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An Artifact Mystery

Repurposed wood in the thwarts; mortised ribs and cross-bracing within the hull. © The Manitoba Museum, Winnipeg. www.manitobamuseum.ca

A Netsilik (“Nattilik”) compact qajaq

Museums collect artifacts that tell a story, sometimes in concert with other items, sometimes alone. Unlike a good mystery novel where the who, what, when and why becomes clear by the end of the book, there is an artifact mystery at The Manitoba Museum. In the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) Museum Collection some of the details connected with a particular item are unclear to this day.

Compact sea mammal skin qajaq seen with stern on the left. © The Manitoba Museum, Winnipeg.

The focus of this mystery is a compact qajaq or ‘kayak’ – HBC 2793. It is known approximately when the qajaq was created and approximately where, but not by whom or why. Like other full-size qajait, HBC 2793 shares the common characteristic of being reasonably lightweight and likely maneuverable. From a close examination of the qajaq it is clear the Inuit craftsman had experience building other full-scale qajait.

“Copper, Netsilik and Caribou Inuit of the Central Canadian Arctic used kayaks that were narrow and more or less round-bottomed. Some local varieties had long, thin end horns that could serve as handholds in the event of a capsize rescue.”1 (Canadian Museum of History)

What separates this one from other qajait is its short length, 317 cm long; in other aspects this qajaq would appear to show characteristics common to other qajait. A table created by Rev. Père Guy Mary-Rousseliere, O.M.I. in his “Report on the Construction of a Kayak at Pond Inlet in 1973” illustrates the broad characteristics of qajait created across Canada’s North. Table 1 in this article illustrates a simplified comparison of HBC 2793 to four qajait included in Père Rousseliere’s study. David Zimmerly has done extensive work on the Arctic qajaq and his comparative study of qajait that includes three craft from Gjoa Haven, from 1905, also illustrates the differences of HBC 2793 to traditional boats. See Table 2.

Although the qajaq has been extensively studied and numerous examples appear in museums in North America and to a lesser extent in Europe, finding authentic photographs of the Netsilik (Nattilik) Inuit in their watercraft is difficult. There is one online exception in the form of a two-part documentary film of the National Film Board of Canada, done by Quentin Brown in 1967: “Netsilik Eskimos Building a Kayak”. Near the end of the second part (https://www.nfb.ca/ film/building_kayak_pt_2/) the qajaq is launched and the profile, although longer, is remarkably similar to HBC 2793.

HBC 2793, at only 317 cm long and 56 cm wide, with a blunt stern and pointed bow is truly a compact model. It does not exhibit the length and exaggerated point as seen in the qajait of the Caribou Inuit, which are “typically between 3 metres and 9 metres long, and 38 cm to 82 cm across” (Canadian Museum of History). However, this qajaq still exhibits many characteristics of a full-size qajaq. Common to other qajait, it lacks a heavy keel, as its sturdy gunwales give the craft its stability. Attached to the gunwales are ribs, a keelson, and two pairs of chine stringers that converge at the bow and stern. The plane of the covering skin is relatively smooth from the keelson to the stringers and from one stringer to another and stringers to the gunwale. The soft angles created perfectly exhibit a soft chine hull2 (Wikipedia). This hull is sheathed with sea mammal hides, likely seal, “Ringed, harp or bearded sealskin was usual”3 (Arima, 1987, p. 116) with obvious stitching joining the hides.

The placement of the round manhole just aft of the hull’s midpoint gives this qajaq a symme­trical configuration typical of many qajait. The coaming is made of two pieces of lap-joined wood, secured by recessed sinew lashing. The front of the coaming is placed on the arched forward thwart. Although the qajaq craftsman exhibited enough skill to construct a compact version of the traditional Inuit boat, for some reason he miscalculated the positioning of the end of the front deck stringer that bends up to meet the coaming. It is at this point that the end of the deck stringer pierces the outer skin. Why this occurred is another part of the mystery, because in doing so, the hole that was created would have made this qajaq a particularly wet experience even in the hands of someone skilled in the use of the qajaq.

The foredeck of the qajaq originally held three leather straps; today one remains more intact than the other two. One strap was also secured behind the manhole. A length of wood is secured by wire to the remaining fore and aft straps. Three notches are cut into one end suggesting that sinew lashings once secured something to it, perhaps a gaff hook to aid in the retrieval of harpoons. A bone paddle rest that is secured to one remaining forward strap is carved in a bird-like form. Although the shape of the qajaq provides no definitive clue of its origin, the sculpted form of the paddle rest speaks loudly of the cultural origins of the qajaq craftsman. Ken Lister, former Curator of the Royal Ontario Museum, suggests the paddle rest is typical of the “Netsilingmiut from the central Arctic”. The Hudson’s Bay Company has had a presence at Gjoa Haven since 1923, which is well within the region inhabited by the Netsilingmiut, Netsilik or Nattilik Inuit, thus possibly providing the necessary link between the unknown Inuit craftsman and an equally unknown HBC employee.

An internal examination of the hull reveals ribs set into mortised joints of gunwales and secured to the longitudinal stringers and keelson by iron nails. According to the Canadian Museum of History, “traditionally bone or wooden pegs and rawhide lashings” would have secured such structural elements. It is quite apparent that the craftsman who created this qajaq followed another tradition in repurposing wood for the thwarts, as there are some that have painted surfaces from some previous use. Looking forward into the hull there is an almost indiscernible cross brace in the bow. In a conversation with a knowledgeable boat builder, he suggests the cross-bracing was probably done to counter an incorrect shape of frame. In the stern, a shaped block provides a fastening point for the converging gunwales, stringers and keelson. On an inner surface of the manhole coaming are scratched lettering and a date —1937. Are the letters the maker’s initials and is 1937 the date of construction; perhaps it will never be known.

The biggest mystery is why someone with this skilled knowledge base would create this size of craft? It is conjecture that a Hudson’s Bay Company employee asked a qajaq craftsman to create this compact example of a qajaq, knowing that transporting a normal size craft south would have been difficult. Whatever the reason, HBC 2793 stands alone as an interesting but unique example of the type of boat that was once an essential part of Inuit life in the Arctic.

Tim W. Worth

The author appreciates the assistance he received from Dr. Amelia Fay, PhD., Curator of the Hudson’s Bay Company Museum Collection, The Manitoba Museum.

End Notes

1 Canadian Museum of History: Text extract from the Online exhibit “Wave Eaters: Native Watercraft in Canada” Canadian Museum of History;  reproduced with their permission.

2 Wikipedia. Chine (Boating). June 9, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chine_(boating)

3 Arima, E.Y., editor. “Inuit Kayaks in Canada: A Review of Historical Records and Construction”. Mercury Series (110);  Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1987.