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Angyaats: Repatriating Lost Knowledge

Presenter: Sven Haakanson, Burke Museum curator of Native American anthropology
Article by: Ashleigh Reed

Have you ever wondered what the artifacts in your museum would say if they could talk? I know your job would probably be a little easier if they just said, “Hey, let me tell you where I can from. You’ve got to hear this! I’ve been around for hundreds of years so I’ve got a pretty interesting story.”  Well, I don’t know if the boats at the Burke Museum spoke to Sven Haakanson in that way, but he has certainly succeeded in telling the story of their importance to the Sugpiat people on Kodiak Island, Alaska.

Sven opened his presentation by taking us back to the early 1800’s during an oppressed time for the Sugpiat people. Russian traders came to the small village only to commit violent acts of rape, torture, and starvation.  To further suppress the people, the Russians took away their weaponry & seized and destroyed their boats, known as Angyaaq, which were essential to Sugpiat daily life and were symbols of wealth and power.  The Sugpiat people have used these boats for thousands of years. Vital to everyday living, the Angyaaq is a large open boat able to carry up to 70 people. It was used for transportation, hunting, warring, fishing, and more.

There is very little known about these boats that once graced the shores of Kodiak Island.  Sven Haakanson has been working for several years to change this and to bring the knowledge back to the Sugpiat people of Kodiak. He, along with community members of the village of Akhiok , is reviving the skills of Angyaaq boat-making.

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Photo by Burke Museum.

Sven first began his research by turning to one of the models from the Burke collection. The model gave clues about materials that would be needed and the engineering of these boats, later to create the life-sized Angyaaq.  In summer 2014, Sven assembled 14 model kits and brought them to the Petroglyph/Kids Camp in Cape Alitak, Alaska, where the students were able to make their own model boats.

Photos by Burke Museum.

In the spring of 2015 it was time to start creating the frame of a full sized Angyaaq.  Sven, along with some of the staff & students of the Burke Museum, started cutting, measuring, and putting together the cedar pieces to complete the first trial run only within a couple of weeks.  Later he was able to fly, along with all the supplies to the village of Akhiok to create another Angyaaq, only to bring a community together and  pass down the lost art to the Sugpiat people.

Meanwhile, back in Seattle, the team worked vigorously to get the Seattle Angyaaq seaworthy.  Sven has taught the volunteers & staff the traditional ways of wrapping and tying without the help of nails or glue. While traditional Angyaaq lashing uses marine mammals tendons or guts, they are using synthetic rope to tie the boat and airplane fabric to wrap it.

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Photo: Sven Haakansan.

For the month of December in 2015 a large exhibit space was transformed in a work space where visitors could witness the revival of the Angyaaq as part of a special month-long program at the Burke Museum.

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Sven has traveled back to the small Alaskan village several times to continue to pass on this traditional knowledge to the Sugpiat people. He continues to be a living part of this culture’s rich history.

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