Makushin Bay: Its Resources and People

Resources requiring the iqyax

This section depicts the most important invention of the ancient Unangan (plural of Unangax): the iqyax, or kayak. It was only thanks to the iqyax that sea mammals could be hunted.

The Unangax iqyax (kayak) was a marvel of engineering, and allowed the people to travel hundreds of miles in the open water.  This is the invention that made life in the islands possible, for without it, the abundant sea resources would not have been available to the Unangax people.

 

 

The iqyax shown here has two holes or hatches. Single-hatch iqyan were more commonly used for hunting before the Russians came.

 

This is the detail of the bow of the iqyax.  The split design allows the vessel to plow through the water while the horizontal piece provides stability in ocean waters. This photo shows the sea lion skin cover, sewn together with a waterproof stitch.

 

The halibut is the master of disguise -- but the Unangax people have known when they migrate to shallow water to breed, and perfected methods for fishing for them from their iqyan.  Halibut meat is firm, white, and delicious.

The Russians' primary interest during the first 100 years of their occupation of Alaska was the sea otter.  The fur is rich and warm, and was in high demand among the nobility of both Russia and China.  

By the early 1900s, the sea otter populations had all but died out and an international ban on hunting them was enforced. In recent years they have rebounded and the animals are numerous in Alaska waters.

 

 

 

Kelp can be eaten if prepared properly, but it can also be used as a line.  Perhaps most important for the Unangax people during Russian times, kelp beds are where sea otters gather.

The Unangax people had a very special way of hunting whales (usually baleen whales, occasionally toothed whales like the orca in the picture): They used a poison brewed from the monkshood plant, harpooned the whale in a location where they knew the tides and wind would blow the whale ashore, and waited for it to die and drift onto the shore. Then they butchered it and distributed the meat.

 

Among the most important sea mammals used for food, clothing, and skins, was the seal.  Unangax boys began going out with their fathers and uncles before puberty to learn how to hunt the animals, using long harpoons with detachable barbs.

Steller sea lions were a challenge to hunt, because they are large and travel in groups, and can be ferocious. Yet the Unangax people mastered the art of hunting sea lions from their skin-covered iqyan (plural of iqyax) thousands of years ago.