Photo coutesy of Mike Ferguson | The skinning of the nigilax̂

Community revives lost indigenous seafaring craft


by Valen Lambert

Mind’s Eye is more than just a charming cafe in the center of Ferndale’s downtown. It’s also home to the Manufactory, a makerspace that cafe-goers can watch through glass as artists and craftspeople work on projects. Right now, there is a community at work building a 27-foot-long Unangan canoe called a nigilax̂. 

Longtime woodworker Marc and his wife Leah Daniels are the owners of Mind’s Eye Manufactory and Coffee Lounge. For several years, Marc Daniels has been collaborating with Unangax̂ to host apprenticeships on the crafting of iqyax̂, or the traditional kayaks of the Unangax̂ people of Alaska’s Aleutian islands. However, this nigilax̂ build is something entirely different.

The nigilax̂ has not been built in the nearly two centuries since Russian fortune seekers invaded Unangax̂ villages, enslaving the people and cutting off all chances of escape by destroying their nigilax̂ fleet and anyone with the knowledge to build one. Two centuries later the Daniels, Unangax̂ descendants, Wiyot Tribe members, and other non-Native community members are putting together the missing pieces. 

Some Russian invaders sketched pictures of these boats in the ship’s log. In a few instances, actual draftsmen were on board these invading ships, documenting some of the details of how these vessels were put together. Some of this information was found in the least expected places.

Marc Daniels was doing some work with the Museum of the Aleutians, which had retrieved 1,500 year old kayak parts that some mummies had been buried with.

“But then there were these odd parts,” says Daniels. “And turns out, after looking at them for a while, we realized that they were nigilax̂ ribs from that era 1,500 years ago.”

The project and its materials have the blessing and approval of the Wiyot. The wood was combed from beaches in Humboldt and Alaska, like the 27-foot-long Sitka spruce now serving as the base of the nigilax̂. Traditionally, bull seal skin is used, but this nigilax̂ will be constructed with a ballistic nylon material. The vessel will hold eleven paddlers in addition to another ten to fifteen people. 

The project has been bringing together Wiyot members and non-Native Humboldt community members, as well as distant Unangax̂ who have come to Ferndale for the build. For Mike Ferguson, an Unangan, working on the nigilax̂ has been a way to connect with his ancestry. 

Photo courtesy of Mike Ferguson | Marc Daniels teaching people lashings on the lower stringers

“It feels like the start of a potentially really deep journey,” says Ferguson. “I think there’s many deep stories to explore; some of that has to deal with healing trauma for my family.”

Ferguson met another Unangan on the build who turned out to be a cousin he hadn’t met, solidifying the feeling that this project was powerful. 

Leah Daniels finds the communal effort of the build deeply rewarding.

“It’s a life connection,” Daniels said. “You’re connecting with each other, but you’re connecting with life, with ancestors, with the universe, and that just deepens relationships with people.”

If blessed by the Kashia Pomo of the area, the ceremonial launch of the nigilax̂ is planned to take place during the Unangax̂-hosted festivities on Alaskan Native Day, May 27, at Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast. Fort Ross, originally a Kashia Pomo village site named Metini, is a former Russian settlement that many displaced Unangax̂ ended up at. 

“It’s kind of a full circle thing,” Leah Daniels said. “To rebuild the vessels, and to bring one back into this region, it feels much more powerful to have it launched at that site.”

The nigilax̂ has an active future ahead, including plans for cultural journeys like Sealaska Celebration in Juneau, and Tribal Journeys in the Salish Sea waters of Washington and British Columbia. It will be made fully available for use by Unangax̂ to connect with their heritage and ancestry. Marc Daniels also plans to take members of the public out into Humboldt Bay once a month so the community can experience the beauty of Humboldt from the water. 

“I hope that more opportunities like this become available for people of all cultures, backgrounds, and abilities,” Ferguson said. “It’s a really special way to be in community.”

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