New boats revive tribal traditions

NVE’s palaaq and qayaaq project reaches fruition after six years of planning

Clifford Nichols shows off his qayaaq. Native Village of Eyak hosted a boat launch and potlatch on Thursday, June 13, 2019, to celebrate the completion of a traditional palaaq (canoe) and qayaaq (kayak) building class. Photo by Bree Mills/for The Cordova Times

Thursday, June 13 was an exciting evening at Skater’s Cabin, the atmosphere brimming with pride, laughter and incredible food. Bob and Jackie Ladd fired up the grill just as the rain let up, while a campfire smoked down the hill.

A palaaq (canoe), made by Aaraon Bowman and Tina Fox and a qayaaq (kayak), made by Delores Taylorwere staged next to the lake, ready for their first launch on the water. The craftmanship was something to behold. The kids zipped up their life vests and loaded into the palaaq as Native Village of Eyak Cultural Center director Brooke Johnson handed out paddles, and the boats were sent out into the lake for the first time.

Taylor Kimbo steadies the qayaaq as Kelly Weavering prepares to launch. Photo by Bree Mills/for The Cordova Times

The idea for the traditional boat building class started at Nuuciq Spirit Camp in 2013. During the camp, Mitch Poling exhibited a 30-foot palaaq he had built. During the demonstration, Johnson watched one of NVE’s tribal elders walk from the bow to the stern with the boat barely even shifting.

Johnson knew then that she wanted Cordova’s kids to have something like that too. That’s when the real work started. At length it took six years to figure out the materials, the cost, the logistics, and to apply for a National Parks Service Heritage Grant that funded the project. Having taught a similar class to a group of high school students, Poling knew that the course could be completed in a semester, so Johnson aimed for a similar timeline. Poling flew in to Cordova about once a month to teach the course.

In addition to the palaaq and gayaaq, Bowman and Fox are building qayaaqs which they hope to complete in the next few months.

Brooke Johnson speaks about the project while Leona Olsen prepares to bless the boats. Photo by Bree Mills/for The Cordova Times

“Time was the most difficult part,” Johnson said. “As students, we all had different busy and slow schedules, and sometimes we would be able to clear our schedule and spend time the weeks that Mitch was in town to learn, and sometimes people are out of town. It’s hard to work with so many schedules.”

Aaron Bowman, Tina Fox, Clifford Nichols, Nick Tiedeman, Donald Ladd, Delores Taylor, Paul Trumblee, Shyla Olsen, Donnita Shaw, Matt Piche and Brooke Johnson were among those who took the class.

The inside finished frame of a qayaaq made by Clifford Nichols on display at Skater’s Cabin. Native Village of Eyak hosted a boat launch and potlatch on Thursday, June 13, 2019, to celebrate the completion of a traditional palaaq (canoe) and qayaaq (kayak) building class. Photo by Bree Mills/for The Cordova Times

It took a bit longer than anticipated, some completing their qayaaqs just hours before the launch and not having them quite dry enough to hit the water.

NVE Tribal Council Chairman Darrel Olsen noted the importance of such workshops for tribal culture and heritage.

“It brings back our history and traditional knowledge and demonstrates how the people used their resources,” he said.

“For many years these traditional skills were not allowed to be taught in Cordova, so we have gaps with generations of people who were not allowed to learn these different cultural skills,” Johnson said. “It’s important to the Native Village of Eyak to continue to show and teach our tribal members these traditional cultural skills and that it’s something to be proud of.”

A group of kids, accompanied by Nick Tiedeman, launch the boat for the first time. Photo by Bree Mills/for The Cordova Times

Johnson’s hopes for this project reach further than the builders of each boat.

She wants Cordova to see these boats on the water and to feel a little more connected to the culture that’s such a big part of the history of this area.

“These boats have taken five months to complete and I hope that in the next three months we will see an additional 10 completed qayaaqs on the water,” Johnson said.

With a successful boat building class complete, Johnson is already working on more workshops to offer, like paddle carving classes, orthodox crosses and a bentwood visor class.