainwright residents with his wife, Nancy Leavitt.

Before the whaling season, crews prepare caribou sinew to braid it into a thread, clean sealskins and then sew them together and onto the boat. The process is often a chance for gathering.

For Utqiaġvik traditional skin seamstress Flora Patkotak, sewing skin boats is a passion that brought her and her husband together.

About 11 years ago, Patkotak's boyfriend at the time invited her to watch the process of boat making. Patkotak spent the whole day assisting the crew. A couple of weeks later, her boyfriend asked Patkotak to help his crew sew their skin boat, this time by braiding the caribou sinew. She agreed, though the practice was new to her.

"That is when I learned and fell in love with ... this knowledge that has been passed down for generations and generations," she said.

Another love sprouted then as well, she said.

"Me and my husband got together," she said. "He was testing me through sewing skin boats. We've been married for 11 1/2 years."

Patkotak said she was happy to share her passion with Wainwright residents, some of whom are her family members.

"We had a lot of good stories, shared a lot of good laughter, good company," Patkotak said. "Sharing the knowledge, I was excited for them to learn and to one day sew their own skin boats and get that feeling of being out in the water going out silently and with just manpower."

The workshops

Mello and Leavitt led the workshops as the host crew and provided the boat frame for participants to work on.

"I'm just happy that some of the Wainwright crews wanna get back into the sewing part of whaling — sewing the skin boats," Mello said. "To me, that is a real good thing to do. And a lot of people around Barrow helped out, you know, to keep our culture alive."

Throughout the first two days, Wainwright residents worked with caribou, said Roseberry with the Arctic Education Foundation. Participants pulled and cleaned the tendons from the caribou hind legs and backstraps, learned about the traditional freeze-drying process and used dried tendons to split and braid them into ivalu, or a thread used for sewing the skins.

Having strong ivalu ensures that the whalers are safe, Mello said.

"When you're out hunting, you need not to break the seams," Mello said. "That's what gets you back home."

The third day of workshops was about preparing the bearded seal skins by scraping them and removing bones from the flippers. Participants also cut natchiq, or ringed seal, to use its blubber during the sewing process, Roseberry said.

"Everyone was happy and in good spirits," Tommi Ahmaogak said about the workshops. Utqiaġvik residents welcomed "us with open arms, willing to teach and make sure it's the right way, the correct way. That way we do it right when it comes to our turn."

On the final day of sewing, the amiq day, participants spent hours sewing the skins together to fit the boat frame. The men cut the skins while the women used ivalu to sew waterproof stitches on the outside and inside of the skins. Then the skins were stretched across the boat frame and tied down to it.

Stitching was the favorite and most challenging part for Tommi Ahmaogak, she said. She needed to redo some of her stitches to make sure they weren't too tight or too loose.

"It has to be done correctly, otherwise it's dangerous," she said. "It's dangerous for our whalers out there if the seal comes off or gets undone."

By the end of the amiq day, Leavitt crew had a completed boat, Roseberry said. The crew plans to use the boat for whaling this spring, Mello said.

Overall, the visitors from Wainwright had a chance to see all parts of the skin boat making process, Patkotak said.

"They had the taste of the yearlong process that it takes to be able to (sew an) umiak," she said. "And then they'll be able to start their own."

Wainwright hunters already harvest bearded seals and caribou, and they will only need to make small adjustments to their hunting practices to be able to use their harvest for skin boats, Patkotak said.

While the village might still need a workshop for building boat frames, now that a group of them has the knowledge about skin boat sewing, residents said they hope that the practice will come back to the community.

"My son is a whaler. One day he's going to become a whaling captain and his crew will be able to have that knowledge to continue on with skin boats," Tommi Ahmaogak said. "The whole point was for us to be able to learn and revive (the practice) in our community. ... It's not gone. It's just being woken back up."