Nunavut students make traditional kayaks for the first time

There are concerns that the craft of traditional qajaq making may die off if it isn’t passed on to younger generations.

‘It’s been my lifelong passion to learn something like this,’ says Matiusi Tikvik, a student in Iqaluit

Student Pabina Petaulassie Jr. using a measuring tape while learning how to build a traditional qajaq. (Mike Salomonie/CBC)

Inside a garage in Iqaluit, a group of students measure, sketch and pound away at a thin, wooden structure that will later be dressed in sealskin.

They're building a traditional South Baffin Island style qajaq — or kayak — from scratch.

"I am extremely happy that I have been chosen to learn these skills. It's been my lifelong passion to learn something like this," says Matiusi Tikvik, a student from Kimmirut, Nunavut.

Students Pabina Petaulassie Jr. and Franco Buscemi measuring the spacers that go into building a qajaq. (Mike Salomonie/CBC)

This is the first time a course like this is being offered.

"We've learned quite a bit," says Tikvik.

A scale model qajaq compared to the actual qajaq built by students. (Mike Salomonie/CBC)
Throughout history, qajaqs were a necessity for hunters in the Arctic who used it to catch marine mammals like fish, seals and whales.

"At that time, most seals were not afraid nor timid as they are today," says Eegeesiak Simigak, one of the elders overseeing the group.

"Harp seals and ring seals were not conditioned to loud motors, it's their curious nature but they were typically the hardest ones to catch and today, harder still."

Teaching qajaq building 'my life's mission,' says elder

Because qajaq building is rarely taught, there are concerns that the craft may die off if it isn't passed on to younger generations.

Mosha Akavak, one of the elders teaching the workshop, says that qajaq building skills should not be "put in the wayside and be completely forgotten."

"These participants are willing and able to carry on the necessary building blocks," says Akavak. 

Mosha Akavak explains the drawings and measurements that he took down in 1989 from his father's qajaq. (Mike Salomonie/CBC)

The qajaqs that the students are recreating are based on old design templates from Akavak's father from the 1950s.

Akavak took his father's qajaq and sketched and recorded all its measurements in 1989. He's teaching them to students today and says it's "now my life's mission."

Mosha Akavak's drew this template from his late father's Qajaq from the 1950s. (Mike Salomonie/CBC)

"They are very much relevant today as they were yesterday," says Akavak.

​Eemeelayou Arnaquq is another instructor. He says he helped build his first qajaq in 1969.

"I took my grandfather's words and followed them very carefully. Anuja Kelly was his name. We took his words verbatim and applied them to the build."

Instructor Eemeelayou Arnaquq building his first qajaq in 1969. (Mike Salomonie/CBC)

"Of course, I'm still learning today," says Arnaquq.  

The students are learning the craft from elders in three phases over several months.

The group will complete the shell of the kayak by March. They are hoping to test them in the summer.

with files from Mike Salomonie


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