Traditional Yup’ik artisanship and acumen are about to gain a national audience.
Next spring, New York City’s National Museum of the American Indian will open a new exhibit that explores the innovation of Native peoples. One of the exhibit’s most elaborate pieces is a 15-foot Yup’ik kayak frame built by Kwigillingok’s very own Troy and Ethan Wilkinson.
The two men designed the traditional frame with the help of their father, Bill Wilkinson. He’s a local middle school teacher who cofounded the Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center, an organization dedicated to studying and designing traditional Yup’ik kayaks. Wilkinson and his sons studied with Ethan and Troy's grandfather, elder and kayak-maker Frank Andrew, for many years. Together, they built their kayak frame from driftwood and sealskin and caulked its joints with moss and seal oil. The artisans sold it to the National Museum of the American Indian back in February 2016 and shipped the frame to New York City in an 18-foot crate they built themselves.
“When they [young people] see the genius of kayak building, they realize that they are a part of a culture that is just as smart, just as brilliant, just as innovative as any other society,” Bill Wilkinson said in a recent interview with Smithsonian Magazine. “Everybody needs to know their own self-worth, their own cultural self-worth.”
The Kwig kayak will make its debut when the museum’s new exhibition space opens next May. Students from the Lower Kuskokwim School District's Media program produced a documentary about the Qayanek Kayak project last Spring, which you can watch below: