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July 25, 2011

Experiencing a Sea of Ingenuity

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Edward S. Curtis, boys in a kaiak [kayak] (detail), ca. 1929. Nunivak, Alaska. Library of Congress. LC-USZ62-46892

I sing to the seas
I sing to my kayak
It is a part of my body,
We fly upon the waves.

                                   —from a traditional Inupiat song


Have you ever been in a kayak? When I was working on the boat-building demonstration project for the opening of the museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., we invited Inuit kayak-makers from Pelley Bay in Nunavut, Canada, to build a kayak in the Potomac Atrium in the center of the museum. It’s still there; maybe you've seen it. When it was finished, Joe Youcha, director of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation helped us try it out in the Potomac River. It’s an amazing boat.  It’s so light and maneuverable, and it really does feel like an extension of your legs.

In the imagiNATIONS Family Activity Center, we want visitors to experience the inventions of the Native peoples of the Americas. Kayaks—spelled qayaqs or qajaqs in the languages of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic—are a perfect example of ingenious Native design. Invented at least 4,000 years ago, kayaks were built to fit their owners, who used them primarily for hunting. Different sorts of kayaks were designed to travel through different types of Arctic waters. As Stephen Loring, Arctic archaeologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, describes them, “Labrador kayaks were the pick-up trucks and Greenland kayaks were the race cars of the kayak world.” 

Earlier this year, while working on imagiNATIONS, we met Maligiaq Padilla, a champion traditional kayaker and kayak-maker from Sisimiut, an Inuit town in Western Greenland, who had just moved to Washington. Maligiaq told us about how he learned to kayak, about the international competitions showcasing traditional kayaking skills, and about making kayaks. He showed us pictures of “balance boards” that Inuit children use to learn to balance in a kayak. He even sang a children’s kayaking song he learned when he was a baby. Maligiaq joined us to look at the collections of old kayaks at the Smithsonian and will be making a child’s kayak for you (kids only!) to sit in at the imagiNATIONS Family Activity Center. 

Join us to learn more about kayaks and try out lots of other fun and, we hope, idea-provoking  activities when the imagiNATIONS Family Activity Center opens at the National Museum of the American Indian this September.

—Carolyn Rapkievian, NMAI Assistant Director for Education and Museum Programs

Comments (2)

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Gosh! Kayak was invented 4,000 years ago! man I love kayaks they are so good for fishing, quite and get you where you want to go :)... though its one hell of a job to get there

I never ride a kayak before. First hard and fall .. but after 3 days of study .. turns out easily and thoroughly enjoying...