Qayaqs and Canoes

Open Skin Boats

Skin boats have remarkable advantages over metal or wooden craft because the hulls are light weight, simple to use, easy to repair and highly shock resistant. The flawless design enabled the St. Lawrence Island (also sometimes called "Siberian") Yupik people to successfully live off the Bering Sea for millennia. The design is so perfectly suited to the environment and task of hunting whales and walrus that these boats are still used today. In fact, the village of Gambell boasts a fleet of 24 angyapiks that are used in whale hunting.

This angyapik weighs less than 500 pounds but because of its frame constructions, which allows flexibility in ocean water, it can carry a full hunting crew and their equipment plus more than three tons of meat.

To download detailed information about Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island whaling, go to

The angyapik is a specialty of the people of St. Lawrence Island. The related and similar umiaq is the Iñupiaq version that serves the same purposes -- as a whaling and hunting boat, and for transporting people and goods.

St. Lawrence Island and the Iñupiaq area are represented on the map by light blue and a slightly darker shade, to indicate that, though related, the languages are distinct from each other.

Traditionally, the angyapik's frame would have been entirely of driftwood. However, for this project, the crew bought some lumber, using driftwood only for the curve of the bow.

The process took two and a half weeks, in addition to five days of soaking the hides and a full day to cover the boat with them.

The St. Lawrence Islanders use a rectangular sail -- made out of canvas today -- when pursuing whales, in contrast to most of the mainland Inupiat, who paddle their boats.

Leonard Apangalook, Sr., master boatbuilder and whaling captain, explained, "This particular model was designed after the Boston Whaler. In the mid-1800s, when the commercial whalers went up the Bering Straits, they brought with them the Boston Whaler, a wooden boat. They traded with our people for baleen and provided some of these whaling boats, but they were so heavy, being made out of wood. So our people designed this hide boat. . . . Prior to this era, we also had a boat covered with walrus hide, and if I were to make one of those, it would be identical to the ones we have up north on the mainland like at Point Barrow and Point Hope."

Leonard Apangalook Sr. (Piitkuk) and his son Ronald from Gambell on St. Lawrence Island headed the crew that constructed this angyapik for the Alaska Native Heritage Center in 2000. They are both experienced whalers who have made and used these boats their entire lives.

Ronald Apangalook, 31 at the time, explained, "I started whaling when I was seven years old with my grandfather. My dad was the striker at the time. In 1979, my dad became a captain. When I was eighteen I struck a whale. I was the striker for my dad's crew."

The most crucial phase of boat construction is the hide preparation and splitting. Only experienced women have the skill to split walrus hides. After the hides are scraped, split, and stretched to their fullest size, they are set out to dry. They are then sewn onto the frame -- an extremely strenuous activity -- with a special stitch that creates a watertight boat.

In this photo, the men are draping the heavy, wet walrus hide over the frame in preparation for cutting it to shape and sewing the pieces together. The cover is then lashed to the frame using rawhide, and nowadays is covered with silicone and sealant.

The Iñupiat, like the St. Lawrence Island Yupiget, cover their whaling and traveling boats, called umiat, with skins. This photograph, taken about 1900, shows that the traditional knowledge has continued to be passed down and practiced.

This contemporary whaling crew consists of six people. Note the sea ice to both the left and right of the boat as the crew paddles through the lead.

This diagram shows the construction of the umiaq frame and skin covering:

  1. quliik: gunwales
  2. iksuġaq: seat; 2a quŋialik: seat closest to the bow
  3. tulimaa: rib
  4. niutaq: stern or bow
  5. aqu: stern
  6. sivu: bow
  7. qiglu: bow deck
  8. kuyaaq: keel
  9. akkuk: bottom formers
  10. tuurvik: fore or aft framing member to which skin is lashed; 10a tugrun: skin's lashing topes
  11. kilu: seam
  12. amiq: skin covering; amiqsut: "they are sewing skins for a boat"
  13. anŋun: pitch (caulking) with caribou fat and hot seal oil
  14. uvaagiitkutaa: stabilizer for boat frame

The whaling crew's toolkit includes both weapons and floats, such as this one made of an inflated seal skin. Leonard explained,

"We're mandated by the International Whaling Commission to use our traditional harpoons. There is a bomb attached to the harpoon gun. This tool was designed in the late 1800s by the commercial whalers and of course, we started using that too. There's a harpoon iron with a line attached to it with a couple of floats attached to the line. The gun itself sits on top of the harpoon. When you strike a whale, the harpoon is attached along with the line and floats. The gun injects into the whale a time-delayed bomb and the bomb explodes inside the whale. Normally, with a good shot, it's an instant kill after the initial strike."

Speaking of whaling on St. Lawrence Island, Leonard Apangalook said, "Traditionally they had ceremonies at whaling time, but that was before my time. I have read about them and seen some movies of them, but we don't practice any of these ceremonies any more."

In contrast, the town of Barrow still carries on the tradition of Nalukataq every summer after a successful whaling season, as seen here during the celebration of 2002. Guests bring their own chairs and dishes, and feast on whale meat and blubber, as well as duck soup and other delicacies.

The entire town of Barrow is invited to Nalukataq as guests of the whaling captains who succeeded in landing whales.  Children play games and both young people and adults participate in the blanket toss demonstrating their skills and enjoying themselves.

Nalukataq feeds guests and honors the successful whaling captains, but, most importantly, honors the whales who gave themselves to the community.