“That’s Not a Kayak!”: Form, Function, and Cultural Appropriation

Posted: January 10, 2012 - 14:53 , by admin

By Kenneth R. Lister

Kenneth R. Lister is the Assistant Curator of Anthropology in the Department of World Cultures. Read on for a preview of what he’ll be talking about on February 3, 2012 at the 33rd Annual ROM Research Colloquium.

kayak frames

Kayak Frames. Sisimiut, Davis Strait, Greenland. Photograph: K. R. Lister.

Yellow, red, blue, or green?  Fibreglass, polyethylene, kevlar, or welded urethane?  Touring or whitewater?  Hardshell or folding?  These are some of the questions you will reflect on when choosing a kayak for your summer adventures.  The kayaks you will be considering will all have pointed bow and stern, covered decks, and cockpits for one or two paddlers.  As well, you will be looking at paddles and they will be double-bladed, many with options for blade orientation.  The term for your new boat—kayak (qajaq)—comes from the Inuit language and traditionally referred to skin-on-frame watercraft with covered decks and cockpits for one-to-three paddlers.  The Inuit kayak begat the contemporary model; however, the similarities between the two are few and for those Inuit knowledgeable with the design, construction, and use of the traditional kayak the contemporary model is inauthentic.

The Inuit kayak consisted of a wood frame tied together with sealskin rope and strands of baleen.  Parts of the frame included ivory and bone elements and the structure was made watertight with a covering of sealskin sewn with sinew thread.  The kayak though was a hunting tool and with harpoon, lance, and bird spear the Inuit hunter pursued such animals as whales, narwhal, seals, otter, walrus, swimming caribou, and ducks.  In a hunting tradition, the kayak hunter was dependent upon animals for elements of the tool (the kayak) that contributed to animal harvest.  And this was a relationship that reached beyond the practical level of acquiring skins, ivory, sinew, oil, and meat—the hunter was an actor in a world of spiritual powers and “other-than-human” persons.  The Inuit hunter shared the environment with the hunted and, given due respect, the hunted gave themselves to the hunter.

The truth of the Inuit kayak was in the intertwining elements of land and water, mortal and spirit.  It was a juncture of multiple interconnectivities manifesting the rooted forces of the Inuit world.  The kayak—wood, baleen, ivory, and skin—was the knot of the skilled hand, the domain of family relations, the transferred wisdom of generations, and the will of the cosmos.  Given this context, the modern multicoloured boats of fibreglass or kevlar manufactured in a system of production that is disengaged from the user, is a product designed for a purpose foreign to Inuit needs.  Although an amalgam itself of materials, labour, production, and consumption, the contemporary kayak has few qualities an Inuit hunter would recognize for a craft that he would paddle through the ice floes of Arctic waters while sensitive to signs that might mark the direction to a seal, narwhal, walrus, or beluga.

Calved ice

Calved Ice. Ilulissat, Disko Bay, Greenland Photograph: K.R. Lister

The ROM Research Colloquium is annual event that throws the spotlight on ROM researchers with a full day of consecutive 15-minute presentations by ROM experts on their recent discoveries. The program is free and open to the public (Museum admission not included). Ken’s presentation starts at 11:15am on February 3rd in the Signy & Cléophée Eaton Theatre.
View the full colloquium schedule and watch for more presenter previews on the ROM Blog over the coming weeks.