Marc Daniels was already an avid kayaker when he first laid eyes on a skin kayak in a California museum. He was immediately transfixed. At the time, knowledge of how to build an iqyax̂, the traditional kayak used by Unangan people of the Aleutian Islands, was largely lost. So, Daniels taught himself.
He sleuthed through old ship logs detailing encounters with indigenous Alaskans, examined deteriorating iqyax̂ stored in museum basements, and built until he understood the craft. In the early 1990s, residents of St. Paul Island went seeking someone to teach traditional boat building and they found Daniels. “I went up for a two-week project at the high school and fell in love with the place and the people,” he says. “I found a purpose for what I was doing and stayed.”
After 15 years of passing on his knowledge during a semester-long shop class, Daniels realized he was still considered the authority on building iqyax̂. He set a new goal: make himself obsolete. In 2014, he launched the Make Access Iqyax̂ Apprenticeship.
The apprenticeship receives funding and support from the Aleut Foundation and the 13 communities of the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association. Apprentices spend an intense month learning from Daniels until they are comfortable enough to build an iqyax̂ on their own. Since the program’s inception, Daniels says a small cohort of young leaders have distinguished themselves as the next knowledge bearers.
Shayla Shaishnikoff of Unalaska went through the apprenticeship during summer 2020. As she learned the nuances of iqyax̂, like which wood is best for each piece, she became fascinated with how Unangan were able to create such an efficient boat without the use of modern tools and information access. “The biggest takeaway for me was appreciation for the skill and for my ancestors who developed it,” she says.
Dustin Newman, a former apprentice who has now built three of his own iqyax̂, was also in Unalaska during Shaishnikoff’s build. Newman started building iqyax̂ because he knew it was valuable cultural knowledge that needed to be passed down. He keeps learning the craft because he wants the skill of iqyax̂ building to once again be a normal part of Aleutian communities.
Newman and Daniels went for a paddle with Shaishnikoff when she finished her iqyax̂. “Paddling in the Aleutians, with my iqyax̂ there, it felt like my ancestors were there with me,” Newman says. “… our ancestors, Shayla’s ancestors, were there on the beach with us.”