Traditional Qayaqs are Symbols of Community, Culture, and Food Security for Inuit

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Jen Lam
Inuvialuit qayaq gliding through water.

Traditional qayaqs are making a resurgence in the Inuvialuit community of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, Canada, due to an interest in returning to traditional harvest methods. For Inuit, the qayaq is a symbol of resiliency, ingenuity, and connection to the natural world.

The building of a qayaq requires the expertise of an entire community, from the carpentry to build the frame to the sewing of the skins to make the cover, with these skills passed down from one generation to the next. Advances in technology have allowed hunters access to modern boats and equipment for hunting activities. With this change, traditional knowledge of qayaqs has decreased. As a traditional qayaq maker, I interpret available traditional knowledge to design qayaqs for individually prescribed uses. Through the construction of qayaqs, paddles, and harpoons, I have had to learn to use traditional materials, find sources to incorporate into builds, and have witnessed communities come together in the process.

Kevin Floyd
Inuvialuit qayaq frame.

With the opportunity to harvest in a traditional manner, many Inuit are re-examining modern hunting skill sets and considering the benefits of traditional approaches. For example, qayaqs are quieter than modern boats, enabling hunters to get closer to prey species, where they are within range to use harpoons rather than guns. This can result in increased harvests of fish, birds, seals, and even caribou. In addition, qayaqs allow greater access to hard-to-reach areas, as they can be dragged over ice. This allows hunters earlier access to harvesting areas or seasonal species. Increasing range and access to species means a greater harvesting capacity.

When these harvesters return from a hunt, they are met by a community that comes together to share in the processing of food. Through community qayaq builds, generations of Inuit are brought together to re-learn traditional building techniques and become stronger threads in the fabric of the community.

The Center for Wooden Boats has featured more accounts of Inuvialuit qayaq projects on their website.1